National Police Misconduct Reporting Project

Widespread Police Brutality in Vietnam?

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently issued a report outlining concerns regarding how the Vietnamese government handles the issue of excessive force by police, specifically surrounding the issue of deaths in custody. The report received widespread attention in the media around the world and certainly sounds alarming. However, how do the claims of what was happening in Vietnam compare to the information we’ve been tracking here in the United States through our National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project (NPMSRP)?

Well, the HRW asserts that they have tracked 19 reported incidents of reported excessive force in Vietnam within the last 12 months (September 2009 – September 2010) that were associated with 15 fatalities.

Based on our 2010 Semi-Annual Statistical Report, the NPMSRP has tracked 439 credible reports of excessive force within the first 6 months of 2010 (January 2010 – June 2010) in the United States that were associated with 60 fatalities.

How does this break down?

People familiar with the NPMSRP should know already that we base our statistical data on the number of sworn/certified law enforcement personnel within any data set. So, when we publish a “Police Misconduct Rate” statistic that number is representative of the number of law enforcement officers involved in police misconduct incidents, not the ratio of people victimized by police misconduct.

However, since we do not have data on the number of law enforcement officers (or the Vietnamese equivalent) in Vietnam we have to switch to a general population per capita comparison to determine how HRW’s representation of the problem in Vietnam compares to what we’ve tracked in the US with the NPMSRP.

When we do that, this is what we find:

Vietnam United States
General Population 89,571,130 309,162,581
Excessive Force Reports 19 (12mo) 439 (6mo)
Excessive Force Fatalities 15 (12mo) 60 (6mo)
Excessive Force Per 100k pop 0.02 *0.14
Excessive Force Fatalities Per 100k pop 0.02 *0.04

*US rates are projected out to 12 months based on data from January 2010 – June 2010

By using a projected rate for our US data and the reported rate via HRW for Vietnam it appears as though US excessive force rates are 7x higher than Vietnam’s and the excessive force fatality rate in the US is twice as high as the corresponding rate in Vietnam.

An important note must be made at this point about the NPMSRP data in that we only track credible reports, not all reports. Also, the fatalities listed are only those associated with credible reports of excessive force, not all use of force incidents.

Another complaint made in the HRW Vietnam report is that the Vietnamese government is not aggressive enough on the issue of excessive force and deaths in custody associated with excessive force. Furthermore, the HRW report complains that many cases go uninvestigated or, when investigated, rarely result in charges or any actual serious disciplinary response.

However, this doesn’t seem unique to Vietnam either. Within the 6 month period cited in the NPMSRP data, 98 law enforcement officers were associated with the 60 reported deaths in custody in the US involving reports of excessive force… and of those 98 law enforcement officers, 5 were criminally charged and, of those, 2 received sentences, one for 15 years and the other for 2 years of prison. One officer was suspended for 30 days and one resigned in the midst of an investigation. So, of those 98, only 8 faced any personal consequences related to an in-custody death. In fact, of the 60 reported in-custody deaths related to excessive force in the US during that same period, 1 case resulted in a civil judgment against the involved agency and only a dozen resulted in a civil settlements made to the surviving families of the victims.

So, it would appear as though the issue of excessive force, in-custody deaths associated with excessive force, and an apparent inability or unwillingness of governments to effectively deal with those issues isn’t just a Vietnamese problem, they are problems all over the world, even in the US.

Now, highlighting how US rates compare with those in Vietnam in no way should make us more or less concerned about the problem in either nation. Nor should this comparison be considered as a slight against Human Rights Watch and the important work that organization does. However, it should be noteworthy that while teams of people as part of a well-funded organization are devoted to studying the issue of police misconduct in other nations, the issue receives comparatively little organized research within the US. After all, the NPMSRP is an incredibly small project in comparison to Human Rights Watch.

The most likely reason for this disparity is likely that most of the world doesn’t think of the US when they think of police brutality or governments turning a blind eye towards abuses by governmental agencies. This kind of comparison, though, shows that it’s equally as important to devote resources to examining this issue in the US as it is to examine it globally.

If anything, the fact that police misconduct research is largely ignored in the US should seem just as problematic as the statistical differences in police misconduct rates between the US and other nations. Especially when the US is often held up as the example of transparent democracy in action for the world.

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