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Police Lethal Force and Accountability: a review

In 2020, there were a number of high-profile killings by police officers in the news. The killing of George Floyd on the 25th May 2020 and the summer of protests it sparked is the most well-known, but there were also widespread protests in Nigeria against the abusive Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and protests in Colombia over the death in custody of a man in Bogota. Both of these were violently repressed – ten civilians died in Bogota, and at least 51 in Nigeria. Due to this, there has been an increasing public scrutiny on police use of force – especially when it causes death or injury. 

A recent report by a coalition of universities (University of Exeter, The University of Ghent, Politieacademie, The University of Groningen) published this week has attempted to pull together data on police use of force where the result has been death. 

The report, Police Lethal Force and Accountability, assesses the law enforcement of four western European countries (Belgium, England & Wales, France, the Netherlands) in order to see how often someone is killed, and then afterwards look at what the availability and reliability of the information on the killings are. It is rooted in the understanding that the more transparent law enforcement is, the easier it is to hold it to account.

The report is based on international human rights standards from both the UN and the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), though the authors take care to address the problematic silences in some of these provisions. It also stands on the shoulders of some recent civil-society led initiatives to map police brutality and lethality. 

The US is covered by collectives like We The Protestors, who have built a comprehensive map of police violence over a number of years. Worth also noting is the investigation by Forensic Architecture and Bellingcat which mapped brutality at the summer’s protests. Reports into police violence in other countries are often carried out by national or international human rights organisations or charities (including a piece of research into racialised police killings in the UK by AOAV in October 2020). 

However, the report also responds to the fact that there is relatively little comparative work on police lethality and accountability across jurisdictions and aims to address that silence.

In summary, the research looked at information (i.e. whether the information was collected, publicly accessible, a legal requirement, or accessible via FOI) in each jurisdiction regarding:

  • The number of deaths.
  • The demographic data concerning the deceased.
  • The demographic information for law enforcement officers.
  • The type of force involved.

The academics also considered:

  • The quality of the official sources of information.
  • Whether the data was analysed by state/police forces and whether any action was taken to learn from this.
  • Whether any official investigations into deaths took place.
  • What the investigation reports into deaths were like.
  • Whether any law enforcement officers were prosecuted following a death after lethal use of force.

Their key findings, listed here by country, were as follows:

Belgium

  • The data on lethal use of force is limited and partial in most cases, and is often not publicly accessible, and the only analysis carried out is on general use of force.
  • There is a lack of standardization on reporting procedures between police zones.
  • The report raises questions over the independence of Belgium’s investigating bodies, as they are often made up of police officers on secondment.
  • Investigation results are only available through the judiciary and not made public.
  • There have been 236 prosecutions between 2009 and 2017, but no imprisonments.

England & Wales

  • Official data is published by both an independent police watchdog and the government, but the amount of information available is variable and both bodies use different methodologies and reporting procedures.
  • Analysis does take place, but again it is unclear whether it is on use of force or lethal use of force – and a 2017 report cited a systematic failure of the police forces to learn lessons.
  • There is an independent investigator for grievous harm or misconduct, but most complaints are handled internally and the investigator has to pass that onto the courts. 
  • Prosecution levels are low, with only two named police officers being sentenced by a court.

France

  • Out of the two main law enforcement bodies, only one (the National Police) collects data, despite the fact that the other (the Gendarmerie) polices half the population.
  • The recording of and investigation into deaths is not a legal requirement in France, despite it being an international law.
  • There is no demographic data, and little analysis, of the dead – press releases are quick to pin the blame on the deceased. However work by journalists suggests that people of North African descent are disproportionately represented. 
  • Investigative bodies are neither transparent nor independent.

The Netherlands

  • Whilst the public prosecutor’s office logs deaths in police shooting incidents, the overall number of deaths is not recorded, nor is the demographic data.
  • There is a significant amount of analysis commissioned from independent bodies by the Dutch police, but it is uncertain whether recommendations have been acted on.
  • Investigations do take place, but they are not very transparent to the public.
  • It has however been noted by a lawyer working in the field that the number of successful prosecutions is on the rise.

In conclusion, the report gave recommendations to each law enforcement department in turn. It is hoped that these departments will take on board the research and increase levels of accountability to the citizens they police.

It is also hoped – by the report and by AOAV – that we will, one day attain a position where every use of force by police forces (and especially death) is recorded, recognised, investigated, and acted on.