Police forces in the U.S. are notoriously more violent and deadly than police in other Western democracies. Over the last seven years, U.S. police have killed at least 1,000 people every year. This is not normal. In the last 24 years, there have been 55 fatal police shootings in England and Wales. Iceland has only ever one had one fatal shooting. In Germany, 15 people were killed by police over the course of two years. The graphic above shows that even if we consider our larger population, U.S. police forces are significantly more lethal than those of its peer countries.
Why are U.S. police more deadly, and what can we learn from other countries?
Training and Culture
Training for police in the U.S. differs from training in other Western democracies in several relevant ways: U.S. training is shorter, less evidence-based, and places a greater emphasis on self-preservation through violence. The average police training in the U.S. takes 19 weeks, while many European countries have trainings for three or more years. It’s not just the duration of the trainings that differ: U.S. trainees spend 20 times as many hours learning about using force than they do learning de-escalation. Most states in the U.S. require less than 8 hours of training on crisis intervention. Training in our peer nations relies more on de-escalation strategies and imparts that force is a last resort.
U.S. law enforcement culture and training places undue focus on the dangers of policing and teaches officers to be afraid of the people they are meant to serve and protect. Former law enforcement officer and law professor Seth Stoughton explains that new recruits are taught “complacency kills” and trainees are shown graphic footage of officers being killed or beaten after letting down their guard for a split second. The message is clear: Kill or be killed and don’t wait to confirm the threat, because it could be too late.
As a result of this training, officers are psychologically primed to see guns where there are none. In 50% of the deaths caused by the Philadelphia Police Department, the officer(s) involved mistakenly identified some harmless object or gesture as a weapon.
Certainly, police officers have a dangerous job at times. But the degree of emphasis put on violence does not reflect the facts. Out of all interactions, police are assaulted in 0.09%, injured in 0.02%, and were killed in 0.00008% of interactions. It is important to be prepared, but police forces are placing too much emphasis on fear and violence. Unsurprisingly, police departments that chose to emphasize de-escalation saw a decrease in the use of force.
Legality and Structure
U.S. law enables the “shoot first, think later” mentality because officers are very unlikely to face legal repercussions for their actions. The use of force, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, is permissible so long as the police officer’s use of force was “objectively reasonable” from the point of view of the officer. The Supreme Court decision emphasized how police officers are acting in the heat of the moment: Whether an officer’s use of force is reasonable should be “judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.”
The U.S.’s legal standard deviates from the standard determined by the United Nations Centre for Human Rights in the International Human Rights Standards for Law Enforcement. The UN standard is that force can only be used when strictly necessary. Similarly, in the European Union, force and lethal force are legally permissible only when it is absolutely necessary. In addition to the stricter legal standards, some European countries require that officers get permission from their superiors before shooting and others require that officers issue verbal warnings and warning shots before lethal force is authorized. Other forms of force, like chokeholds, are widely forbidden. Police officers in the U.S. can get away with much more violence than would be tolerated in peer nations and our laws are not consistent with UN standards.
U.S. police forces, unlike those in Europe, are decentralized and not beholden to clear standards set by a responsible central body. Other countries have direct oversight and can enact codes of conduct that reflect new evidence and best practices. For example, the College of Policing in the UK collects research on best practices for policing and then translates it into policies that must be implemented within police departments in the UK. This structure makes reform and response to crisis easier and more effective.
Armed police forces are not an inevitability. Among our peer nations, it is not the norm to have armed police officers doing routine patrols. British, Irish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and New Zealander police officers are all generally unarmed. They can gain access to guns under necessary circumstances, but they do not generally have them. Police officers in these countries have reported that they prefer not to have guns, even though they have at times feared for their lives while on duty.
The bottom line is this: The U.S. is falling behind its peer countries by not addressing the excessive violence and institutional racism within its law enforcement agencies.
What Can We Learn?
When comparing the U.S. to other countries in terms of policing, it is important to look beyond policing policy. Unlike many other wealthy democracies, the U.S. lacks mental health services, universal health care, gun control, and has greater social and economic inequalities than other countries. The U.S. also spends less on social services and more on policing than its peer nations. Social services affect policing because, without these services, people have few options outside of police interaction. Consider a homeless veteran with untreated PTSD who trespasses and ends up getting shot because they do not comply with police instructions. Or a mother of a child with a traumatic brain injury who is unable to get them the medical services they need. Now, she must call the police if the child becomes violent, leading to potential escalation and legal action. In other countries, these people could get help before it gets to the point that the police need to be called. Furthermore, social workers and mental health professionals are better suited to deal with these situations than armed police officers. They can work to treat mental illness and addiction rather than criminalize it.
In many of the U.S.’s peer countries, police are not expected to respond to such a large variety of issues. Rather, the police are one tool that can be utilized to deal with social problems. In Sweden, when a situation involves a person in a mental health crisis, mental health professionals are sent in lieu of police officers. In Scotland, police responded to high homicide rates by using education and counseling. Rather than respond to homelessness with police interaction and incarceration, Finland provides public housing, counseling for addiction, and help finding employment. This program also helps people who have been released from prison and reduces recidivism.
Some U.S. cities are moving towards decreasing the scope of police responsibility. To give just a few examples, Eugene, Oregon dispatches a team with a medic and a crisis responder to answer 20% of 911 calls instead of a police officer. Denver has a similar program in which they dispatch a medic and a social worker. The state of Colorado has started sending mental health professionals with police when a situation involves mental health.
Prioritizing social services and reducing socioeconomic inequality is an integral part of dealing with excessive force and racism in our police departments. This sentiment is reflected in the demands and ideas of the Black Lives Matter movement, and an important part of the Unitarian Universalist resolution “Amen to Uprising” that calls for alternatives to policing.