Philadelphia Police human rights abuses highlighted by the United Nations


On February 26, United Nations human rights experts released a statement calling for reform in American policing. Their primary example for the necessity of reform was the Philadelphia Police Department. The statement came from the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, which is a group of independent experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights throughout the world.

Their statement titled “USA: UN experts urge far-reaching reforms on policing and racism,” heavily features and quotes the Independent Investigation Into the City of Philadelphia’s Response to Civil Unrest from the Office of the Controller Rebecca Rhynhart. The controller’s investigation focused on the police response to Black Lives Matter protests, in particular those following the death of George Floyd.

The local investigation featured five points that have been reiterated by the UN:

  • The city failed to dedicate sufficient resources to its response.

  • The police department inappropriately used CS gas in its response.

  • The police department had disparate responses to protesters.

  • The city failed to sufficiently plan for the protests and civil unrest.

  • Failure of leadership at the highest levels of key city departments/agencies, coupled with organizational deficiencies and personnel vacancies, affected the city’s response.


“In Philadelphia, as in other parts of the country where Black Lives Matter protests took place, law enforcement interventions were not limited to areas where lootings and vandalism had allegedly occurred,” the UN experts said. “Police officers fired tear gas, rubber bullets and used pepper spray from close range against protesters, residents and bystanders indiscriminately. Tear gas canisters even landed in home yards hurting children.”

The UN experts highlighted the actions of Philadelphia law enforcement as the embodiment of several flaws within American policing. They called for the “closure of all criminal investigations against people who were arbitrarily detained” for protesting and for the “provision of adequate reparations.” They called for “laws and policies governing police use of force to comply with the US international obligations.”

Protesters gathered at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of art in the summer of 2020.
Protesters gathered at the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of art in the summer of 2020.

The experts warn about the inefficiencies of further militarizing law enforcement, highlighting that “the use of military equipment by law enforcement agencies cannot be justified. Studies have shown that the use of military gear and armored vehicles for the purposes of law enforcement has not reduced crime or increased officers’ safety,” but rather “when such equipment is used, officers are more likely to display violent behaviour.”

A flyer circulated during protests in Philadelphia.
A flyer circulated during protests in Philadelphia.

When asked why the human rights experts chose Philadelphia, Alessandro Marra, a UN spokesperson said, “[We] focused on Philadelphia because they had received allegations concerning the events in the city and subsequently decided to raise them publicly.”

protesters facing police
Photography by Jason N. Peters.

In response to the UN report on her office’s investigation, Controller Rhynhart said, “I truly believe that the results of our investigation have the power to bring about real change in our city, and beyond. It’s great to see this work recognized internationally, especially with regard to this important issue.”

The UN report ended with a suggestion not dissimilar to the very thing that Black Lives Matter protests were asking. The report calls for police reform “to dismantle systemic racism in policing, including against racial, ethnic and other minorities, by divestment from current policing budgets and reinvestment in alternative social and economic resources that are vital for the safety of these communities.”

Full UN statement available here: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26805&LangID=E

1 Comment

  1. What were officers supposed to do when BLM supporters and opportunists destroyed certain areas in this great city of Philadelphia, hold their hands? What a joke of a report. Democratic mayors across the US were reluctant to call in the National Guard ahead of time because President Trump suggested it.

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