The images are at once heartbreaking and enraging. A 15-year-old boy breaks down into sobs as his mother extolls the virtues of his dead father. A woman bearing witness to the murder of her partner being forced to maintain a calm demeanor in the face of unspeakable horror for the sake of her safety and that of her young daughter.
These images make us both witnesses and voyeurs to a particular kind of pain being experienced all too frequently by black families across the country. The families of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling are not only mourning the devastating loss of a loved one, but dreading the idea that no one will be held accountable for their deaths.
Given the lack of convictions in similar cases involving killings by police, their fears may be well founded. Laws governing when police can use lethal force are inconsistent from state to state, and are often so broad and permissive that law enforcement officers can find justification for using lethal force, regardless of the actual danger posed.
Police have a right to protect themselves and a duty to protect the public. But they must carry out their duties in a way that respects the rights of everyone regardless of their race, gender, or past criminal history. No one should fear that any interaction with the officers sworn to protect them could result in their name becoming a hashtag. And officers deserve clear training on how to deescalate confrontations and prevent unnecessary use of force.
With the laws the way they are, no state or federal investigations nor any kind of indictment will stop police killings from occurring. Which is why we need reforms at the city, state and federal levels, and we need them now.
In a survey of state laws that Amnesty International conducted last year, we found that not one state has laws that meet international standards on the use of lethal force. And those standards are more than reasonable: Police can only use lethal force as a last resort when faced with the imminent threat of death or serious injury.
The report found that not only do U.S. laws fall short of international standards, they also fail to comply with the U.S. Constitution. Nine states and the District of Columbia have no lethal force laws whatsoever. The patchwork of laws results in a lack of clarity as to what circumstances warrant lethal force.
Is it the presence of a firearm? In the majority of states, it’s perfectly legal to carry a gun, with or without a license, so that alone can’t justify using lethal force.
Is it the fact that a suspect is fleeing? Supreme Court precedent states that police cannot use lethal force to stop a suspect from escaping if they are not dangerous, so again, that alone shouldn’t be a justification, although 13 states have laws that do not even meet this standard.
Other laws allow for deadly force to be used to “suppress opposition to an arrest;” to arrest someone for a “suspected felony;” to “suppress a riot or mutiny;” or for certain crimes such as burglary. In some jurisdictions, private citizens may be allowed to use lethal force if they are carrying out law enforcement activities.
The lack of any clear standard leaves most of these life-or-death decisions to the interpretation of officers. And this means that prejudice and stereotypes can lead to racial bias when it comes to determining who is – and who is not – a threat. While no official data on police killings exist – which in itself is troubling and must be addressed – what little data exists suggests that black men pay a disproportionate price as long as the guidelines for lethal force are so permissive. The black population of the U.S. is 13 percent, but makes up 25.5 percent of those killed by law enforcement using firearms.
Reform is needed immediately. It is imperative that a national task force be assembled to review existing laws regarding lethal force to ensure that it is only used as a last resort in the face of grave danger. Inadequate state laws must be brought in line with international standards, and all states must require training in the use of lethal force. Shockingly, only two states – Georgia and Tennessee – currently have laws on the books requiring training.
That is unacceptable — both for the communities and the officers entrusted to protect them. Congress must lead the way to set the standard for the rest of the country.
Jamira Burley is the campaign manager on gun violence and criminal justice at Amnesty International USA.