Mapping Police Violence Across The USA

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Above photo: Police firing tear gas. By Laura Rangel, Amnesty International.

Police forces across the United States have committed widespread and egregious human rights violations in response to largely peaceful assemblies protesting systemic racism and police violence, including the killing of Black people.

Amnesty International has documented 125 separate incidents of police violence against protesters in 40 states and the District of Columbia between 26 May and 5 June 2020. These acts of excessive force were committed by members of state and local police departments, as well as by National Guard troops and security force personnel from several federal agencies. Among the abuses documented are beatings, the misuse of tear gas and pepper spray, and the inappropriate and, at times, indiscriminate firing of less-lethal projectiles, such as sponge rounds and rubber bullets.

Our open-source investigation

To evaluate these incidents, Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab gathered nearly 500 videos of protests from social media platforms. This digital content was then verified, geolocated, and analyzed by investigators with expertise in weapons, police tactics, and international and US law governing the use of force. In some cases, researchers were also able to interview victims or confirm police conduct using local police department statements.

These human rights violations by US police against peaceful protesters – which were neither proportionate nor necessary to achieve a legitimate law enforcement objective – are particularly egregious as they have occurred at demonstrations denouncing just such police behavior.

Most of these protests have been peaceful, but in some a minority of protesters have committed unlawful acts, including acts of violence. In such cases, security forces have routinely used disproportionate and indiscriminate force against entire demonstrations – without distinguishing, as legally required, between peaceful protesters and individuals committing unlawful acts.

Cases across the USA

Besides the severity of the abuses, what is most striking about the incidents Amnesty International documented is their broad geographic scope, indicating the national scale of the problem of police violence.

On 30 May, a joint patrol of Minneapolis police and Minnesota National Guard personnel unlawfully shot 37/40mm impact projectiles at people peacefully standing on the front porches of their homes. The security forces yelled “light them up” before firing. The attack appears to have been done in retaliation for the people being outside after curfew and videotaping the forces with their smartphones.

On 1 June, Pennsylvania State Police and City of Philadelphia police confronted a group of protesters on a highway that runs through the city center. Even after the protesters left the road bed, police continued to use pepper spray and tear gas to drive the crowd up a steep embankment and against a high fence.

Lizzie Horne, a rabbinical student who was in that group, described the experience:

“Out of the blue, they started breezing pepper spray into the crowd. There was one officer on the median who was spraying as well. Then they started with tear gas. Someone who was right in the front – who had a tear gas canister hit his head – started running back … We were against a big fence that people had to jump over up a steep hill. The fence was maybe 6 feet tall. People started putting their hands up – but the cops wouldn’t let up … We were drooling and coughing uncontrollably … The police started coming up the hill and continued to harass people who were still on the hill – they were hitting and tackling people. They were dragging people down the hill and forcing them down on their knees, lining them up kneeling on the median on the highway with their hands in zip ties – and pulling down their masks and spraying and gassing them again.”

In Washington, DC, also on 1 June, security personnel from a variety of federal agencies, including National Park Police and the Bureau of Prisons, plus DC National Guardsmen, committed a range of human rights violations against protesters in Lafayette Park. These included misusing a variety of riot control agents, and tossing “stinger ball” grenades, which contain pepper spray and explode in a concussive flash-bang effect, throwing rubber pellets indiscriminately in all directions.

The violations were not limited to the largest cities, however. Local police inappropriately used tear gas against peaceful protesters in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Conway, Arkansas, among others. In Iowa City, Iowa, police fired tear gas and threw flash bang grenades at protesters kneeling and chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot.” In Huntington Beach, California, police fired pepperballs at protesters lying prone in the street on their stomachs. In Charlotte, North Carolina, police used tear gas to trap protesters between two tall buildings, and then shot pepperballs at them from above. During a protest in Salt Lake City, Utah, police held down a homeless man and shot him in the back with a 37/40mm impact projectile. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, a local journalist lost his eye when police shot him in the face with a tear gas grenade.

Out of the blue, they started breezing pepper spray into the crow. There was one officer on the median who was spraying as well. Then they started with tear gas. — Lizzie Horne, a rabbinical student in Philadelphia

Less-lethal weapons

Less-lethal weapons—such as tear gas and pepper spray grenades, and impact projectiles such as sponge rounds, baton rounds, and rubber bullets—should never be shot at close range or aimed at the head, as serious injury or death is possible. There is no legitimate use for projectiles that cause a blinding flash of light in public order policing operations, such as the policing of a protest. Such weapons are designed to disorientate their targets, which is antithetical to the purpose of weapons such as tear gas, which are only to be used to disperse crowds where violence is so widespread that no other less harmful means will disperse them. For this reason, weapons that combine a gas and a flash, such as ‘stinger balls,’ can never be legitimately used in the policing of assemblies.

Right to peaceful assembly

The US government is obligated under the US Constitution and international human rights law to guarantee the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Law enforcement agencies—at the federal, state, and municipal levels—have a responsibility to respect, protect, and facilitate peaceful assemblies.

As such, law enforcement authorities are only permitted to use force at public assemblies when it is absolutely necessary and in a proportionate manner to achieve a legitimate law enforcement objective. Any restrictions of public assemblies, including the use of force against demonstrators, can never be discriminatory toward any race, ethnicity, political ideology, or other social group. The enforcement of a curfew is not, in and of itself, reasonable grounds to use force, nor do curfews supercede the human right to peaceful assembly or First Amendment freedom-of-expression protections.

Law enforcement authorities’ main objective in policing demonstrations should always be to effectively facilitate peaceful assemblies. If it does become necessary for law enforcement to disperse a protest—for example, as a result of individual protesters perpetrating acts of serious violence—law enforcement officials can use force only if non-violent means are unlikely to be effective. In the use of force, law enforcement officials must seek to minimize harm and injury, and ensure it is proportionate to the level of resistance by the demonstrators. Even then, authorities must strictly distinguish between peaceful demonstrators or bystanders, and any individual who is actively engaged in violence. The violent acts of an individual never justifies the use of force against peaceful protesters generally, and force is only justified for the minimum duration necessary.

In order to prevent impunity and the repetition of abuses, authorities in the US must investigate, prosecute, and punish the unlawful use of force by police or others, and provide full reparations to the victims of such violence. To date, there is little indication that these obligations have been taken seriously across the USA.

  • Edward Winslow

    We can always depend on Amnesty International to stand on the principal of incrementalism.

    After providing a detailed list of the occupation forces’ atrocities, AI concludes that, “authorities in the US must investigate, prosecute, and punish the unlawful use of force by police or others, and provide full reparations to the victims of such violence.”

    Anyone who has eyes that see must recognize that the dominant class and its lickspittles in the White House, Congress and the courts will never issue any meaningful investigations, punishments or remedies against the murderous protectors of wealth.

  • didactic1

    Much bigger human rights violations by gunmen in Chicago and Baltimore butchering hundreds of African Americans including kids.

    AI also is a widely ignored joke.

  • didactic1

    It’s violent out there. What a shock. There should be no rule of law.

  • MrRedwoodGuy .

    It also pays well. Many Seattle cops make over $300,000/year abusing people. Retirement pensions are obscene for cops. They retire early and rich. Hard to see how any significant change would develop.

  • pajarito

    Non-violence is the strategic and tactical goal. Gandhi, MLK, Plowshares and others prove every day that non-violence is the way. Police should be trained in non-violence FIRST.

  • SupernaturalCat

    Yes …violence not only plays directly into the police state’s training, wants and preference, it likewise effectively provides propaganda for establishment interests and corp/state media to paint all protesters, activists, and dissidents as violent, unstable rabble-rouser malcontents who seek chaos and violence for the sake of violence, making it more unlikely for middle-of-the-road America to see the moral benefit in backing them and joining the movement. Not to mention that we’re dealing with fully militarized police who would make short work of squashing throngs of unarmed average citizens.

  • Wells

    Hi, um, This is my first visit. I’m an alternate travel mode expert from Oregon. Yes, it’s like I have a hammer and every issue looks like a nail. A main corporate cornerstone is automobiles, airlines, trucking, shipping supported by military and a similarly militant base of industrial financial business interests who control all broadcast media. If I pop in again now and then, a point I’ll make will be how seemingly separate issues relate, each to benefit based on a different perspective. (^;

  • Wells

    I was there the weekend the King Dome was imploded. It was Poetic Justice when the giant dust plume blew directly north into town. OTOH, if they knew the wind would blow it into town, why didn’t the big boys wait until wind direction was more favorable or calm? Answer: They wanted the cement dust to blow into town and ruin the liberal people weekend. Guys who blow stuff up hate liberals as commies. “Liberals and Progressives and Commies, Oh my!”

  • MrRedwoodGuy .

    Interesting story – thanks.

  • Wells

    Guy gets into his self-driving robolimo dress suited for the office tower trip staggering drunk. Blurts “Go by that cliff on the way and drive off.” Chesterfield manor Geaves humbly suggests “Excuse me sir, do you really want to be driven off the cliff, sir?” This sobers the guy up. He says “No. No. Stop there. I’ll get out. Then drive off and make it look like an accident so I can get the insurance company to pay for a new car, the latest model, different color.” A moment passes. Geaves intones in another voice, “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” – (^:

  • didactic1

    Don’t flatter yourself.

  • didactic1

    Yes they should. And often are. They also have mace and should have some fight skills that don’t involve necks or throats. Yet many go for him at first sign of non-cooperation by suspect, even if suspect clearly unarmed. They need to be told they are finished if they use gun unless suspect clearly had a firearm or was charging with a knife or deadly weapon. Suspect fights with body parts , subdue him or let him go. 99% of time suspect can be picked up shortly. And maybe US patrol cops should not have firearms at all.

  • didactic1

    Magic word: overtime.

  • Wells

    After rereading The Little Prince not long ago, flattery in that story fell flat. Fluttery – butterfly fluttering about – fluttery butterfly doesn’t say much flittering about.