IACHR

Press Release

IACHR Concludes Visit to Florida, Louisiana and Missouri, United States

October 16, 2015

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María Isabel Rivero
IACHR Press and Communication Director
Tel: +1 (202) 370-9001
mrivero@oas.org

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights conducted a working visit to the United States from September 21-25, 2015, in order to receive information on racial discrimination and poverty.  The President of the IACHR and Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons of African Descent and Racial Discrimination, Commissioner Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, led the delegation. 

Through its monitoring work in the United States, the Commission has consistently received information of concern related to the persistent problem of structural discrimination and racial disparities in all actions and processes within the criminal justice system in the United States, and in the intervention of law enforcement authorities, and in particular the police.  These issues have been very prominent in the United States media between 2012-2015 due to the high profile deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Lamar Scott and Freddie Gray. The information available to the Commission indicates that racial discrimination in policing and in the criminal justice system is symptomatic of a wider social problem and context of racism in the United States. 

Consequently, the Commission decided to prepare a report on the use of police force against African-Americans in the United States and in relation to its human rights implications, and to pursue an on-site visit comparing the current situation in several locations.  The Inter-American Commission also decided this year to begin a process to prepare its first thematic report on human rights and poverty. In that sense, the findings of this visit will also be incorporated in a hemispheric report currently being prepared by the Commission analyzing human rights issues related to poverty; a problem intimately connected with the situation of marginalization, discrimination, and exclusion frequently faced by African-Americans in the United States. 

Accordingly, the Commission visited the localities of Ferguson, St. Louis, New Orleans, Sanford, Orlando, and Miami between September 21 and 25, 2015. The Commission shares some initial observations below based on the information gathered during the visit.  

St. Louis and Ferguson, Missouri

The delegation visited Missouri and the localities of Ferguson and St. Louis on Thursday, September 24th and 25th.  Before its visit, as its consistent practice, the Commission requested meetings with several government authorities in Ferguson including Mayor James Knowles III; the Ferguson City Council Members; Chief of Police John Belmar; and Prosecutor Robert McCullough. Regrettably these meetings were not granted. The delegation did meet with several of the members of the Ferguson Commission, an independent committee created by Executive Order to study the underlying social and economic causes underscored by the unrest in the wake of the death of Michael Brown, including Reverend Starky Wilson, Co-Chair, and Felicia Puliam and Brittany Packnett; Senator Maria Nicole Chappelle-Nadal; and Professors Brendan Roediger, Roger Goldman, and Anders Walker.  The Commission also held a general forum and individual meetings with civil society organizations, activists, students, and members of academia at St. Louis University School of Law. 

In addition, the delegation visited the memorial created by Michael Brown in Canfield, Ferguson. The Commission expresses its gratitude to the Canfield Watchmen, who facilitated and supported the delegation’s visit to Ferguson. 

During the meetings held in Missouri, the legacy and long-lasting impact of the shooting of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 and the non-indictment of police officer Darren Wilson on November 24, 2014, became evident to the delegation.  Both events have sparked outrage and unrest in Ferguson and alarming claims of institutional racism in the daily conduct of the police. Moreover, there has been strong public criticism of the police response to this crisis, including the excessive use of tear gas and violence against African-Americans as a control strategy, even during peaceful protests, the arbitrary detention of protesters, and the disrespect of places identified as safe-houses, including places of worship, during protests.  The delegation received a particularly disturbing account from several witnesses of different races alluding to how the police in Ferguson deliberated bypassed white protestors to focus engagement with excessive force on those African-American.  All of these police actions have further alienated the community affected.  Those who participated in protests indicated to the delegation that “the police treat us like roaches”.

The delegation was also informed of the level of mistrust of the Ferguson community in the police and in the government authorities.  Particularly emblematic was information received regarding the disrespect afforded to the Michael Brown memorial in Canfield, including allegations pertaining to the stealing of teddy bears, flowers, and other of the memorabilia.  A cross-cutting theme in the narrative of the persons interviewed was the lack of efforts from the police to reach out and develop constructive relationships with the African-American and low-income communities.   These problems are aggravated and intimately connected with the militarization of the police, the lack of convictions for most police abuses which are reported, the over-representation of African-Americans in the prison system and the precarious conditions in prisons, the over-criminalization of offenses, and the racial disparities in the justice system.  Most of those interviewed referred to a “culture of protecting the police department, no matter what they do”. 

The Commission also received information of concern related to the link between the funding of the police and the court system, and how this often results in disproportionate policing against African-Americans, in particular for traffic offenses.  This in turn is exacerbated by the deep poverty experienced by the African-American community in Missouri.  Another layer of complexity is the geographic peculiarity of Missouri with self-governing principalities, which means that African-Americans can be repeatedly arrested for the same offence.

New Orleans, Louisiana

On Wednesday, September 23rd, the delegation met with several public officials in the City of New Orleans, including Ursula Price from the Office of the Inspector General; Daniel Cazevana, Chief of Staff of the New Orleans Police Department; Arlinda Westbrook, Deputy Chief of the Public Integrity Bureau; Zach Butterworth, Director of Federal Relations from the Office of Major Mitchell J. Landrieu; Sharonda Williams, City Attorney; and Suchitra Satpahi, Director of State and International Relations.   The Commission also held a meeting with several victims and civil society organizations at the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at the Louisiana University School of Law. 

During its meetings with government authorities, the Commission was informed that 90% of those arrested by the police in New Orleans are African-American men under the age of 30.  However, African-American men only make up for 30% of the complaints presented before the authorities for police abuses, since most low-income persons do not trust that the authorities will grant them a remedy for human rights abuses, and the process is filled with fines and fees.  The delegation also received reports of several cases of police excessive use of force against African-American juveniles and how such juveniles tend to be treated as adults in the justice system.  Reference was made to a “generational problem” with the police and the racist treatment of African-Americans.  The delegation was also informed of problems with sexual assault investigations, since many police officers do not believe in non-violent rape, which evidences the need for better training on how to properly do the intake of these complaints. 

The delegation was informed in general in New Orleans of the need to change the culture of the use of excessive police force (described as “over-policing”), to strengthen accountability mechanisms and transparency in investigations.  The use of measures such as body cameras was also put forward as a possible mechanism to curtail perceived abuses. During its visit to New Orleans, the delegation received several testimonies from mothers of males who are incarcerated and in dire detention conditions, including barriers to access needed medical services.  The problem of mass incarceration of African-Americans in general was underscored.

Orlando and Sanford, Florida

On Tuesday, September 22, 2015, the Commission traveled to the City of Orlando where it held meetings with Chief of Police John Mina, Chief Administrative Officer Byron Brooks, and Lieutenant Vincent Ogburn.   The delegation also traveled to the City of Sanford and met with Mayor Jeff Triplett, Chief of Police Cecil Smith, Senior Project Manager Andrew Thomas, and Norton N. Bonaparte Jr., Sanford City Manager.  The Commission also held a general forum with civil society organizations, activists, victims, and academics in Florida A&M College of Law.    During its meeting with the administration and police authorities of the City of Orlando, the delegation was informed of several policies adopted to prevent incidents of excessive use of police force, learning from the challenges faced by other US jurisdictions with these cases and a renewed national discourse on how policing should be conducted.   Among the most noteworthy are a comprehensive policy to prevent racial profiling, efforts to build trust and relationships with the communities they police, measures to increase access to information on the cases that are being investigated, the finding of alternatives to arrests, and steps to follow-up with the recommendations issued by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  

In the City of Sanford, public officials informed the delegation of the steps taken to respond to the aftermath of the death of Trayvon Martin in February 26, 2012, and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. They described a community which felt excluded and compelled to protest, and needed a close conversation with the government authorities of how to move forward and prevent a similar tragedy in the future.  They communicated how the members of the community needed spaces to voice concerns peacefully over racial discrimination issues and bias, to be listened to by the government authorities, and how they created several opportunities to do so.  Special reference was made to the Blue Ribbon Panel which was asked to take a look at the Police Department’s policies and procedures regarding community relations including suggestions of how to improve these.  In the meeting with non-state actors, the Blue Ribbon Panel was also mentioned as a good practice in strengthening the relationship between the community and the police, by setting aside seats for civil society organizations, and for the community to participate.

During its meeting with non-state actors in Orlando, the Commission was informed of continued and enduring problems relating to race and law enforcement in Orlando and Sanford.  For example, the delegation was informed about problems of mass incarceration and voter disenfranchisement affecting African-Americans because of convictions, which deeply limits the full exercise of the democratic and citizenship rights of these communities. Such convictions themselves are suspect because of structural racism.  The delegation also received information on the problem of bicycle stops by the police, the high number of traffic tickets received by African-Americans, and how this problem affects in particular children from low-income neighborhoods.  The delegation also received the testimony of a young African-American law student who gave testimony that he had been stopped by the police about thirty times in his lifetime based on his race and his appearance.  Many of the persons affected are afraid to report these arbitrary stops before the authorities, in particular if they have committed offenses in the past.  Those interviewed claimed that the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division should investigate these problems. The Commission also received information of problems faced by Haitian and Hispanic immigrants, including language barriers to obtain basic services and the lack of identity documents, and how this situation makes them vulnerable to police abuses.

Miami, Florida

The visit of the Commission began in Miami, Florida on Monday, September 21st, where it held meetings with Mayor Tomas Regalado, Chief of Police Rodolfo Llanes and several high level members of the police force, and Carlos Martinez, Public Defender for Miami-Dade County.  The Commission also held a general forum with a vast number of civil society organizations, activists, and victims, and their family members at the St. Thomas University School of Law.   During its meetings, the Commission received information related to a number of efforts undertaken by government authorities to prevent and respond to police abuses and racial profiling disproportionately affecting the African-American community. These included steps to ensure that the police force mirrors the communities they are serving, the creation of a Civilian Investigative Panel, different kinds of police trainings sponsored by the universities in Florida, and initiatives to build trust with the communities that are policed.  The Public Defender also informed the Commission of trainings offered to the police on the long-term effects of arrests on the persons affected.  Further, the Commission received information on how the media coverage afforded to the cases of police violence against African-Americans in the United States in recent years has promoted local reflection of how to do better policing and prevent incidents of arbitrary use of force.  

Notwithstanding this information, the delegation did receive accounts of cases of the excessive use of force by the police in different areas in Miami which have resulted in death and severe injuries, and about the fact that these cases do not usually result in police convictions. For example, the Commission met with the parents of Israel Hernandez Jr., an 18 year old who was killed by the Miami Beach Police in 2013 through the use of a taser gun in his chest, while unarmed and painting graffiti.  The delegation also received information on how race and poverty are key determinants in the number of arrests a person receives, with a profound effect on their life plan and socio-economic status, and in the processing of these cases by the justice system. African-Americans and Hispanics are overrepresented in the prison system in Miami and the problems of over-criminalization and racial profiling were mentioned frequently; the delegation also received reports of the frequent denial of counsel in misdemeanor cases.  Most of those interviewed in civil society communicated a concern over the lack of sensitivity of the police in their interaction with the persons who compose the communities that they police.   Other concerns were raised during meetings of factors which serve to solidify the current state situation of marginalization, exclusion, and poverty of the African-American community in Miami, including displacement in housing, racial discrimination in schools and in access to basic health care, restrictions to the right to vote to those convicted and imprisoned, police violence against those who engage in the defense of human rights, and the inconsistent and discriminatory application of Stand Your Ground Laws, legitimizing a “shoot first” mindset based on perceptions and prejudices.

Observations

The information collected in this visit reveals the need for both the federal and state governments, respectively, to undertake steps with due diligence and without delay to address the context which fuels forms of structural discrimination and disparate treatment against African-Americans and racial minorities in the United States. This is vital for the full exercise of citizenship by African-Americas and to foster a more inclusive democracy in the United States.  The meetings held confirmed the wide problem of racism and racial discrimination in the United States and how the excessive use of force in policing, as well as the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, are a reflection of this alarming human rights situation.  The historic discrimination faced by African-Americas, and their frequent, structural situation of poverty, serves as the backbone for many of the problems shared during the visit concerning police abuses, the overrepresentation of African-Americans in the arrests and prison system, and in the unequal access to justice. 

The Commission recognizes the efforts promoted by state officials and police departments interviewed to prevent police abuses and to promote a more diverse police force more reflective of the communities they serve.   It is clear, though, that there needs to be more initiatives undertaken to strengthen police relations with their communities and to build trust, to increase the training offered to police officers on issues such as racial profiling, as well as measures to guarantee that police officers are duly investigated and held accountable when abuses occur.  Several calls were made during the visit for more independent mechanisms to investigate police abuses and measures to strengthen the capacity and effectiveness of the existing ones.  Measures also need to be undertaken by the government authorities to grant reparations to the victims and their family members when incidents of police abuse occur, and initiatives to transform the discriminatory culture and prejudices which fuel this cycle of violence.  There also needs to be more research on alternative approaches to over-criminalization and arrests, especially for minor crimes, considering the negative impact of a criminal record in the life plan of the persons affected.  The ways in which the enduring situation of poverty of many African-American and other ethnic minorities face, exacerbates their disproportionate abuse and treatment in the hands of the criminal justice system and the police, which in turn aborts efforts to overcome such poverty.

The Commission also underscores that the protection against arbitrary deprivations of the right to life applies to the entire state structure, including the actions of its police officers, during times of both peace and unrest.  The use of force by the police must be guided by the principle of exceptionality and only used when other methods have been exhausted and failed. The Commission also underscores the need to safeguard the basic human rights of protesters, including their rights to life and to their physical and psychological integrity.  The government – both at the federal and state levels - is also responsible for establishing legal avenues and a system which is independent and impartial in its investigations of police abuses, which achieves convictions when appropriate.  The problem of impunity fosters an environment where police violence and abuses are tolerated and expected and serves to sustain disparate treatment.

The Commission notes that while human rights violations are occurring at the local level, it is the obligation of the federal government to intervene to ensure and protect human rights. This obligation is enshrined in international law and reflected in the U.S. Constitutional Protections.

The Commission also considers important that both federal and state authorities collaborate closely to prevent and properly respond to the frequent use of force against African-Americans in the US, and to address the systemic discrimination and socioeconomic situation which increases the risk of these incidents.  Finally, the Commission underscores the need for the United States to adopt steps to comply with the recommendations issued by various international bodies on this issue, including the United Nations Human Rights, Racial Discrimination and Torture Committees, and the Universal Periodic Review, as well as the recommendations issued by federal and state bodies oriented to improve policing in this sphere.

The Commission would like to thank the government of the United States for their support with this visit.  The Commission also expresses its profound gratitude to Nicole Lee, Meena Jagannath, Professor Bill Quigley, Professor Chrissy Cerniglia Brown, Professor Justin Hansford, Mark Timmerman, Cade Bauer-Showers, Kathryn Redmond, Ericka Simpson Connor, Ilana Friedman, Nahal Zamani, and Wade McMullen for their support and advice in the organization of meetings.  The Commission is finally grateful to St. Thomas University Law School, the Florida A & M Faculty of Law, the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, and St. Louis University Law School for hosting meetings with non-state actors. The Commission finally expresses its gratitude to the European Union and France for the financial contributions which made this visit possible.  

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 118/15