Important Test as Pennsylvania Deploys National Guard

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Philadelphia police officers form a line during a demonstration in Philadelphia, October 27, 2020. 
© 2020 AP Photo/Matt Slocum

As the police killing this week of Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man with a mental health condition, by two white police officers mobilizes people across Philadelphia, city and state authorities should publicly disclose the existing rules on the use of force by law enforcement. They should explain how people can report abuses, and ensure that any forces deployed to demonstrations, including the National Guard, have appropriate training and equipment.

Wallace’s killing prompted large demonstrations against police brutality on Monday and Tuesday nights. In the midst of these peaceful protests, some people turned to violence to attack police officers and property . According to CNN, 172 people were arrested.

On Tuesday, Governor Tom Wolf activated the Pennsylvania National Guard to assist law enforcement agencies to protect “life, property and the right to peacefully assemble and protest.” Yesterday, Wolf proclaimed a Disaster Emergency, allowing the state to allocate resources, and the mayor of Philadelphia imposed a 9 p.m. curfew.

Last week, Human Rights Watch and four other groups sent a letter to all US governors cautioning against the deployment to protests of forces that haven’t received adequate training in crowd control. Wolf’s office confirmed receiving the letter, which also urged states to issue clear public guidance to National Guard forces to ensure they protect and respect human rights, including the right of peaceful assembly, and safeguard human life, consistent with US and international norms.

Following deployment of the Pennsylvania National Guard to Philadelphia in response to country-wide protests against police brutality in June, Brig. Gen. David Wood, in charge of the National Guard’s domestic response missions, said he was not allowed to discuss rules for their use of force.

Secrecy about “rules of engagement” may be necessary in a wartime context, but it is counterproductive and dangerous for law enforcement to treat use-of-force rules that way. It raises questions as to whether the rules and guidance are consistent with international human rights standards. These include the use of lethal force only as a last resort when there is an imminent threat to human life. Keeping the public in the dark also risks spreading fear and confusion, and makes it harder to hold abusive actors accountable.

With tensions high across the United States, officials in Pennsylvania have an opportunity to demonstrate that law enforcement can protect people’s right of peaceful assembly, even in the midst of unrest. Respecting and protecting human life and rights should be the priority.