September 11, 2023

By Danielle Dean, UNA-NCA Advocacy Committee Co-Chair

The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council will convene its 54th Session on Monday, September 11th, and the agenda promises an expansive discussion on everything from country reports on the Universal Periodic Review, the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, and sessions on cyberbullying, youth, and gender equality. But there is one discussion I will be following closely. On October 5th, the International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement will present its recently released report following experts' tours of several prisons in major cities in the United States, including Washington D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York.

International experts, including Juan Mendez, who was the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and Dr. Keesee, Co-founder, President, and COO of the Center For Policing Equity, led the Mechanisms’ US tour back in May. Following the completion of these visits across the United States, the experts released a statement acknowledging that the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination continues to permeate “all contacts with law enforcement, from the first contact – at times already in school – by means of racial profiling, arrest, detention, sentencing and disenfranchisement in some states. In each of those aspects, available data points to a clear disproportionate impact upon people of African descent.”

Preliminary findings
 were announced and outlined several policy changes the federal government could implement, including:

  • Acknowledging and addressing racial profiling in policing.
  • Reducing the use of solitary confinement in jails and prisons.
  • Passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in Congress.
  • Utilizing consent decrees with local police forces that have been found to violate citizens’ rights systematically.

However, federal reforms alone will not address long-standing systemic issues within our policing and criminal justice system. The UN experts note that “most of these [reform] efforts would need to occur at the state and local levels.” So, what work has been done already, and how can we continue to leverage the work of the UN to pressure local leaders to implement meaningful changes to how we address policing in the United States?

District of Columbia

Last year, the District of Columbia Council passed a series of criminal justice reforms, including banning choke holds, new policies for police cameras, and continued police training requirements. But this success was hampered by a Federal Congressional Resolution of disapproval passed with President Biden’s signature voting down D.C.’s law that would have reduced sentencing for certain crimes and  expanded the right to jury trials for certain misdemeanors. The recent disapproval resolution in Congress of D.C.’s criminal justice laws is just one example of the contentious debate across the District where D.C. Statehood remains a perennial movement for full representation and self-government.


Following the surge of activism against police violence in 2020, the Maryland legislature passed a package of police reform billsthat created new citizen protections against police use-of-force, limited the ability of police to obtain no-knock warrants, and expanded public access to police disciplinary cases. Also, an independent division with the AG’s office was created to investigate deaths of civilians by law enforcement and to refer cases to local prosecutors.  But this independent office has yet to see any cases investigated taken up for prosecution. It is reported that 31 deaths have been investigated by the independent division so far, and none of the local prosecutors have decided to prosecute 17 cases. The other cases are still open and unresolved.

As part of ongoing efforts to improve transparency and accountability of law enforcement conduct, Maryland enacted another law this year that will allow the AG to investigate and prosecute deaths of individuals in police custody, including police shootings. The takeaway is that continued public pressure to ensure laws are working and acknowledging that the current system is unequal and ineffective is pivotal to sustained change.


The Virginia General Assembly passed a package of more than a dozen police reforms in 2020, including measures banning chokeholds, limiting no-knock warrants, and setting stricter criteria for the use of force. Lawmakers also expanded what officers can be decertified for in Virginia and created a “duty to intervene” if one officer witnesses another using unlawful, deadly force.

Earlier this summer, the Virginia Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report regarding police oversight and accountability measures in Virginia. All 50 States have an advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, as well as the District of Columbia and territories. The committee represents state citizens who advise the US Commission of Civil Rights on issues in their state around violations of citizens’ voting rights and discrimination based on protected class and offer recommendations. 

The Virginia Advisory Committee found that “racial minorities, people with developmental disabilities, and homeless people continue to face disparities in police contacts and use of force in certain circumstances, including deadly force”, even after the reforms were enacted. A series of recommendations to federal and state agencies were laid out, including that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights should work with local police forces to address ongoing injustices in the state. This mirrors similar recommendations the UN Expert Mechanism put forward but has unique challenges with changing administrations and varying levels of commitment to acknowledge and address racism in policing.

I am happy that the UN is focused on policing and criminal justice reform and its impact on people of African descent, and I look forward to finding ways to support the work here at the local, federal, and international levels. I am interested in hearing how these discussions, particularly the remarks and commitments of the US, will set up the next priorities for criminal justice reform and policing policy in the country.

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