Want to Stop Police Violence? Establish an Independent Investigative Institution
By Katalin Szarvas & Erin Neff
It seems that every day a new story appears in the U.S. media: a police officer beats an unarmed individual or kills a man for selling loose cigarettes. But this is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Globally, police, military, and other government security forces engage in arbitrary arrests, beatings, torture, and extrajudicial killings with impunity.
As camera phones become more prevalent, citizens are able to make video evidence of the police abuse, but will this growing archive of violent footage be enough to create change?
Even when there are public outcries, protests, and civil unrest, it is still rare to see police officers convicted for their crimes. Often, law enforcement officials are tasked with investigating and potentially disciplining their fellow officers. Meanwhile, prosecutors are often reluctant to file a case against officers, as they must work with the police daily. And even if the prosecutor pursues the investigation, frequently the police conduct the actual collection of evidence and can tamper with it, thus perpetuating impunity.
However, in some countries, civil society is attempting to take police accountability into its own hands by demanding independent investigative institutions. These institutions are independent of law enforcement and engage in investigations of police violence.
In a recent workshop in Yerevan, Armenia, the Open Society Foundations brought together civil society actors from Moldova, Armenia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan to discuss the development of independent investigative mechanisms in their countries. Some had already established institutions that they were attempting to improve upon, while others were in the beginning stages.
The workshop’s panelists concluded that certain conditions are necessary for independent investigative institutions to succeed. Political and social will is essential to develop an effective independent investigation mechanism. A strong judiciary that is willing to prosecute police officers who perpetrate torture and other abuses is also required.
Independent investigations are not a magic solution for the deeply entrenched problems of police abuse, but the experiences shared at the workshop show they are essential to holding police accountable. To properly conduct investigations, the institutions must have quasi-police powers, including the power to issue search and arrest warrants, and to conduct surveillance. Police officers must be compelled to cooperate with the investigation.
Further, the institution should be managed by civilians to eliminate any conflicts of interest that may arise from employing police officers, detectives, or related government officials. Finally, such an investigative body requires adequate funding that will provide them the resources to conduct proper investigations. The Tian Shan Policy Center at the American University of Central Asia, in a recent report [PDF], provides a roadmap for what should be included in investigative institutions and expands further on these themes.
Police officers have an important and often dangerous role in society. Proper policing is essential to a safe and sustainable social order. However, the position of police officer is easily abused, leading to serious human rights violations, including torture and death. Therefore, a greater degree of oversight and accountability is required. An independent investigative institution can provide accountability, reduce police violence, and ensure a well-functioning and honorable police force.
Katya Szarvas is a senior program coordinator with the Open Society Justice Initiative, working on legal remedies for torture.
Until October 2015, Erin Neff was a legal research fellow with the Open Society Justice Initiative, where she focuses on pretrial justice and anti-torture issues.