Bad cop, good cop

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Police in the northern province of Thanh Hoa began using giant fishing nets to snag the wheels of illegal motorbike racers, but had to stop following a public outcry. Experts now feel an effective method had to be given up because a bad reputation has put the police force on the defensive.

When he first read about it, Henry Hollinger says he laughed out loud.

The news that Vietnamese police were using giant fishing nets to stop reckless, illegal motorbike racers in their tracks, struck Hollinger, a retired cop now working as a security consultant for a Canadian company, as funny.

The mirth did not last long. After he discussed the method with some of his colleagues, Hollinger had fresh insights and realized that this way of slowing down racers was "actually very good."

Hollinger, who used to work as security manager for several companies in Vietnam, said, "I think the"¦ police are very innovative and it seems that the fishing net method works. Police these days have to be very innovative [and come up] with new ideas and tactics to curb traffic violations and crime."

Illegal races are held frequently in major cities in motorbike-dominated Vietnam, where according to Transport Minster Dinh La Thang are a "national calamity". The transport ministry has said in its most recent report that since the beginning of this year, at least 9,200 people have been killed in traffic accidents nationwide. They claimed around 11,000 lives last year.

Late last month, police in the northern province of Thanh Hoa had been in the national spotlight for using the new tactic of throwing fishing nets into the rear wheels of the racing bikes. It proved effective, with nets getting twisted in the wheels and slowing down the bikes to a stop.

Though the provincial police said this unorthodox tactic had not caused any major accidents or shown to be dangerous to the racers, they decided to suspend it in the wake of a public outcry. It was said that the method was too risky because of the collateral damage it could cause to other road users.

Transport Minister Dinh La Thang, not one to shy away from bold tactics, had praised the new method but acknowledged more assessment was needed to conclude that it was safe and feasible.

"I think that the [Thanh Hoa] police gave in to public pressure too soon. They had a good thing going and now their action put them on the defensive again," Hollinger said.

Strained relationship

The episode over the fishing nets reflects what one Vietnamese police official called a "strained relationship" between the police and the people.

An unconfirmed rise in public actions against the police, coupled with a lot of cop corruption and misconduct stories widely reported in the local media recently, have tainted the image of the police force, he said.

"The police are actually getting too anxious over every action they take," the official said on condition of anonymity. "They easily surrender to strong public reactions, though the rationale for their actions could be justified."

A month and a half before the Thanh Hoa police employed the fishing net tactic, a traffic cop in the province had been arrested and charged with taking bribes of VND5 million (US$240) from a truck driver carrying illegal products through the province.

The arrest came on the heels of a series of investigative reports by the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that exposed traffic police in several provinces soliciting and receiving bribes from truck drivers.

The problem was considered serious enough for the Ministry of Public Security to issue a directive in October calling for stricter measures against wrongdoing by police officials in the execution of their duties.

"There have been cases of wrongdoing in some localities that have angered the public," the directive said. It blamed the wrongdoings on loose management by leaders of local police agencies, poor morale among some police officials, and incompetence.

Getting worse

Le Quang Binh, a sociologist who runs the non-profit Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment in Hanoi, said that the public attitude toward the police, especially traffic cops, was getting worse.

"Many people say that the main priority of the traffic police is to "˜trap' and fine rather than regulate and direct traffic," Binh said.

"Therefore, people always think of them as money-makers rather than officers maintaining public order. This is not the case for all policemen but it is widely believed as such by the public."

Cop corruption is not new to Vietnam. According to Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer 2010, the Vietnamese police are considered to be the most corrupt public institution in the country.

The study that this assessment was based on showed that a significant number of households who'd had contact with the police in 2009 said they had paid bribes. The Global Integrity 2009 report states that many Vietnamese generally believe that reason many people join the police force is to extract bribes by misusing their power and authority.

Low salaries that the police typically earn have also been blamed as a main corrupting factor. The average salary for a Vietnamese cop is VND2 million per month. The country's per capita income is around $1,300 this year, government figures show.

Kudos, too

Such reports have appeared to attract widespread media coverage, sharpening the already negative perceptions about the police among the public.

They seem to have overlooked the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2010-2011, where business executives surveyed indicate that the reliability of the police in Vietnam to protect them from crime counts as a competitive edge for the country.

This is supported by the US Department of State 2010 report, according to which the police are generally effective at maintaining political stability and public order in Vietnam.

Analysts say that in order to avoid being pigeonholed as corrupt, it is crucial for the police force to restore public trust before it is too late.

"The public want the police to reinforce laws and maintain public security with soft power, integrity and a principled approach," said Binh, the sociologist.

There are some people who see a change in approach, but not necessarily of the principled kind.

"The police are more sophisticated than they were before," said Hoang Van Dao, a 54-year-old xe om (motorbike taxi) driver in HCMC's District 7.

"They don't bother to pull over people like me," Dao said. "Their main targets now are truck and container drivers."

Dao said he was once stopped by a traffic cop who quickly let him go. "The cop even told me that xe om drivers now can rest assured that they don't care about us any more.

"I'm no longer their target."

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