Amnesty International Report on New York City


27 JUNE 1996

NEW YORK - Reports of police brutality, shootings and deaths in police custody in New York City have risen significantly in recent years, with more than two-thirds of the victims belonging to racial minorities, Amnesty International said today.

In a new report released today, the human rights organization said that while there has been an increase in prosecutions for police corruption in recent years, prosecutions for beatings or unjustified shootings by on-duty police are rare and convictions even rarer.

Disturbingly, many of the police shootings did not appear to justify firing guns and many of the people allegedly kicked or beaten by police were not criminal suspects but people who had simply questioned police authority or had minor disagreements with officers. Nearly all the victims in the cases of deaths in custody and police shootings reviewed by Amnesty International were from racial minorities -- particularly African-Americans, Latinos and Asians.

"Police brutality is not limited to minorities and may be a sign of a wider police culture," Amnesty International said. "However, much of the abuse seems to be racially motivated and serious questions must be asked -- and answered -- when racial minorities bear the brunt of police brutality and are overwhelmingly the victims of death at the hands of the police."

The 72-page report follows an 18-month investigation by Amnesty International, including two research visits to the city, and reviews more than 90 individual cases of alleged ill-treatment and excessive force by police officers from the late 1980s to 1996.

Police Brutality

The most common forms of ill-treatment alleged were repeated kicks or punches by officers using fists, batons, guns and police radios, sometimes while the person was already handcuffed or restrained in another way. In several cases, people died after being restrained by police officers.

In one case in April 1995, police officers mistook Marcos Maldonado, a Latino supermarket worker, for a suspect following an armed robbery at the store. He claimed that they handcuffed his hands behind his back, threw him on the floor, repeatedly hit him on the back of the head with their pistols and nightsticks, and kicked him in the back, chest and legs. While he was handcuffed, an officer reportedly used an ethnic slur and threatened to "blow his head off". Marcos Maldonado was treated at hospital for bruises and cuts to his head and hands.

The commanding officer later informed Amnesty International that, while a complaint was pending before the civilian review board, a police investigation had found that the officers involved had acted "totally within the parameters of both New York state law and guidelines set forth by the New York City Police Department" and that all officers had been returned to full duty.

New York state law and police department policy state that police officers may use only "the minimum amount of force which is necessary to achieve a legitimate purpose when other options are not available or have been exhausted". The guidelines also state that flashlights, radios and handguns are not designed as impact weapons and make clear that they should not be used as such in most circumstances. They also note that failure to follow the guidelines constitutes an offence under the law as well as departmental policy.

"On paper it's clear what force a police officer can use. In practice, police have in many cases apparently completely ignored both the NYPD's own guidelines and international standards," Amnesty International said.

Lethal force

In more than 30 cases suspects have been shot, killed or injured by NYC police officers in questionable circumstances in recent years. There are serious doubts about whether the suspects had posed an immediate threat to life when they were shot, even though NYPD officers may fire their guns only as a last resort to protect life. Most of the victims -- including several teenagers -- were unarmed at the time they were shot.

On 24 March 1995, Yong Xin Huang, a 16-year-old Chinese boy and some friends were spotted playing in a garden with an air rifle in Brooklyn. Alerted by a neighbour, a police officer arrived and fatally shot the young boy in the back of his head. In March 1996 the city agreed to pay $400,000 in damages to the family; the officer was not disciplined or charged with an offence.

On 12 January 1996, Frankie Arzuega, an unarmed 15-year old Puerto Rican boy, was a passenger in the back seat of a reportedly stolen car. He was shot dead by a police officer after the driver tried to drive off while being questioned.

Deaths in Custody

Amnesty International reviewed 15 cases of deaths in police custody between 1988 and 1995 -- most of which took place on the streets. The cases included people who had died of asphyxia from pressure on the neck or chest, those who had signs of being hit or prisoners who died after violent struggles with police officers. Two of the prisoners who died in custody in 1995 had been sprayed with the pepper-spray, an agent used to temporarily disable a target subject.

According to police statistics, 89% of those who died in New York Police Department custody between 1990 and 1994 were African American or Hispanic. These figures alone are disturbing and warrant an independent inquiry, Amnesty International said.

Prosecutions or disciplinary action

Amnesty International said it was not able to get all the details of the cases examined because investigations into police abuse are shrouded in secrecy. Police internal disciplinary reports are confidential under New York State law and even the findings of the independent civilian review board in individual cases are confidential.

The police authorities did not respond to most of Amnesty International questions on whether internal disciplinary action had been taken against officers in the specific cases reviewed. However, very few officers had been reportedly disciplined, and only minor sanctions were imposed against those found guilty of misconduct.

The report points out that a police officer convicted in April 1995 for shooting to death an unarmed black man sitting in his car was the first New York City police officer to be convicted for an on-duty homicide since 1977.

"The New York City authorities should appoint an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality, deaths in custody and police shootings. Concrete measures should be taken to prevent such abuses and greater transparency should be adopted in the investigation of complaints," Amnesty International said.

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