Respect for Human Rights, Genuine Community Oversight Needed for Law Enforcement

The most recent wave of killings by Bay Area police is another reminder that law enforcement remains largely unaccountable to the communities they are supposed to serve. The police killings show not only a lack of oversight, and local and state officials' reluctance to intervene, but also our local, state, and federal governments' failure to comply with international human rights treaty obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Convention Against Torture (CAT), The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPCR), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR).

On July 16th, 2011, 19-year-old Kenneth Harding Jr. was shot by San Francisco police pursuing him for an alleged unpaid transit fare. He bled to death on the street while police trained their guns on him, preventing anyone from aiding him. While much remains unknown, we do know that SFPD's statements about the circumstances of Harding's death have been riddled with inconsistencies. Police claimed Harding shot at them first, forcing them to shoot back and kill him, and, most recently, that he shot himself with a weapon that mysteriously appeared days later from an undisclosed source, while witnesses sharply dispute the claim Harding was armed. The police released a press statement claiming Harding shot himself, despite the fact that the county medical examiner had yet to make such a determination and was continuing its own investigation into the matter.

Just two weeks earlier, a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer shot and killed Charles Hill, a homeless man on the Civic Center train platform who witnesses say, and a video recording appears to confirm, posed little threat to officers. BART Police are most notoriously known for the January 1, 2009, killing of unarmed passenger Oscar Grant, who was shot in the back as he lay prostrate on the ground. After a massive outcry in the community, the officer responsible, Johannes Mehserle, was eventually convicted of manslaughter and served a minimal sentence.

Community members have taken to the streets and other public forums many times now demanding justice for these crimes and others. There remain, however, few avenues to bring about justice when police cause harm. Harassment, bruises and broken bones seem relatively minor in comparison to ending someone's life, yet these acts of police brutality also happen, each day, and rarely with any recourse. At best, if a victim of police violence is charged with a crime, they may avoid prosecution if some form of police misconduct can be demonstrated to prosecutors.

In San Francisco, the Office of Citizens Complaints exists, but few complaints are sustained and fewer still ultimately lead to any officer discipline. The Office lacks both real teeth and transparency. Similarly, in Oakland, the Citizens Police Review Board has yet to be fully staffed and empowered as an independent civilian police oversight body. State law also provides excessive shielding of police misconduct records.

The CERD requires local, state, and federal governments to take necessary steps to stop racial discrimination by authorities.1 The UDHR and the ICCPR provide that no one may be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.2 The CAT obliges the U.S. and local governments to prevent and end government acts causing severe pain or suffering to force confession or punish, especially when inflicted in a discriminatory manner.3 One year ago, the California legislature passed Assembly Committee Resolution 129,4 which requires the publication of the U.S.' human rights treaty obligations by the state Attorney General, and required the AG to provide report templates to remind state and local government entities of their responsibilities to prepare reports. To abide by their obligations under these treaties, government agencies should take steps to prevent further police killings.

The National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter joins other human rights organizations to call for not only accountability for individual officers, but also the de-funding and disarming of police agencies that violate human rights.5

In the midst of a growing recession that is affecting people of color far more than others, and with more cuts to basic services looming, the need for a check on police power could never be greater. It is inevitable that more people will be taking public transportation and not paying their fare, more workers will go on strike, more youth will take to the streets, and more people with mental health issues will lose access to care. In that environment, unaccountable police departments, whose funding is rarely questioned, will only bring more misery to our streets.

As lawyers, legal workers and law students, some of us directly experience serious police abuse, but many of us do not. Nonetheless, we are profoundly aware that police violate the law and people's civil and human rights daily, and almost never face consequences for their actions. Police have tremendous power on our streets and must be held accountable for unlawful and abusive conduct. Independent and meaningful civilian oversight is needed now if we want to avert further abuse and tragedy.


1 CERD, available at, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/cerd.htm.

2 Both the UHDR and ICCPR, and other treaty texts, are available at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/index.htm

3 CAT, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/index.htm.

4 ACR 129, Legislative Counsel's Digest, available at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/09-10/bill/ asm/ab_0101-0150/acr_129_bill_20100914_chaptered.html

5 Shielded for Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States shadow report, available at http://www.columbia.edu/itc/journalism/cases/katrina/Human%20Rights%20Watch/ uspohtml/uspo10.htm