GENEVA (26 February 2021) – UN human rights experts* today called on the US Government to adopt wide ranging reforms to
put an end to police violence, and to vigorously address systemic racism and racial discrimination.
“We have repeatedly raised our concerns about the excessive force used by American police in the context of peaceful
demonstrations, and the use of lethal force against individuals who did not present a threat to life at the time of the
police intervention,” said the experts.
“In this time of political change, the United States must initiate far-reaching reforms to address police brutality and
In this context, the experts welcomed the recent Philadelphia Office of the City Controller report on the response to
the protests following George Floyd’s killing and urge other authorities that have not done so to thoroughly assess
their response to the protests and allegations of systemic and historical problems such as racism.
The Philadelphia investigation found that the City failed to sufficiently plan for the protests and that excessive force
was used. It also found that inconsistent approaches were used against those protesting against police brutality versus
those supporting the police.
“In Philadelphia, as in other parts of the country where Black Lives Matter protests took place, law enforcement
interventions were not limited to areas where lootings and vandalism had allegedly occurred,” the experts said. “Police
officers fired tear gas, rubber bullets and used pepper spray from close range against protesters, residents and
bystanders indiscriminately. Tear gas canisters even landed in home yards hurting children.”
The Philadelphia report found that many of the violations were the result of a failure of leadership at the highest
levels of key City departments and agencies.
“We agree forcefully with the necessity for greater accountability. The authorities at all levels must ensure that there
is no impunity for any excessive use of force by law enforcement officials.”
The experts also called for the closure of all criminal investigations and administrative proceedings against people who
have been arbitrarily detained for exercising their right of peaceful assembly, and for the provision of adequate
The experts also expressed concern that the relevant national legal and policy frameworks allow law enforcement officers
to use lethal force whenever it is deemed “reasonable”. They called for any such legal and policy frameworks, from city
to federal levels, to be urgently revised to reflect established international human rights standards. “The various laws
and policies governing police use of force must comply with the US international obligations, and this means they must
be based on the principles of precaution, necessity and proportionality.
“The use of potentially lethal force is an extreme measure, which may be resorted to only when strictly necessary to
protect life or prevent serious injury from an imminent threat,” the experts said. “Likewise, less lethal weapons must
be employed only subject to strict requirements of necessity and proportionality, in situations where less harmful
measures would be ineffective.”
The experts also called for a reform of the laws and policies guiding the use of non-lethal weapons. They recalled that
12 cities and five states had enacted bills banning police use of tear gas and pepper spray during protests, while a
number more have pending legislation.
“So-called less-lethal weapons are still weapons,” they said. “The expanding and improperly regulated use of less-lethal
weapons raise serious and dramatic concerns for the respect of the right to life and the right to be free from torture
and other ill-treatment. They can kill and have killed; they can harm and wound horribly, leading to permanent
The experts urged the authorities to address the increased “militarisation” of policing. “The use of military equipment
by law enforcement agencies cannot be justified. Studies have shown that the use of military gear and armored vehicles
for the purposes of law enforcement has not reduced crime or increased officers’ safety,” they said. “On the contrary,
when such equipment is used, officers are more likely to display violent behaviour.”
Similarly, the experts note that approximately 80 percent of arrests in the United States are for misdemeanors. “We have
witnessed many police killings that have resulted from police action related to petty offences. Instead, non-serious
offenses, including minor traffic violations, should be addressed through mechanisms outside the criminal legal system.
Reducing unnecessary interactions between police and community members will reduce violence and deaths,” the experts
Civil society organisations and social movements in Philadelphia and elsewhere have long documented racist policing
practices that disproportionately target African-American communities in the city. Experts urged that “policing reforms
must adopt genuine and substantive measures to dismantle systemic racism in policing, including against racial, ethnic
and other minorities, by divestment from current policing budgets and reinvestment in alternative social and economic
resources that are vital for the safety of these communities”.
“In all efforts to ensure public safety and equality and justice in law enforcement, communities most directly harmed by
the existing institutions of policing must have meaningful opportunities to shape policing and related reforms.
“We hope that the new US administration will be able to pursue the necessary reforms with resolve, determination, and a
strong political and financial commitment.”
The experts: Ms. Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions
; Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent
(comprising Ms. Dominique Day (Chairperson) Mr. Ahmed Reid, Mr. Michal Balcerzak, Mr. Sabelo Gumedze, Mr. Ricardo A. Sunga III); Mr. Gerard Quinn, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities
; Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the Rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
; Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental
; Mr. Fernand de Varennes, Special Rapporteur on minority issues
; Ms. E. Tendayi Achiume, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism
; Mr. Marcos Orellana, Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights
; Mr. Nils Melzer, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
; Mr. Diego Garcia-Sayan, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers
; Mr. Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the right to food
; Mr. David R. Boyd, Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment
; Ms. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression
; Mr. Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights
; Ms. Leigh Toomey
(Chair-Rapporteur), Ms. Elina Steinerte
(Vice-Chair), Ms. Miriam Estrada-Castillo
, Mr. Muma Malila
, Mr. Seong-Phil Hong
, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention