SOUTH FLORIDA — The United States continues to reel from the social and political fallout of decisions not to prosecute white police officers in the cold-blooded deaths of two African-American men in separate incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island. A recently adopted United Nations report concludes there is grave concern that police interactions with U.S. blacks and other communities of color are systemically deadly.
The UN’s Committee against Torture found that the United States is guilty of many instances of what amounts to human rights abuses in particular when it comes to torture at the hands of the military, inhumane incarceration of immigrants seeking asylum, juveniles, and women, and – not coincidentally – what the report calls “the frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black individuals.”
Shockingly, for South Florida, the United Nations included in its report a scathing indictment of a police killing that occurred in Miami barely a year ago. Included in its concluding observations, the Committee on Torture wrote that it was “appalled at the number of reported deaths after the use of electrical discharge weapons, including the recent cases of Israel ‘Reefa’ Hernández Llach in Miami Beach.” Electrical discharge weapons are commonly known as tasers.
Miami attorney Meena Jagannath brought Hernandez’ case to Geneva last month to give testimony in front of the United Nation’s Committee on Torture on behalf of Hernandez’ family and Dream Defenders. Jagannath testified along with activists from Ferguson, Missouri and Chicago.
Hernandez was an upcoming contemporary artist who was, according to the brief submitted to the United Nations by Jagannath, the victim of an “intentional killing by Miami Beach Police Officer Jorge Mercado’s unwarranted use of an electroshock device” in August 2013. The documentation submitted to the UN added that Hernandez’ death “amounts to torture under Article 1 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.”
Available data indicates such torture is alarmingly high. According to a 2012 Amnesty International publication, that organization “recorded the largest number of deaths following the use of Tasers in California (92), followed by Florida (65), and Texas (37).”
With outraged Americans all over the U.S. – including in South Florida – protesting peacefully about the decision not to move forward with criminal cases in the police killings of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Gardner in New York, the chilling findings in the UN report appalled local attorney activists.
“Clearly, we have a problem in communities across America that must be addressed with urgency and deliberate purpose,” said Miami attorney Marlon Hill, in an emailed response. “it’s time for institutions to change,” said Alana Greer who works with Jagannath in Miami’s Community Justice Project. “We’re asking for accountability.”
While much of the report’s findings about police violence were based on data with the Chicago Police Department, its recommendations were written with broad strokes that addressed police agencies nationwide. For example, the report called on police to “ensure that all instances of police brutality and excessive use of force by law enforcement officers are investigated promptly, effectively and impartially by an independent mechanism with no institutional or hierarchical connection between the investigators and the alleged perpetrators.” It further insisted that police “prosecute persons suspected of torture or ill-treatment and, if found guilty, ensure that they are punished in accordance with the gravity of their acts.”
Such punishment would be relatively ground-breaking in Miami where it has been a quarter century since the last time a police officer has been even charged with breaking the law after killing a person. William Lozano, whose killing of Clement Lloyd in the late 1980’s sparked Miami’s most recent civil uprising there, was convicted on two counts of manslaughter (another person with Lloyd died from injuries from the motorcycle accident that ensued as a result of Lozano’s shooting) in 1989. Lozano was acquitted four years later when his case was retried in Orlando.
Levi Williams, an attorney in Fort Lauderdale, was troubled by the apparent roots of the police violence. “We no longer have community policing,” said Williams who pointed out that – for the most part – gone are the days when a police officer lived in the neighborhood he or she was patrolling. “He or she was a neighbor. Now they are policing a neighborhood where they never grew up. There is no real vested interest in the community.”
He added that this dynamic is not unlike how a military force relates to the people of a conquered territory, only, he added, “the rules of engagement are a little better” with the army than the police.
Greer wants to push a paradigm where communities are “building police departments that are responsive to communities and not at war with them.”
Hill believes that all police officers should be held accountable to the professional expectation of their roles in society. “These incidences of police brutality indicate either a breakdown or complete disregard of law enforcement’s professionalism in treating all our citizens equitably and with dignity under our Constitution. At its worst, it is an abuse of power.”
That police power that Hill referred to is becoming more and more lethal as concerns mount over the ever-blurring lines between local and state police and a de facto military force. “Over the next decade we will see a full militarization of our police,” predicted Williams.
Another area cited in the United Nations Torture report was the treatment of under-aged criminal offenders. From concerns about sexual violence committed against younger inmates by adult inmates to long sentences, the UN report painted a bleak picture of conditions for minors accused and/or convicted of a crime in the United States: “The Committee remains concerned at the notable gaps in the protection of juveniles in the [U.S.] criminal justice system. In particular, the Committee expresses once again its concern at the conditions of detention for juveniles, including their placement in adult jails and prisons, and in solitary confinement.”
While the UN report offers many suggestions and recommendations, Hill and Williams also have their own insight into what needs to be done to offer meaningful redress for the all-too-familiar crisis of black victims of police interactions.
“It will only be corrected in how the leadership of law enforcement agencies address issues of training and policies of accountability,” said Hill, who is a past president of Caribbean Bar Association.
Williams sees the heretofore unchecked police violence against Americans of color as “a symptom of what’s already in society.” For him, that symptom points to a socioeconomic malady. Williams feels that if one is “not fighting for an expansion of economic rights” then he/she is being discriminatory.
“Economics is the new civil rights,” said Willams.