In May 2020, a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for nine and a half minutes, ending his life. Nearly three years later, starting this week, United Nations experts on racial justice will embark on a first-of-its-kind visit to the United States to examine what has — and hasn’t — changed since George Floyd’s murder sparked a nationwide movement for Black lives.
Unfortunately, while calls for reform grew louder after Floyd’s murder, concrete action has failed to materialize and Black people continue to face the brunt of police brutality. In January, five Memphis officers beat Tyre Nichols to death in a relentless, extended assault. In June 2022, eight officers in Akron, Ohio fired a total of 94 shots, 46 of which hit and killed Jayland Walker. Countless other Black people have been targeted by police for simply going about their daily lives.
Two years ago, then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet warned of “insufficient” police reforms playing out across the country. Like many cities, Memphis and Akron both adopted packages of “reforms” after the widespread 2020 protests against police brutality. But these modest changes were not enough to prevent needless violence at the hands of police.
These extrajudicial killings represent a massive human rights violation that falls most heavily on Black people, who are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans.
Deadly police violence is a national crisis in the United States. It happens in every part of the country, from California to New England, from Minnesota to Texas. Fatal shootings by police kill Americans literally every day, averaging three people per day since 2015. Despite years of protests and greater public awareness, the number of people shot to death by police has increased every year since Michael Brown was killed in 2014, with an average of 1011 official homicides yearly from 2015-2022, and a death toll exceeding 8,000 souls. This scale of death by police happens in no other nation on earth. These extrajudicial killings represent a massive human rights violation that falls most heavily on Black people, who are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans.
Civil society groups from across the country pleaded with the United Nations Human Rights Council to take a leading role in investigating systemic racism in U.S. policing systems. In April 2021, the Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in law enforcement (EMLER) was created, with a mandate to examine excessive use of force, over-policing, racial profiling, and other human rights violations by U.S. law enforcement, including their roots in slavery and colonialism. For the first time, experts from this mechanism will hear from victims, families, and officials about how the human rights violations they have been documenting for two years impact communities in the U.S.
The U.N. experts will visit six U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and New York City. They will hear from local and national government officials, law enforcement representatives, civil society organizations and grassroots groups, academics, and victims of police brutality and their families. Following the two-week visit, EMLER will recommend reforms to bring police conduct into line with recognized human rights standards.
With Congress locked in a kind of moral paralysis, this visit must produce an in-depth and objective examination of how historic patterns of discrimination affect policing in America and lay out a clear path for authorities to radically reform law enforcement and ensure it effectively protects all communities equally.
One of us, Collette Flanagan, addressed the Human Rights Council in Geneva last year, in memory of her son, Clinton Allen, who was killed by Dallas police 10 years ago. She closed by affirming that while “police forces … are almost a world power in themselves,” those who speak out are a power as well. Our hope is that this panel of independent international experts will help us to make our appeal irresistible.