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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.

Of Human Rights Reports and Police Misconduct

On March 11, the US State Department released it’s global 2009 Report on Human Rights. As usual, one day later, China responded by noting that there was a nation conspicuously absent from that report and obliged by producing one for that missing nation, titled “The Human Rights Record of the United States in 2009“. Of course, it’s nothing new, China has been doing this for a while every time the US releases it’s report. Sure, both reports are generally considered pure political posturing, but they are interesting studies on how much dirt each nation can dig up on the other.

However, what interests us is that while most of China’s report this year refers to the US government’s own records and reports on issues ranging from US crime rates to issues of racial and sexual discrimination to paint a picture of human rights in the US… at least one section is entirely devoid of any reliance on US records or self-reporting, that being “Section II. On Civil and Political Rights” and within this section, if you couldn’t guess, is the issue of police misconduct and accountability.

As most of the readers here know, the reason why we created the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project (NPMSRP) was because there is a stark absence of information on police misconduct in America. The US government, and a vast majority of law enforcement agencies, do not track this information themselves or publish it. Furthermore, nobody else is trying to do this on a national scale like we are… Which is, apparently, something that the Chinese government discovered as they were developing their report since that section has nothing more than a few poorly chosen anecdotal stories and a smattering of random stats from a handful of large cities.

Unfortunately, because of this, China’s report on the US really doesn’t tell us much about the state of civil and political rights in the US, let alone how extensive police misconduct is in the US and whether it is comparatively problematic both historically or by way of how other nations stack up. What’s more is that no nation really does a good job of tracking police abuses, which begs the question of how any nation could realistically gauge any other nation’s record on how that nation’s government treats it’s own citizens when none of those nations have any tracking mechanisms for how their police forces treat those citizens.

Since no nation or international body tracks police conduct on a national scale anywhere, there can be no comparative report, only anecdotal stories which does not an objective report make. Again, this is generally why these “Human Rights Reports” are considered to be nothing more than political bargaining chips.

For example, while I do appreciate the supposed point that China made with the report, that perhaps the US should take a good look at itself while looking at everyone else’s record on human rights. I do wish that their report wasn’t so hastily made in that effort. After all, if they had done a little more research they probably wouldn’t have used more concrete stories of abuses than the controversial story about a cop accused of beating a bus driver who cut him off… that report is under a cloud of suspicion after a surveillance video from the bus was released and appears to contradict the bus driver’s account. Honestly, their choices of anecdotal reports to include seemed more random than anything, perhaps the result of a quick google search… if Google still works out there.

Despite all this, ultimately, what was interesting in the report for us was that it showed that, with no budget or support to really speak of, the NPMSRP apparently does a better job of tracking and analyzing police misconduct in the US than countries with trillions of dollars and boundless resources can. So, hooray, the NPMSRP does a better job tracking and analyzing police misconduct than the superpowers of the world… not that they’ve noticed, which is probably a good thing for us.

In the end, China’s report was purely political ploy and, at best, irresponsibly painted a very incomplete picture of what’s happening in the US, especially on the issues of police misconduct and accountability. The best hope out of these political human rights report ploys would be if it did spur nations like the US to take a serious look at these issues and develop methods to honestly measure progress towards improving human rights not just everywhere else, but also at home as well.

Until then, there will always be little projects like the NPMSRP out there trying to do what the big boys refuse to do, keep em honest and hold them to account. Whether that’s a good thing or not, well, I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder.

Oh, and no, don’t worry, we weren’t mentioned in anyone’s report about anything. But if you want to see our report on police misconduct in the US in 2009, go here.