Standards for Monitoring Human Rights of People
in Police Lockups:
Potential Roles of Community-Based Organizations
Charles Hounmenou, Ph.D., Visiting Research Specialist
Center for Social Policy and Research, Jane Addams College of Social Work, University of Illinois at Chicago
Despite the fact that every year a large number of persons are detained in police cells, little is known about who is detained in them, for what reasons, the circumstances they are held in and the conditions they experience. There are no statistics published on a regular basis. Nor are police cells subject to regular external scrutiny or annual reporting. There are no official visitors of police cells as there are in the prison system. Mostly invisible to the public eye, it is generally only when a death occurs in police custody and through coronial findings that police cells come to the public’s attention (Office of Police Integrity, 2006, p. 16).i
In opposition to prisons, conditions and treatment of detainees in police lockups do not appear to be of great interest to the research community. Civilian review agencies have been involved in the oversight of the police misconduct, with their interventions focusing mainly on citizen complaints. Most reports of visits and inspections of police lockups, and citizen complaints relate to the violation of the basic human rights of persons in police custody. The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on human rights standards in police lockups, and explore the role community-based organizations can play in monitoring detainees’ human rights in police lockups. The paper focuses on three points: first, it reviews some major cases of violation of the basic human rights of persons in police lockups in the U.S.A., second, it summarizes standards for monitoring human rights of persons in police lockups in the U.S.A. as well as other countries, and finally, the potential role community-based organizations could play in the monitoring of human rights of persons in police lockups is discussed.
Brutality in Police Custody
A police lockup is neither a jail nor a prison. It is a short-term holding facility within a police station that is used to provide secure, temporary holding cells for suspects waiting for interrogation, arrest processing, transfer to jail or for other administrative procedures. Despite the establishment of standards and policies about how to humanely treat persons in police custody, police officers view fair treatment of detainees to be inappropriate and undeserved. Police officers sometimes perceive a police lockup as a place for retribution instead of a pre-trial, safe space for suspects. Some police officers do not appear to worry about consequences of abusing persons in lockups probably because of the lack of effective oversight mechanisms of their misconducts. Research on inspections and visits to police lockups in various countries has shown all sorts of excesses, ill-treatment and abuses including deaths in policy holding cells. Substandard detention conditions of persons in police lockups described in literature include the following: overcrowding and long stays for persons in police cells; torture and beating of detainees; inadequacy of holding cells due to their location and size; insufficient attention to custodial standards; inadequacy or absence of provision of basic services such as health care; detainees in police cells found to be at risk of self harm; lack of access to basic amenities in police cells; inadequacy of hygiene facilities; lack of separated cells for juveniles or other vulnerable detainees; and inadequacy or lack of internal monitoring system to ensure the safety of persons in police lockups.
It is often only after news about atrocious conditions in police cells, or about high profile cases of abuse or death of persons in police custody, has reached the media that public outrage is raised. While some police brutality occurs during arrests, most of these events happen when suspects are already in police custody. According to Amnesty International (1996), there had been many disturbing cases of police abuse cases in which suspects died in police custody in the New York Police Department (NYPD). A 2004 NYPD report found that 55 people had died in police custody between January 1990 and the end of April 1999, a number found to be surprisingly conservative. There was the famous case of August 1997 when a Haitian immigrant man named Abner Louima was erroneously taken into police custody in Brooklyn for a crime he did not commit, and underwent torture.
Chicago is another city whose police department has been identified by Amnesty International for frequent police misconducts, especially recurrent practices of torture of suspects, and deaths in police lockups. Between January 1990 and September 1998, 177 Blacks and 80 whites died in police custody or jail in Cook County (Gordon, 2007). Some detainees committed suicide in the lockups of Chicago city and suburban police stations. In 1990, officers from the Area 2 police station in Chicago systematically tortured over 200 African American suspects between 1972 and 1984 (Amnesty International, 1990). In June 2005, an overall 135 racially-motivated cases of torture and abuse of African American men and women at the hands of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and officers under his command in Area 2 police district were documented. Abuses include: suspects were beaten and kicked, had a plastic bag placed over their head causing near suffocation, threatened with mock execution by having a gun placed in their mouth, and subjected to electric shock torture.
There had existed an unwritten policy to systematically torture suspects in police custody within the City of Chicago’s Police Department. In 1999, Dr. Robert Kirschner, an international expert on torture, equated tortures of suspects in Area 2 Chicago police district torture to the pattern and practice found in other countries where official torture was practiced by the military and by police. The Chicago Police Department’s policy of locking up and interrogating for days individuals who are not charged or suspected of any criminal wrongdoing brought other lawsuits against the department, including two in 2003 and 2005. For Human Rights Watch (1998), most incidents of police abuse and brutality in the United States are encouraged by flawed internal investigations, rare criminal prosecutions of police officers by local and federal prosecutors, little reason for brutal officers to fear punishment, and most importantly a lack of external oversight mechanisms to monitor the detention conditions of persons in police lockups.
Monitoring Detention Conditions in Police Lockups
The monitoring of detention conditions in police lockups is important because first, persons in police custody are mostly pre-charge suspects. Second, having temporarily lost their freedom, detainees have limited recourse to any remedy or assistance. Third, as human beings, detainees’ basic human rights have to be upheld and protected. Fourth, police view themselves less in the role of custodians than in that of law enforcers. Considering that many police appear reluctant to perform their custodian role, one could understand difficulties or scruples they have to humanely treat suspects in their custody, and consequently the potential abuses detainees can experience in a police lockup. The question would be to know who should monitor police lockups to see if their human rights are respected.
The United Nations Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment of 1988 states that “Places of detention shall be visited regularly by qualified and experienced persons appointed by and responsible to a competent authority distinct from the authority directly in charge of the administration of the place of detention or imprisonment.” Yet, in contrast to prison systems, there is a lack of inspection programs of police lockups in many countries. Most countries’ laws uphold certain rights available to detainees in a police lockup. Police stations develop and implement written standards and procedures for the operation of a lockup facility. Lockup standards are specifications or benchmarks for lockup operations and facilities.
Though police lockup standards may vary from one state to another, from one police department to another, they are often grounded on international human rights standards stipulated in various documents including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners of 1955, the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of 1984, and the United Nations Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment of 1988. Three important convergent points are upheld in the policy and standards of most police worldwide regarding an adequate treatment of detainees: a) police departments shall operate a safe and sanitary lockup facility in compliance with state and local codes and regulations; b) they shall care for detainees, being attentive to their security and medical needs; and c) they shall provide special care for juveniles, and persons with special needs.
Synopsis of Standards for Monitoring Human rights in Police Lockups
A literature review of standards iii set out in the United Nations conventions and protocols regarding treatment of detainees, the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), and procedures of treatment of detainees in police lockups in various countries (e.g., the U.S.A., the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia, and some African countries) shows that the following eight areas of standards could be considered for monitoring human rights of people in police lockups: 1) detainee safety; 2) detainee accommodation; 3) detainee medical/mental health; 4) food; 5) detainee psychological well-being; 6) detainee discipline and restraint; 7) treatment of detainees with specific needs; and 8 ) awareness of lockup facility staff about detainees’ human rights.
- Detainee safety. a) Police shall take steps to ensure detainees’ safety and wellbeing; b) officers shall be held strictly responsible for the safe custody of the detainees under their care and this responsibility is theirs at all times.
- Detainee accommodation. a) All accommodation provided for the use of detainees shall meet all requirements of health; b) the physical conditions of the holding cells and the lockup facility shall provide for the humane treatment of detainees; and c) detainees are provided with an appropriate standard of accommodation that ensures the respect of their human rights, and balances individual rights with the rights of others.
- Detainee medical/mental health. a) Detainees shall be held in a clean environment that enables them to maintain self respect and provides for their physical and mental health, and well-being.
- Food. Detainees shall be provided with quality food that takes into account individual religious or dietary needs, is of good nutritional value, and is well prepared and presented.
- Detainee psychological well-being. a) All persons under any form of detention or imprisonment shall be treated in a humane manner and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person; b) persons in detention shall be subject to treatment appropriate to their unconvicted status; c) they shall not be discriminated against and are provided equal protection under the law; and d) they must be protected from torture and cruel, inhuman treatment.
- Detainee discipline and restraint. a) Detainees are protected from degrading treatment or punishment; b) the degree of force used should be the minimum required to control or manage detainees’ behavior; c) force should be used as a means of control, and not as a method of punishment;
- Treatment of detainees with specific needs. Particular efforts shall be made to protect the rights of children and young people in a police lockup; and c) detainees with special needs must be provided with appropriate services and assistance.
- Awareness of police lockup facility staff about detainees’ rights. Police officers responsible for a lockup facility must be trained about its operations, its policies, and the human rights of detainees.
Upholding human rights standards for detainees in police lockups is one thing, but having these standards applied is another big issue that calls for an independent monitoring system.
Potential Monitoring Role of Community-Based Organizations
Advocates for an independent oversight of the police argue that oversight of police misconduct should be led either entirely or partially by an external, civilian review body to which important power is given over the conduct of investigations involving citizen complaints against the police. Yet, most studies show low performance and limited effectiveness of citizen (or civilian) review agencies of police misconduct. Livingston, in her (2008) article titled The Unfulfilled promise of citizen review,iv decried a major problem with civilian oversight systems: their retrospective focus on investigation of complaints to address issues of police misconduct. After-fact reviews of complaints could hardly impact or prevent police misconduct. The retrospective review of complaints may not be as effective as a preventive, before-the-fact strategy of monitoring and analysis of the police’s patterns of misbehavior that aim to identify, prevent or limit issues of misconduct before their occurrence. Important as civilian oversight agencies may be, they are reactive to situations of police misconduct, because they focus primarily on receiving and responding to complaints from citizens. It is necessary for civilian oversight systems to move beyond their reactive examination of police misconduct, and take on a proactive, preventive responsibility by identifying and resolving systemic problems or aspects of law enforcement that cause or perpetuate misconduct.
An area in which a citizen oversight body may have a crucial role to play would be the monitoring of police lockups. Here, monitoring implies periodic inspections of police lockups, interviews of detainees and detention staff, and reports based on the lockup policies and procedures as well as human rights standards. Thus, instead of expecting people who have been abused in police lockups to come forward, in case they survive or do not commit suicide or die under torture, to complain about their bad treatment in custody, civilian oversight systems should be proactive by investigating whether the police lockup standards are followed, or whether detainees’ basic human rights are respected and upheld. It should be possible for an officially appointed oversight agency to require and conduct regular inspections of police lockups. Thus, monitoring police lockup conditions could help prevent or lessen bad treatment detainees experience inside police holding cells.
There is a need to bring in community-level organizations that have substantial experience in advocating for the respect of human rights in prisons, jails and police lockups. First, it will be difficult to politically influence such groups. Second, community-level advocacy organizations appear to be closer to citizens than the appointed civilian review agencies whose authority and resources mainly depend on the political leadership that establishes them. Third, resources may not be a major challenge for community-based groups to be involved in monitoring conditions in police lockups. Community-based groups may also get substantial financial support for their activities from the community because citizens, community partners, and other stakeholders may view them as closer to them, and more independent to oversee and report about issues of bad treatment of persons in police cells.
The John Howard Association (JHA) is a good example of such a citizen-based organization. Court-mandated to monitor jail conditions in Cook County (Illinois), the JHA maintains a program of prison and jail visits, bringing over a thousand volunteers into jails, prisons, and juvenile facilities throughout the Illinois State. For Young (2006)v, the role of the citizen observer in monitoring jails and prisons is very important for four reasons. First, it would be impossible to find enough resources to compensate thousands of people who volunteer for the observation and conversation with inmates. Second, each citizen who visits a detention center or jail becomes a valued public witness of what very few citizens see. Third, these volunteers could help assure that detention centers follow acceptable, contemporary standards. Finally, they could also be a voice among the general public to depict their awareness of life in detention.
While some community-level organizations or associations are recognized and sometimes legally allowed to conduct visiting or, to some extent, monitoring of jails and prisons in the U.S, there are almost no such groups to monitor police lockups, and make recommendations for improving conditions of detention. Thus, there is a need of citizen-based agencies or associations to be involved in visiting police lockups at a level similar to the one reached by the JHA in monitoring jail conditions in Illinois. A community-based organization can play an important role in addressing the issue of lack of monitoring of police lockups. Visits and reports made by an independent, community-based organization about conditions in police lockups could help officially appointed civilian agencies to have a better understanding of the background of a great part of citizen complaints. A grassroots organization could rely on the availability of volunteers to conducts lockup visits. It will be costly to have enough staff in a civilian oversight agency to conduct regular and extensive visits of police lockups. Thus, volunteers have a central role to play in a monitoring of police lockups. Political pressure may not affect a community-based, nongovernmental organization in monitoring police lockups as such an organization will probably rely on private resources coming from fund-raising to conduct its work. The organization’s visits to police lockups, and if possible, interviews with persons in detention, could be a deterrent, and enhance visibility and improvement of conditions of detainees. The paramount role a community-level organization will have to play is to oversee whether established police lockup standards are upheld and followed, and consequently whether the human rights of detainees are respected.
Two ways for such a group to be effective in a role of monitoring police lockups could be: first, to submit the findings, and making recommendations to not only the police chief, but also to the civilian oversight structure officially appointed; second, to disseminate periodical reports on its findings regarding detention conditions. Yet, the police will probably be very reluctant to cooperate with, and let a community-based organization monitor its lockups. For a community-based organization that aims to take on the responsibility of visiting police lockups for the sake of respect of international human rights standards, there are some basic characteristics it should have. First, this organization should have a successful track record of involvement in advocacy work for detainees’ rights. Second, its leadership must be known for its professional integrity. Third, the organization should be able to raise adequate managerial funds for its projects of monitoring police lockups. Fourth, support from the political leadership of the jurisdiction where it plans to implement programs of monitoring police lockups will be crucial. Beyond that, a support from the judiciary power will give it lots of credibility and authority to the work to achieve. Among the community-level organizations that may be able to play a substantial role in monitoring police lockups in the U.S.A. are the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU), and the Chicago-based Citizens Alert.
i Victoria Office of Police Integrity (2006, July). Conditions for persons in custody. Report of Ombudsman Victoria and Office of Police integrity. Australia: Melbourne.http://www.opi.vic.gov.au/index.php?i=22
ii See United Nations Organizations (1988). Body of principles for the protection of all persons under any form of detention or imprisonment, principle 29. http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/35/a35r178e.pdf
iii See Hounmenou, C. (2010). Standards for Monitoring Human Rights of People in Police Lockups. http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/college/research_public_service/files/StandardsforMonitoringHumanRightsforPeople_2.pdf
iv Livingston, D. (2004). The Unfulfilled promise of citizen review. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, (1), 653.
v Young, M. (2006, February). The Promise and challenge of citizen oversight and visits to prison. John Howard Association of Illinois. Paper Submitted to the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons Hearings on Oversight, Accountability and Other Issues. California: Los Angeles. http://www.prisoncommission.org/statements/young_malcom.pdf
Citizens Alert, Chicago’s major police accountability organization, has been working for humane, effective law enforcement, and advocating for persons victims of police brutality and misconduct for over 44 years. This organization aims to monitor police conduct and policies to assure greater accountability to the public, and to build coalitions to involve other organizations in efforts to making the Chicago Police accountable for its conducts. A grassroots organization such as Citizens Alert appears to have the necessary background and assets to fill the gap in the work of the civilian oversight bodies limited in their retrospective review of citizen complaints about police misconduct.
It will be unprecedented to have a community-based organization be involved in such a sensitive area of monitoring conditions of detention in police lockups. Some people might think that bringing in a community-based organization for visiting and reporting about police lockups would be a threat to the appointed civilian review agencies. Others might think that such an organization would be a redundant, external oversight body as regards reviewing police misconduct. Yet, having an oversight organization emerging from the community may have many positive impacts on the welfare of persons in police custody. So, regular visits of lockups by lots of volunteers would probably put some pressure on police officers responsible for the facility management to respect detainees’ constitutional and human rights. Having a community-based organization visit and report about conditions of detention in police facilities would be an important initiative to uphold detainees’ human rights in police lockups.
However, the three major obstacles to such a commendable project will be the police itself, the political power, and an established civilian review agency. The political authority has a central role in having both the police and the civilian review agency accept the establishment of a citizen group to observe, report on the appropriate treatment of suspects, and make recommendations for the uphold of lockup standards and respect of human rights in police custody. By allowing a community-based organization in the role of monitoring police lockups, the police will be viewed in the community as transparent and accessible. The civilian review agency will probably receive less citizen complaints about conditions in police custody. Most importantly, it will learn about trends of officers’ behavior in a police lockup that lead to some patterns of complaints.
The existence of standards for monitoring human rights of persons in police lockups is not enough to prevent police abuse of persons in custody. With the demanding aspect of such work, bringing in community-based organizations will be of great importance. Volunteer organizations appear more independent to conduct objective visits and reports about conditions in police lockups. Their capacity of recruiting people for visits and observations of police lockups cannot be matched by any official structure. Their independence from public resources and from political authority is a great asset that can make them a relevant partner of both the police and the civilian review agencies in the ultimate and common responsibility of increasing the community trust in the police’s treatment of people in custody.