In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by officers from the Minneapolis Police Department, American digital media has been flooded with impassioned calls to action: for an end to police brutality and the destruction of abusive structures of power. While well meaning, these platitudes often leave readers with more questions than answers.
Since its founding, the United States has relied on the oppression of minority groups to sustain itself, resulting in societal structures so deeply entrenched that they appear indestructible. As a result, these fervent calls to action appear to be delusions.
While our country plunges into chaos, our neighbors and allies look on in horror. Other countries have relatively low acts of police brutality when compared to the U.S. The facts are staggering. In Britain, police fired their weapons on solely 51 occasions between the years of 2003 and 2013. In Japan, a suspect has not been shot by a police offer since 2012. In Germany, 17 people were killed by the police last year. Conversely, in the United States 1,004 individuals were killed by police in 2019 alone.
It’s important to acknowledge, however, that Germany and Japan are largely homogenous — lacking decades long racial divides and origins of slavery. Nonetheless, what these numbers showcase is that a demilitarized police force is possible. Analyzing their police forces’ practice and culture sheds light on the reforms to fight for in the future and offers us clarity in this moment of uncertainty.
A major difference between police practices in the U.S. and Germany is the length and substance of police training. German police training lasts 130 weeks and requires the completion of a Bachelor’s degree at the Police University. In the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, there is a large emphasis on higher education in police training; their course load not only emphasizes jurisprudence, but also psychology, sociology, ethics, and training in social skills. Additionally, German police must be fluent in English as well as German, in order to communicate with the general public.
Within the U.S., requirements to become a police officer are extremely limited. Aside from training and an entry exam, some states only require 60 hours of college credit. On average, police training takes solely 19 weeks, with small variation by state. According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 111 hours of training is spent on firearms skills and self-defense practices, with only 16 hours reserved for community policing strategies and conflict management.
While some may view the German emphasis on higher education as superfluous, German officials state that the extended training and course load develop the officers’ communicative skills and diminishes biases, which is crucial in a profession which centers around social interaction. Their arguments are backed up by fact, with only 109 deaths by German police since 1998.
The U.S. desperately needs to adopt rigid federal standards for police training, ones which incorporate a robust education, with courses specifically geared towards combating ingrained racism and biases.
The Japanese police system is centered around “community policing,” meaning that the emphasis is on building ties within the communities in which they operate. This is accomplished through the utilization of “Koban,” or police boxes.
Unlike in the U.S., police forces are scattered in small numbers around communities, rather than centralized in stations. Each police box houses anywhere from one to ten officers, depending on the population density of the surrounding community. Like officers in the United States, the basic duties are primarily patrols and standing watch. However, when completing patrol they rarely use cars, rather relying on traveling by foot or bicycle in order to establish a visible presence in the community and have greater access to interactions with the public.
The most striking difference between the Japanese and American system of policing is the Japanese’s large emphasis on communication with residents of the community they serve. Firstly, Japanese officers conduct door to door visits, in which they distribute information about crime and accidents in the area, as well as listen to the concerns and requests of the residents. Secondly, the Japanese officers publish a monthly newsletter, which is distributed to households. These newsletters include information on relevant crimes and preventative measures. Lastly, the Japanese police force has instated a “police box liaison council,” which is essentially a forum for residents to address their concerns and ideas for police reforms.
While these small reforms may seem insufficient to tackle a problem as systemic and severe as police brutality in the U.S., it has proved successful when adopted in the infamously conflict ridden city of Sao Paulo. After being deemed “the most dangerous city in the world” by the United Nations, a partnership between Japan and Brazil was formed to instate the Koban system in Sao Paulo. Within 10 years, this resulted in a 40% drop in theft and robberies. The Koban system works on two fronts, by building familiarity and trust between the police force and the surrounding community they reduce the willingness of the residents to engage in crime, as well as reduce the aggression of officers when on duty.
While the concept of “community policing” has been loosely adopted in several cities in the U.S., it remains far behind the Japanese model in terms of building legitimate bonds between communities and law enforcement. Perhaps we can learn from the Koban system and reform our system into one based on mutual trust rather than intimidation and fear.
The most stark difference in the United Kingdom’s policing practices is their lack of guns. 90 percent of police officers in London complete their daily duties unarmed, instead relying on mace, handcuffs and battens to ensure order. While these unarmed police officers patrol, armed response teams are scattered across the city; they are strategically placed so that they can react if needed.
This policy stems from the Metropolitan Police of London’s guiding concept of “policing by consent,” rather than force; it is centered around forming a symbiotic relationship with their community. They believe that the basis to forming this relationship is the absence of visible weapons.
While the concept of unarmed police officers may sound dangerous and entirely illogical, this practice is echoed in Iceland, Ireland, Norway and New Zealand, all of which boast significantly lower rates of police violence and crime in comparison to the United States.
In fact, in 2013 there were 461 “justifiable homicides” committed by American police, while there were none throughout the eternity of England. Researchers partially accredited these results to “the weapons effect,” a psychological theory which states that simply seeing a weapon makes individuals more aggressive. A study by Psychology Today notes that the mere presence of a gun makes an individual 7% more likely to engage in aggressive behavior. Additionally, the lack of a weapon reduces the chances of irrational, emotional responses in times of conflict.
It’s important to note that the main reason why disarming police officers is successful in these European countries is due to the low levels of gun ownership in comparison to the U.S. While lenient gun laws remain in effect across the U.S., disarming a large percentage of officers would be dangerous, as well as a political nonstarter.
While unrealistic for the present, what the United Kingdom’s success illustrates is a long term goal we can strive for. It demonstrates the direct link between the fight for gun control and the fight to end police brutality and hopefully will reinvigorate us in our efforts to instate aggressive gun control laws across the country.
The U.S. claims to be a global leader, yet fails to control country-wide insurrections or amend systems based on institutionalized oppression. While the issue of police brutality may seem unsolvable, looking at other global leaders’ reforms proves otherwise. By carefully constructing systems which seek to form symbiotic relationships between officers and communities, some leaders have successfully addressed the root of this problem.
So long as this issue persists, the U.S. will face both a rise in domestic strife and damage to its international reputation. The U.S. will prove itself incapable of leading the international community, as it fails to even function as a free and democratic entity. The question remains: will we learn by others’ example or continue to preserve a system which has resulted in the deaths of thousands and the outrage of millions?