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Systemic racism pervades US police and justice systems, UN Mechanism on Racial Justice in Law Enforcement says in new report urging reform

28 September 2023

GENEVA (28 September 2023) – Systemic racism against people of African descent pervades America’s police forces and criminal justice system, and US authorities must urgently step up efforts to reform them, the UN International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in the Context of Law Enforcement said in a new report today.

The report follows the Mechanism’s official country visit to the United States earlier this year, during which it heard testimonies from 133 affected individuals, visited five detention centers and held meetings with civil society groups and a range of government and police authorities in the District of Columbia, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis and New York City.

“In all the cities we went to, we heard dozens of heart-breaking testimonies on how victims do not get justice or redress. This is not new, and it’s unacceptable,” said Tracie Keesee, an expert member of the Mechanism. ”This is a systemic issue that calls for a systemic response. All actors involved, including police departments and police unions, must join forces to combat the prevailing impunity.”

The report found that racism in the US - a legacy of slavery, the slave trade, and one hundred years of legalized apartheid that followed slavery’s abolition – continues to exist today in the form of racial profiling, police killings, and many other human rights violations.

The report said that Black people in America are three times more likely to be killed by police than whites, and 4.5 times more likely to be incarcerated.

It also said that of the more than 1,000 cases of killings by police each year, only 1% result in officers being charged. If use of force regulations in the US are not reformed in accordance with international standards, many of these killings will continue, the report warned.

“We reject the “bad apple” theory. There is strong evidence suggesting that the abusive behaviour of some individual police officers is part of a broader and menacing pattern,” said Juan Mendez, an expert member of the Mechanism. “Law enforcement and criminal justice institutions in the United States share and reproduce values, attitudes and stereotypes of US society and institutions. These must be reformed.”

The report said that armed police officers should not be the default first responders to every social issue in the US, including for mental health crises, homelessness, and for controlling the traffic or discipline at schools. The report asserted that this needs to change by putting in place alternative responses to policing.

“During our meetings with police officers, we repeatedly heard concerns that officers’ mental health was being affected not only by work overload, but also by racism and racial discrimination inside police departments,” Keesee said. “Expecting law enforcement officers to respect and protect human rights also presupposes a culture of respect and wellbeing within the ranks.”

The report calls on police agencies to address the issues of systemic racism against Black law enforcement officers and issues of white supremacy ideology inside these agencies.

The report cited with profound concern instances of children of African descent being sentenced to life imprisonment, pregnant women in prison being chained during childbirth, and persons held in solitary confinement for 10 years. It also described how some people of African descent have been prevented from voting years after completing their sentences and how some are subjected to forced labour in “plantation-style” prisons, which constitutes a contemporary form slavery.

The Mechanism condemned not only the general overuse of incarceration and criminal supervision in the US, but also the appalling overrepresentation of people of African descent in the criminal justice system.

“The testimonies and figures we received represent the worst part of a racist criminal justice system that erodes all efforts towards addressing systemic racism,” Mendez said. “Our findings point to the critical need for comprehensive reform.”

The report made 30 recommendations to the US and all its jurisdictions, including the more than 18,000 police agencies in the country. It also highlighted local and federal good practices and recognised efforts the current administration and some local governments are doing to combat the issue.

“We encourage the good practices to be reproduced in other parts of the country. We look forward to continuing to cooperate with the United States to implement these recommendations,” Mendez said.


Background: The International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in the Context of Law Enforcement was established in July 2021 by the Human Rights Council to make recommendations, inter alia, on the concrete steps needed to ensure access to justice, accountability and redress for excessive use of force and other human rights violations by law enforcement officials against Africans and people of African descent.

More information about the Mechanism can be found here.

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Todd Pitman, Media Adviser for the HRC’s Investigative Missions, at [email protected], Cell: +41 76 691 1761; or
Pascal Sim, HRC Media Officer, at [email protected].