The World Is Watching: UN Committee And Race Bias In U.S. Law Enforcement


The shots seen around the world

Officer Michael Slager fired eight bullets at the back of Walter Scott, 50, an African-American, killing him, on April 4. Then, Officer Slager, 33, White, lied to cover his actions, as seen by a video, taken from the phone of Feidin Santana.

Not only did the South Carolina town of North Charleston watch, but the world has now seen this execution of an unarmed fleeing man.

The video shows Scott running away from Slager after a routine traffic stop. Why Scott ran is unclear; there have been some media reports that he may have feared arrest and imprisonment for owing child support.

In the video, Slager appears to be planting evidence, a taser, near Scott’s body. Even though the shooting took place in daylight, in a public place, Santana said he was so fearful of local police retribution that he contemplated erasing the video and leaving town.

Prior to the video, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers believed Slager’s version of events. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled over 30 years ago that police cannot use deadly force against an unarmed person, even if he is fleeing the scene, unless there is a significant chance of imminent danger. Slager was in no apparent danger, based on the video.  

The world has been closely watching the actions of police in America, especially as they concern African-Americans.

Last year, a panel of 18 independent experts questioned a U.S. delegation about the persistent racial discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities, including within the criminal justice system. Their meeting coincided with dozens of protests over police shootings of unarmed Black men and boys.

“This is not an isolated event and illustrates a bigger problem in the United States, such as racial bias among law enforcement officials, the lack of proper implementation of rules and regulations governing the use of force, and the inadequacy of training of law enforcement officials,” said Noureddine Amir, vice chairman for the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

“Racial and ethnic discrimination remains a serious and persistent problem in all areas of life from de facto school segregation, access to health care and housing,” said Amir, at a news briefing held on August 29, 2014, only weeks after the shooting of Michael Brown.

After examining the U.S. record on race and criminal justice, CERD found that African Americans are victims of racial disparities.

Sybrina Martin, the mother of Trayon Martin, killed by George Zimmer in Sanford, Fla. in 2012, traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to testify about the racial undertones surrounding her son’s death and the Zimmerman trial. She was accompanied by Brown’s family members. Brown, 19, African-American, was gunned down in the streets of Ferguson, Mo. by Officer Darren Wilson, White. Wilson claimed self-defense.

Civil unrest resulted. 

Then, the Ferguson grand jury failed to return an indictment. Images of streets clouded with tear gas, military weaponry, and police in full riot gear responding to mostly peaceful protesters made international news.  “Black Lives Matter” was chanted in cities across America and Europe.

A lack of grand jury indictments in police-involved shootings has led these international bodies to express concerns about racial undertones in America’s justice system. In December 2014, a United Nations Commission on Human Rights report expressed what it called “legitimate concerns” regarding an American criminal justice system in which police can kill unarmed Black men without it resulting in a trial.

In March 2015, in response to a lawsuit filed on his behalf, Cleveland attorneys and the police department stated the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice was “directly and proximately caused by their [Tamir and his family’s] own acts. . .,” and added that Tamir caused his own death “by the failure. . . to exercise due care to avoid injury. On November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland, Ohio park near his home when he was gunned down by Officer Timothy Loehmann, White, who had been deemed emotionally unstable by his previous police department.

In August 2014, John Crawford was shot and killed by police in a Wal-Mart store in a Dayton, Ohio suburb while holding an air rifle he intended to purchase. Crawford was blamed for not responding quickly enough to police commands.

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, African-American, died after being choked by police in Staten Island, N.Y. Garner was resisting arrest for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. Police blamed Garner’s weight and asthma for his death. There was a video. However, no indictment was filed for Garner, Rice or Crawford.

“The [UN] Committee remains concerned at the practice of racial profiling of racial or ethnic minorities by law enforcement officials, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Transportation Security Administration, border enforcement officials and local police,” it said. The Committee report can push for investigations the U.S. to investigation police shootings for racial bias. But, it does not have the power to require them.

New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has asked for independent prosecutors in deadly force cases. Both North Charleston and Ferguson police departments have ordered body cameras for their police force. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating several of these shooting. But, the DOJ has found fault with police training, not the officers. 

The U.N. panel monitors compliance with the CERD treaty which was ratified by 177 countries, including the United States. However, the panel has no enforcement power. The United States ratified the CERD treaty in 1994.

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of Constitutional Law, is a Legal Correspondent reporting on the U.S. Supreme Court, the United Nations, and major legal issues. She is the author of Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present (Routledge).



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