Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston: Addendum - Study on police oversight mechanisms (A/HRC/14/24/Add.8)
Agenda item 3
Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development
1. On 10 February 2010, video footage was broadcast showing police and army officers in Nigeria forcing a number of unarmed men to lie on the ground before shooting them in the back. One of the officers can be heard asking his colleague to shoot a man in the chest rather than head, so that he can take the victim's hat.1 On 27 June 2007, Brazilian police swept through the Complexo do Alemão favela in Rio de Janeiro in a raid lasting eight hours and resulting in 19 deaths; many of the victims showed signs of having been extrajudicially executed, including gunshot entry wounds in the back of their bodies and point-blank shots.2 A central component of the Special Rapporteur's mandate is the investigation of cases like these - alleged unlawful killings by police. Police killings take many forms, from the use of excessive force during otherwise lawful law enforcement operations, to those committed by specially formed police death squads carrying out clandestine illegal murders for profit or otherwise.
2. In his many country fact-finding investigations, the Special Rapporteur has observed the numerous factors that contribute to the commission of these killings. One of the most important is impunity for past police killings. Common measures aimed at curbing police killings, such as increased police training, will be insufficient if they are not implemented in conjunction with attempts to secure accountability. Impunity can result from poorly structured and ineffective police internal affairs mechanisms, non-existent forensic capacity, inadequate witness protection programs for those reporting abuse, inept criminal justice systems, and deficient commissions of inquiry. One crucial factor contributing to impunity that stands out from the Special Rapporteur's many investigations is the lack of any, or any effective, dedicated external civilian oversight of the police force.
3. Without external oversight, police are essentially left to police themselves. Victims are often reluctant even to report abuse directly to police, for fear of reprisals, or simply because they do not believe a serious investigation will result. Especially in cases of intentional unlawful killings, purely internal complaint and investigation avenues make it all too easy for the police to cover up wrongdoing, to claim that killings were lawful, to fail to refer cases for criminal prosecution, or to hand down only minor disciplinary measures for serious offences. Importantly, external oversight also plays a role in increasing community trust of the police service, and can thereby increase public-police cooperation and improve the effectiveness of the police force's ability to address crime.
4. Recently, increasing numbers of countries have created specialized external police oversight mechanisms to address the deficiencies inherent in purely internal investigations and discipline. While this is an important development, it is not enough that such agencies are created. In theory, they are set-up to reduce impunity where the existing system of accountability is inadequate. In practice, however, far too many external mechanisms are not given the investigatory powers, political support, human and financial resources, powers of recommendation and follow-up, and financial and operational independence from the executive and police necessary to truly be effective. Without these basic elements, an external agency will be little more than a paper tiger - set up as a buffer to civilian complaints, but with no real impact on police violence.
5. This report examines the key aspects of effective external police mechanisms, and the difficult issues that arise in attempting to design a successful agency. There is no one model of external oversight that is appropriate or necessary for all states. Instead, there is a range of options, from dedicated police ombudsmen, to police complaint bodies, national human rights commissions, and/or providing oversight powers to public prosecutors. Drawing upon the experience of the Special Rapporteur, as well as detailed studies on specific oversight mechanisms, the report provides general guidelines for the creation of an effective external agency.
6. The Special Rapporteur is grateful to Sarah Knuckey and Anna de Courcy Wheeler for their excellent work in the preparation of this report. He is also grateful Lars Dabney, Ryan Ghiselli, and Alana Parker for additional research.