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Public outcry over the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd earlier this year has ignited mass demonstrations against structural racism and police violence in the United States. The protests have reached every American state and spread to countries around the world; they arguably constitute the most broad-based civil rights movement in American history. Protests against the brutalization of communities of color by the U.S. criminal justice system have been growing for years, but the explosive scale of the uprising this spring and summer makes it clear that the United States has reached a national reckoning.
Most Americans now understand that their country needs a radical transformation: polls conducted in early June found that a majority of U.S. citizens support sweeping national law enforcement reforms. But as Americans embark on an urgent public conversation about policing, bias, and the use of force, they should remember that theirs is not the first or the only country to grapple with these policy questions. Many reform advocates and researchers have already begun to look overseas, pointing to countries where police training looks vastly different than it does in the United States: countries where police departments take far different approaches to the use of force or have even disarmed entirely, where criminal justice systems have adopted alternative sentencing programs, and where authorities have experimented with innovative approaches to de-escalation.
Some of these ideas could be adapted for use in the United States. For too long, a culture of American exceptionalism has been a barrier to the implementation of policies that have improved public safety around the globe. Now, the United States’ capacity to heal as a nation could very well depend on its willingness to listen and learn from the rest of the world.
If Americans and their political leaders are to glean useful lessons from the experiences of other countries, they must first examine the practice of policing in the United States and try to define—as precisely as possible—the nature and scope of the problem. The aggressive tactics that U.S. police departments employ today were shaped by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. During the late nineteenth century, the slave patrols and militias that had regulated the movement of enslaved people before emancipation coalesced into more formalized police forces, and they continued to enforce the racial hierarchy in a segregated nation. In the second half of the twentieth century, as the country slowly and often grudgingly integrated, police departments honed the tactics of those earlier eras as a new means of controlling and repressing Black Americans. In response to the protests and unrest of the 1960s, police forces developed the kinds of quasi-military techniques that Americans today have seen applied to a new generation of protesters. In recent decades, police departments have systematically harassed Black communities with stop-and-frisk methods and aggressive fines, which municipalities craved to supplement their shrinking budgets in an age of tax cuts and austerity.
This kind of policing does not simply threaten the quality of life in Black communities; it is a matter of life and death. In 2014, ProPublica published one of the most comprehensive analyses to date of racial disparities in deadly police encounters. Its examination included detailed accounts of more than 12,000 police homicides between 1980 and 2012, drawn from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports. During this three-decade period, ProPublica found that young Black men were 21 times as likely to be fatally shot by law enforcement as were their white peers.
The United States’ capacity to heal as a nation could depend on its willingness to learn from the rest of the world.
The ProPublica investigation went on to describe how white officers, who were responsible for 68 percent of the police killings of people of color, typically reported that they had used deadly force out of fear for their physical safety. Reliance on this rationale increased substantially after the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Tennessee v. Garner, which held that the police could use deadly force if a suspect posed a threat to a police officer or to others. In the four years preceding Tennessee v. Garner, “officer under attack” was cited in just 33 percent of police killings; 20 years later, over another four-year period, it was cited 62 percent of the time, eventually becoming an almost infallible legal defense for police officers who kill.
The U.S. government has not made data on police shootings available to the public since 2013, despite a number of high-profile fatal police shootings that would have made these records a matter of keen public interest. Although the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 requires U.S. law enforcement agencies to provide basic information about the people killed while in custody, the extent to which individual police departments have complied with this mandate is unclear.
Citizen-led organizations have tried to fill the void. A group called Mapping Police Violence maintains a comprehensive, crowdsourced database on police killings in the United States, scouring social media, obituaries, and criminal records in an effort to account for every lost life. In an analysis of the more than 8,200 police killings that have taken place in the United States since January 2013, Mapping Police Violence found that African Americans were three times as likely to be killed by law enforcement as were their white counterparts. Crucially, the group’s findings contradict the common assumption that police officers kill African Americans at higher rates because they pose a greater threat: police departments of the 100 largest American cities killed unarmed Black people at a rate four times as high as the rate for unarmed white suspects. Still, in a shocking 99 percent of the cases the group analyzed, no officers were convicted of a crime.
The analysis by Mapping Police Violence also contained another revealing finding: the group compared the victim data it had compiled against published crime rates and found no correlation between levels of violent crime in American cities and the likelihood of police killings. This presents a stark contrast with the rest of the world, where correlations generally exist between crime, social instability, and police killings. The United States is a wealthy, stable outlier in the list of countries with the highest rates of police killings. In 2019, the rate at which people were killed by the police in the United States (46.6 such killings per ten million residents) put it right between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (47.8 per ten million) and Iraq (45.1 per ten million), both of which are just emerging from years of conflict. Countries with levels of police brutality comparable to that in the United States are generally far more violent places to live and include ones, such as Egypt and Iran, that are often described by human rights campaigners as “police states.”
Other factors also differentiate the United States from wealthy, stable countries with low rates of police killings. For one thing, the countries with the lowest rates, such as Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Japan, have instituted mechanisms for police oversight at the national level. Although police unions exist in countries with low levels of police violence, these unions are generally affiliated with larger organizational bodies, such as Sweden’s Confederation of Professional Employees and the German Confederation of Trade Unions, and do not have as much power to insulate officers from punishment as police unions in the United States do. Many professional groups in the United States have experienced sharp declines in union membership since the 1970s, yet American police unions remain strong, and union protection frequently makes it difficult to hold police officers accountable for misconduct.
Compared with the law enforcement infrastructures in countries that have lower levels of police violence, the U.S. law enforcement infrastructure is extremely decentralized. There are nearly 18,000 police agencies in the United States. Most states have hundreds of municipal police departments and county sheriff’s offices, as well as state police forces and highway patrols. Additionally, the United States has a large number of autonomous federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Customs and Border Protection. As a result, the standards around the use of force vary widely. On rare occasions, typically after a city has been embroiled in years of scandal, the federal government and a municipality might enter into a consent decree, which allows the Department of Justice to monitor the activities of a particular agency and shepherd any necessary reforms. Such oversight is considered an exceptional step in the United States; in the safest countries in the world, it is the norm.
In Japan, where just 0.2 people per ten million were killed by the police in 2019, police departments are coordinated and trained by the National Police Agency. In Luxembourg (16.9 per ten million) and Iceland (no police killings), that role is filled by the Ministry of Internal Security and the Ministry of Justice, respectively. In the Netherlands (2.3 per ten million), the National Police Corps coordinates policing efforts in different regions of the country.
Countries with levels of police brutality comparable to that in the United States are generally far more violent places to live.
Other countries have also established firm rules about police conduct, which make deadly violence far less likely. The Netherlands, for example, employs more than 23,500 “peace officers,” known as BOAs, in addition to its regular police force of 55,000. Although a June 2020 decision by the Dutch Justice Ministry now permits BOAs to carry batons under certain circumstances, most are unarmed. BOAs receive training to help resolve noncriminal issues and to de-escalate conflict by remaining calm, inquiring about a person’s well-being, and trying to reduce a person’s anxiety—even while asking for identification, issuing fines, and making arrests. Such techniques also inform policing in the United Kingdom (0.5 per ten million killed by the police in 2019) and Norway (1.9 per ten million). In both places, police officers face far more restrictions than their American counterparts when it comes to the use of deadly weapons and combat techniques that can injure and kill, such as chokeholds.
Another commonality among countries with low rates of police violence is the rigor of their training programs. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, the American quarterback who is widely believed to have been blackballed by the National Football League for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence, observed that in the United States, “you can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist.” In fact, Kaepernick’s estimate was too generous: basic training can take as little as 21 weeks. By contrast, the requirements to be a police officer in Germany (1.3 per ten million killed by the police in 2019) include at least two and a half years of basic training, and in some circumstances, it takes up to four years to become an officer. Iceland, which has had only one fatal police shooting in its history, requires two years of training.
When analyzing police training programs internationally, it is important to note that many practices that have contributed to lower rates of police violence elsewhere—changing the rules governing deadly force, training about implicit bias, and emphasizing officers’ connections with the community—have also been tried in the United States. And although such approaches might have led to some forms of progress, they have not made a dent in the country’s shocking rate of police killings.
One reason for this that is frequently given is the prevalence of guns in the United States, which is comparable in this regard to no other country on earth. Faced with a heavily armed populace, U.S. law enforcement agencies often argue that they must have military-grade weapons and the right to use deadly force. Citing the correlation—widely accepted in public health scholarship—between the availability of firearms and homicide, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic recently described a vicious cycle: “Where guns are abundant, civilians are more likely to kill civilians and cops, and cops are, in turn, more likely to kill civilians.” In Thompson’s view, “the morbid exceptionalism” of police violence in the United States can be sufficiently addressed only through legislation that reduces the availability of firearms. But when it comes to weapons and law enforcement, the central question, How much is enough? has never been answered sufficiently. In 2014, the Los Angeles School Police Department announced that although it had decided to return the grenade launchers it had stockpiled, it would be keeping its armored tank.
Yet the prevalence of guns is surely not the only reason that reform efforts have failed to address the worst forms of police abuse in the United States. Nor is the localized nature of policing or the lack of federal oversight. Part of the problem, it seems, is that police departments in the United States appear to be immune to reform. Much has been made of the fact, for example, that the Atlanta police officer who was charged with murder after the killing in June of Rayshard Brooks outside a Wendy’s restaurant had recently been trained in de-escalation techniques. The same could be said of hundreds of other officers in the United States whose reform-based training should have led to different outcomes in situations that ended in police killings. That is one reason why many within the U.S.-based Black Lives Matter movement have shifted from calling for police departments to be reformed to demanding that they be defunded or abolished altogether.
From a global perspective, it is not unprecedented for calls for police abolition to follow protracted political unrest due to a lack of trust in the government and questions about its legitimacy. In 1990, Estonia, a country that today has extremely low levels of crime, abolished the militsiya, its Soviet-era police force, and established a more peaceful security force, not unlike the unarmed peace officers in the Netherlands. The Estonian police underwent another significant transformation in 2004, as part of the country’s process of integration into the European Union—a process that reduced the number of police officers in Estonia by 75 percent.
From a global perspective, calls for police abolition have sometimes followed protracted political unrest.
Likewise, Georgia abolished its police force following its 2004 revolution. Georgia’s newly elected president, Mikheil Saakashvili, created a dramatically smaller force, with support from the U.S. embassy, the European Union, and the British Council—a move that has helped reestablish the legitimacy of the government and quell corruption in the country. In total, the government fired some 16,000 police officers because of enduring problems with corruption. After significant resistance from the police unions, Saakashvili’s new government abolished them, along with the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the traffic police, all of which had become infamous for extorting the public.
The recent decision by the Minneapolis City Council to take steps toward dismantling the city’s police force may seem extraordinary to many Americans, but defunding the police as the first step toward an abolition program has been the goal of grassroots activism for nearly a decade. Activist groups in Chicago, for example, have long discussed scaling back the city’s police department and redirecting its funds to social programs. In March 2018, young people of color in Chicago staged a “die-in” at City Hall to protest then Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to spend $95 million to build a police academy. The young protesters set up cardboard tombstones featuring the names of people who had been killed by the Chicago police, along with the names of schools and facilities in Chicago that had been shuttered because of a lack of funding.
Speaking about her reasons for helping organize the event, 20-year-old Nita Tennyson explained: “In my neighborhood, there are no grocery stores. We live in a food desert. There are a bunch of schools getting shut down. The mental health facilities are shut down, too. And that just leaves people with nothing to do. They become a danger to themselves and their community. But if we had those resources,” she continued, referring to the funding earmarked for the police academy, “we wouldn’t even need the police to try to stop those people, because resources would already be in place to help them.” Tennyson’s description of how the lack of resources in her community contributes to violence seemed laced with resentment because, as she saw it, a vast expenditure of time and resources was being spent to clean up a problem that should not have existed in the first place.
In activist circles, the concept of defunding the police has long stood in for a call to reprioritize the spending of taxpayer money. The argument is that the government should redirect the billions that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education, and employment.
Activist groups that seek to abolish or dramatically cut funding for police forces often hark back to large-scale social programs such as those developed under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, noting that such programs did in fact work to create social mobility for many Americans and helped keep them safe. The problem was that the programs were not extended to all citizens equally, particularly Black Americans. In this regard, it is important to note that the Scandinavian countries with the lowest levels of crime and police violence also provide comprehensive social programs that have been remarkably successful at reducing poverty. Also, whereas in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, a high percentage of the workforce is unionized, instilling job security, in the United States, unions have largely eroded since the 1980s—except for police unions, whose profound influence has made it all the more difficult to hold accountable officers who break the law.
For more than a century, cities across the United States have periodically responded to anger over police violence with a combination of organizational reforms, training programs, ethics codes, and civilian-oversight bodies, along with efforts to ramp up recruitment and increase pay. But a coherent model of noncoercive policing has yet to emerge in American cities. The federal government has stepped in occasionally. Over the decades, large-scale, government-commissioned studies, despite differing in their specific recommendations, have almost always suggested funneling more economic resources into police departments, even though more spending has not led to meaningful reductions in police violence. That fact has fueled the movement for defunding—and it also explains the dissatisfaction many activists felt when, in the wake of Floyd’s death and the explosion of Black Lives Matter protests this past spring, the Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden suggested spending $300 million in federal funds to strengthen community policing programs.
Political scientists and social psychologists have long been able to demonstrate that even the mere perception of racial bias within a police force erodes public trust in law enforcement and can compromise its legitimacy. If police forces in the United States are to regain the public’s trust, any serious discussion of policing practices—including police rules, training standards, reform efforts, and legal frameworks—must be part of a new consensus committed to uniting the American public around human dignity.
EDITOR'S NOTE APPENDED (July 30, 2020)
The version of this article that appears in the September/October print edition incorrectly expresses the statistic used to measure the rate of killing by law enforcement officers according to country. The rate is expressed in killings per ten million residents, not per one million residents.
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