Here in the United States, we know the names. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Rekia Boyd. All African Americans killed by police.
But we don’t know the names of Eduardo de Jesus Ferreira — 10 years old and shot by police who mistook a phone for a gun. Or Alan de Souza Lima — who at 15 was filming his friends laughing and joking and unwittingly captured his own death seconds later in a hail of bullets. Or Claudia da Silva Ferreira, a 38-year-old mother who was wounded in a police shootout, tossed out of the unsecured back door of a police vehicle and fatally dragged 1,000 feet.
These last three cases took place in Brazil, but we ought to know their names, too. Because each name now marks an individual tragedy that we’ve become too familiar with — the killing of a human being by police, sometimes unarmed and not involved with crime. And it is more than a national problem.
A report we released last month on state laws in the United States and a new report documenting cases in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, show practices that fly in the face of international standards guiding the use of lethal force by police.
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The U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state that law enforcement can’t use firearms against anyone except in self-defense or the defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury. Furthermore, international law enforcement standards require that force of any kind, including deadly force, may be used only when there are no other means available that are likely to achieve the legitimate objective..
However, in both the United States and Brazil we see that this is not the case. The laws of both lands are unnecessarily broad, and do not take into account whether or not a suspect or prisoner presents a threat. This creates an environment that could allow for any number of circumstances in which an unarmed or non-threatening person, sometime already surrendered or wounded could be killed, and no one could be held accountable for it.
In fact, our review of the patchwork of U.S. state laws governing the use of lethal force found that, appallingly, all 50 states and the District of Columbia fail to comply with international law and standards on the use of force and firearms by police.
Nine states and the District of Columbia currently have no laws whatsoever on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers, and 13 states have laws that do not even comply with the lower standards set by U.S. constitutional law. Only two states — Georgia and Tennessee — require training on the use of lethal force.
What we see in this country has parallels with Brazil. The new report details some cases in which people were killed by police after already being wounded or surrendering. In other cases, there was no warning given, or the victim was killed while running away.
A heavily militarized police presence, to be ramped up in the poorest neighborhoods in advance of next year’s Olympics, has only deepened the divide in trust between the police and those they are meant to protect. Between 2005 and 2014, police killed 5,132 people in the city of Rio de Janeiro while on duty. Last year, more than 15 percent of all homicides in Rio de Janeiro involved police on duty. Compounding the unacceptably high rates of police killings is the fact impunity seems to prevail when it comes to Brazilian police killings.
And in both countries, it is overwhelmingly young black men who pay the price. In Rio, 79 percent of those killed by police between 2010 and 2013 were black men. In the United States, there are, shockingly, no official national statistics tracking police use of force, including police-related deaths or injuries, but estimates of people killed annually by law enforcement range from 400 to 1000.
According to the limited government data available, African Americans are disproportionately affected by the use of lethal force. The African-American population of the United States is 13 percent but makes up 27 percent of those killed by law enforcement.
Police have a difficult and often dangerous job. But they have a duty to carry out this role in a manner that ensures full respect for the right to life and security of all people — no matter the color of their skin or whether they’re suspected of a crime.
Reform is needed immediately. Lives are at stake. Laws must protect people from fearing for their life at the hands of the very officers sworn to protect them. Laws regarding lethal force must be brought into compliance with international law and standards before more lives are lost.
Steven W. Hawkins and Atila Roque are executive directors of Amnesty International USA and Amnesty International Brazil, respectively.