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  • Richard Farr

Who will guard the guardians?

The recent death of John Lewis, civil rights giant and author of the wonderful MARCH trilogy, has filled the news with copies of the picture from 1965 in which he is seen trying to ward off the blows of the police officer whose nightstick is about to fracture his skull.

Now that CHOP has been cleared away from my neighborhood, and every conversation is about COVID again, there's a danger that our moment of shocking clarity about the persistence of a deeply sick U.S. police culture will be lost. So it's worth pausing a moment to reflect on one of the most striking points to come out of the BLM movement.

The University of Chicago Law School's International Human Rights Clinic - hotbed of wild leftist radicalism - asked two simple questions. What obligations and commitments does the US have, under international law, with respect to police policy on the use of deadly force? And do major US police departments actually abide by those commitments?

This is the summary of their findings - emphases mine:

The human rights at stake in policing — the right to life and personal security as well as the freedom from discrimination— are bedrock guarantees, essential for the enjoyment of other fundamental human rights. Out of the 20 city police departments surveyed in this study, not one met the minimum standards established by human rights law. Even the two cities that had the best scoring policies, Chicago and Los Angeles, did not guarantee basic safeguards (i.e. necessity, proportionality and accountability) in the law.
Legality: No city satisfied the requirement of legality because no state has a human rights compliant state law. The failure to enact legislative standards on police use of force undermines the rule of law, frustrates accountability for misuse of state power, and weakens police department policies.
Necessity: Twelve city policies satisfied the necessity requirement, mandating immediacy of a particularized threat and the use of force as a last resort. Of the states that failed to satisfy this standard, eight policies contained various exceptions to the necessity requirement, such as permitting force when used to prevent a suspect’s escape. Indianapolis, which failed on each of the three necessity subcategories, allows for the use of force to prevent the commission of a felony. But the policy does not specify the kind felony or the nature of the threat posed by the felony, thereby allowing the use of lethal force when it may not be necessary.
Proportionality: Use of force must be proportional to the threat or resistance the officer confronts. Seventeen city policies met the proportionality standard. Others permitted the use of deadly force in cases of self-defense or to prevent the commission of a felony without specifying that the threat to the officer must be proportionate to the force used.
Accountability: Finally, compliance with the requirements of necessity, proportionality, and effective legality require accountability mechanisms that guarantee effective and independent investigation for all instances of the use of lethal force. While all 20 cities have internal reporting requirements, only two cities—Los Angeles and Chicago—require mandatory external reporting for all instances of the use of lethal force, as required by international standards. Internal reporting and review processes are important for police departments to self-evaluate and discipline their own. However, independent, external oversight mechanisms are necessary to ensure thorough investigations, achieve true accountability, and secure the public’s trust.

A summary of the summary might go like this: Police officers in major US cities routinely use deadly force in violation of international law. Which is to say, it is routinely the case that in wrongful deaths the police are the criminals. Which is to say, the rule of law is held in routine contempt by precisely those who are given the job of enforcing it.

Quis custodiet custodies? "Defund the police" is only a slogan, and it has both sensible and silly versions. As the summary shows, State legislatures bear a significant part of the blame. But surely we can all agree that there is an urgent need to demilitarize not just the equipment lockers but also the rule-books and minds of our police forces. We all know that well-meaning calls for better training won't be enough. We all know that better safeguards won't be enough. A deep cultural change is needed. It would be nice if it started with all 20 police chiefs from those 20 cities standing together and saying publicly: "We did a terrible thing, not taking this seriously. We recognize that those who did not trust us were right not to trust us. We have done a miserably incompetent, deeply unprofessional job of being what we are supposed to be. We are now going to set about completely reinventing what policing is in this country."

But don't hold your breath.

In good news, at least Americans don't live in the Philippines, or Russia, or India, or the Chinese Reich, or any of the dozens of countries in which the idea of a police force nobly and impartially serving the public interest is a joke. We are merely seeing daily signs - see under "Portland" - that Dear Leader and his Unforgivables find the fact inconvenient.

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