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US - How lack of transparency enables police brutality

BY: David Packman
We know police brutality is a serious problem in the US, but law enforcement agencies are able to suppress the key information...A woman assaulted while in custody, in Shreveport, Louisiana: one of five worst examples of police brutality. Video via YouTube
In Paul Harris's Guardian story "Police brutality charges sweep across the US", an expert in American policing at Bowling Green State University named Professor John Liederback identified an absence of research into the issue of police brutality as a key weakness in understanding and reducing the prevalence of police brutality in the United States. He is sadly correct: the last federal study of police brutality in the US was undertaken 10 years ago by the US department of justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – and that was based on data voluntarily supplied by a mere 5% of the law enforcement agencies in the US.
Since then, data concerning the issue of police brutality has become increasingly difficult to compile because of restrictions on the release of law enforcement disciplinary and complaint information. In fact, 45 states now place restrictions on the release of information about police misconduct; 22 of those prohibit the release of any disciplinary information whatsoever. This makes the gathering of data on police brutality a very difficult endeavor, even for the federal government, especially since some of these states even prohibit the sharing of disciplinary information to other law enforcement agencies.
However, there is one effort underway, while relatively unknown, to produce statistical data about police misconduct and brutality in the US. This unfunded project, the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project (NPMSRP), gathers data available through the media. The data is filtered to meet credibility guidelines and used to generate statistical reports. This method is currently the only feasible way to gather police misconduct data on a national scale thanks to these increasingly restrictive state laws. Since the project only began in the second quarter of 2009, it is too soon to say whether there is an upward trend, but the results so far do provide some insight into the extent of police misconduct and brutality in the United States.
In 2010, the NPMSRP tracked 4,860 reports of police misconduct, involving 6,613 certified law enforcement officers. Of these, 23.8% (1,575) were associated with excessive force, and in 127 cases involved excessive force-related fatalities. When we compare the US crime rate for the general public, as compiled by the justice department and FBI uniform crime reporting (UCR) report released in 2010, with the data compiled by the NPMSRP through the same period and applying the same methodology, we find that overall violent crime rates for the general public and law enforcement are quite similar: 403.6 people per 100,000 in the general population, as compared with 409.3 officers per 100,000. Assault rates among law enforcement agents are about 5% higher than the rate for the general public, at 252.3 per 100,000 as opposed to 265.4 per 100,000 among law enforcement officers, with 84.3% of those assaults occurring on duty in the form of excessive or unnecessary force.
The disparity in murder rates is even more pronounced at 4.8 per 100,000 for the general public and 5.5 per 100,000 officers officially charged, a difference of about 13%. And that rate conceals the fact that officers involved in a credible case of excessive force which resulted in a fatality are rarely charged with murder. If that were so, in every case, then the rate would more than quadruple, to 24.51 per 100,000.
Excessive force by law enforcement is clearly a problem in the United States – and the only way to effectively reduce the prevalence of police brutality is to better understand the nature of the problem. As projects like the NPMSRP continue to gather data, we hope to expand our understanding by identifying where brutality appears to be systemic and which areas trend higher. Then, perhaps, we might also see what types of reforms are most effective in addressing the issue of excessive force and police misconduct in general. But, at present, the continuing trend towards diminished transparency in law enforcement, combined with a lack of support for such projects as ours, threatens to hamper these efforts. That is a grave deficit in a democratic society.

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