National Police Misconduct Reporting Project

Arguing The Case For Police Accountability – Part 1

In the years that I’ve been monitoring and researching the issue of police misconduct I’ve noticed some prevalent, and quite successful, arguments used by those who feel there is no need for improved police accountability and transparency and that police misconduct isn’t a problem worthy of attention.

However, the statistics generated by the NPMSRP offer a useful counterpoint to these arguments, if they are understood and used correctly.

One thing to understand about the NPMSRP statistics is that they do not point to any evidence that police misconduct is pervasive… that is, they do not indicate that all cops are bad. This is the first pitfall that people fall into when arguing the case for improved police accountability, the need to prove all, or even most cops are problematic isn’t necessary, nor is it reasonable.

So, to start, let’s look at the most common argument used against police accountability and the counterpoint people should consider against it…

The argument of small percentages

Statistics in terms of police misconduct mean little without something with which to compare them with. The first thing a police officer or anti-police accountability debater will tell you in a debate is that officers who are caught doing something wrong are a very small percentage of the police population in the US.

For example, I’ve seen people point to one of our daily reviews of police misconduct reports and say, “Look, 28 cases in one day! That’s a problem!” to which an antagonist will say “No it’s not, 28 officers is a very small number of the 800,000 police officers in the US!”

Well, they are right, 28 out of 800,000 is a small percentage and nowhere near a majority of the police population in the US. In fact, our statistics indicate that just under 1000 per 100,000 police officers per year are involved in credible reports of police misconduct. Yes, that translates to under 1% of all police officers.

(NOTE: We should mention that we base our statistics on misconduct by the estimated 712,492 state, county, and local sworn law enforcement officers per the 2008 UCR employment statistics, not the magical 800,000 number often quoted by law enforcement officers arguing against improved accountability.)

But, as I said, that number means little unless you have a comparison point. None better exist than the numbers Americans use to guage how bad crime is in the US, the FBI/DOJ Uniform Crime Reporting statistics or UCR for short. The UCR tells us what portion of the US population is involved in alleged reported criminal acts per year, just like the NPMSRP stats that tell us how many officers are involved in alleged reported acts of police misconduct per year.

So, what am I talking about?

Making a point that police misconduct is a problem worth study is a matter of comparing the rates of police misconduct with the rate of crime in the US.

Why?

Because, as a percentage of population, criminal activity represents a relatively equally small percentage of the overall population in the US as does the rate of police misconduct… so if you believe that crime is a problem in the US worthy of trillions in tax fund expenditure, then surely police misconduct is worthy of study if it represents an equally large percentage of the police population.

How So? Well, here’s some numbers taken from the 2008 UCR statistics and 12-months worth of statistics taken from the NPMSRP between April 2009 – March 2010 (a combination of our 2009 annual statistics and our Q1 2010 quarterly statistics):

As you can see, when we examine violent crime statistics, law enforcement officers appear to be involved in violent crime in a comparable rate with the general population. 432 officers out of every 100,000 compared to 454.5 people out of every 100,000. So, roughly 0.43% vs 0.45%.

Both seem like small numbers, don’t they? Yet most people would probably tell you that they are worried about the rate of violent crimes… but not police misconduct even though both occur at similar rates statistically.

If you’re wondering about the homicide rates, “Homicide Charged” compares the number of alleged homicides in general population with the number of police officers actually charged with homicide or murder. The “Homicide” number compares the same general population statistic with the number of officers involved in questionable non-vehicular homicide deaths including deaths in custody as a result of excessive force that were not charged as homicides.

The statistic for sexual assaults is the stunner for us though. 29.3 per 100,000 in the general population vs 73.3 per 100,000 for law enforcement officers. That would seem to catch people’s attention as a problem, but apparently it doesn’t.

So, you see, it’s all a matter of context. Sure, .073% is a small percentage of the population of police officers in the US, but that number represents 522 officers per year and is a larger, by over 2x, ratio of the population of police than are the number of alleged sexual assailants in the US general population at .029%.

So, the next time you find yourself challenged by a law enforcement officer who says that police misconduct isn’t a problem because it only represents a small percentage of the number of police officers in the US. Remember that it really does represent a small percentage but so does crime in the general population but that doesn’t stop people from worrying so much about it that they’ll spend a majority of their tax dollars to fight it.

That’s it for this time, if you have questions about how to argue the case for improving police accountability and transparency, please let us know and maybe your question will appear in a future article.

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