Lessons from Inspector Clouseau: What America’s Police Can Learn from Europe

For an impressive 235 years, the Icelandic Police Force never killed a single citizen. That all changed on December 2, 2013, when Iceland’s law enforcement agency shot a crazed, unstable gunman. Shortly after the suspect was pronounced dead in his Reykjavik apartment, Icelandic police chief Haraldur Johannessen told reporters that the “police [regretted] the incident…and would like to extend their condolences to the family of the [gunman].” The police chief also emphasized that the officers had tried every means possible to subdue the man peacefully; using force only became necessary after he repeatedly fired his gun at the police—endangering neighbors and even hitting one policeman on the helmet.

Statistics suggest that Iceland’s “violence is the last resort” conflict resolution policy works far better than America’s perceived “gun is always an option” policy. In all of Iceland’s history, still only one person has been killed by police. In America, one person is killed by the police every eight hours. While opponents of police reform have argued that the policy difference is warranted since Iceland has less crime and fewer guns, this assertion ignores the fact that there are approximately 90,000 firearms in Iceland, which is home to only 320,000 people.

Guns are an important part of Icelandic culture, but they are also used to commit malicious crimes, just as they are in the United States. Furthermore, Iceland’s strategy of peaceful de-escalation and of limited reliance on firearms has been adopted by other countries like Britain, Spain, Norway, and Sweden—all of which have higher levels of crime than Iceland and still retain a low number of police shootings relative to the United States. With these results, a continued exoneration of America’s police ignorantly suggests that our criminals are just biologically more aggressive than our international counterparts. But such a response is erroneous. Rather, the main factors which contribute to police violence in the United States are a police applicant pool with low educational attainment levels, and limited training opportunities for current officers. All hope is not lost, however. Implementing the policies employed by some European countries can create a stronger, more trustworthy, and more effective American police force.

A Cyclical Struggle

The nature of law enforcement is changing. With the development of new technology, crime and the way to solve it has become more complicated. To master these technologies while peacefully resolving increasingly tense situations in the field, current and future police officers need a well-rounded education. This type of education imparts both exceptional technical and social skills. As police recruitment falters in the United States, many recruiters are citing low pay, a deteriorating public image, and these increased education requirements as the principal deterrents for applicants. With an inability to raise salaries and no planned strategy to combat bad public relations, departments have decided to only target educational requirements by lowering them to increase applicant pools. A prime example is Seattle’s police department which responded to record-low recruitment numbers by decreasing education requirements. This strategy has been adopted nationally, and the change has resulted in only one percent of all local police departments requiring a four-year degree and only 15 percent requiring a two-year degree.

Iceland’s mandate for increased police education makes the country’s police force a complete opposite of America’s. Instead of decreasing requirements, the Icelandic parliament passed a bill in May 2016, to close the State Police Academy and bring a “police studies” curricula to the university level. Iceland’s example of creating a more enlightened social education for the police has been embraced by other European nations as well. In Norway, officers need a three-year bachelor’s degree to graduate, and police education has increasingly focused on classes in government and law, which discuss broader topics than basic law enforcement training. In Germany, entry into their “Mittlerer Dienst” (the middle service) requires at least 10 years of total schooling, in addition to two and a half years of police academy training.

With deadly weapons in the hands of more and more criminals, Iceland has done a good job of educating their police force to approach conflicts in analytical ways instead of purely aggressive ones. The most impressive statistics to arise from these heightened requirements are the amplified enrollment numbers. In Norway, over 5,000 applicants recently competed for 700 annual spots in the Norwegian police academy. In Germany’s Rhine-Westphalia force, 8,000 candidates vied for 1,640 open spots. A stronger focus on better-educated police officers, along with increased applicants, have allowed these departments to act with their head instead of their weapons. Consequently, police shootings have decreased or remained rare in these countries.

Education’s Virtue

Europe’s proven success in increased officer education could end up being the American police’s saving grace for higher recruitment numbers. If European nations are both increasing standards and applicant numbers, it indicates that these standards are not what is deterring police applicants. These results, in addition to parallel salaries between the United States and Europe, suggest that the police’s public image might be a contributing factor to their recruitment woes. Germany’s Rhine-Westphalia police department’s focus on higher educational attainment was reasoned the “best practice” for police departments and their public image, according to the RAND Corporation and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance. This higher attainment has the potential to also benefit American police departments.

Increased police shootings and a trend toward police militarization have sparked rioting and heavy criticism from both public officials and the media. This deterioration of the police’s public image in America has deterred countless potential applicants from applying. One prominent example is in Ferguson, Missouri, which has suffered low police recruitment numbers since the death of Michael Brown.

The trend toward militarization can be stagnated, however, by a more educated police force. A recent analysis of disciplinary cases against Florida cops found that officers with only a high school education were the subject of 75 percent of all disciplinary actions, while four-year degree officers accounted for only 11 percent of such actions. Police departments across America have asked for innovative officers who have fewer administrative problems and who de-escalate conflicts—all of which contributes to a better public image. If departments truly want these types of applicants, they would be benefit from following European policies of centralizing national standards and requiring a college degree. This has the potential to allow more thoughtful and less aggressive candidates from usurping the applicant pool and tainting the police force.

Practice Makes Perfect

Successful police departments are a product of not just improved education, but also specialized training. When foreigners gasp at the low rates of crime and police shootings in European nations, they may want to consider how these crime rates are the result of better police training.

Europeans achieve responsible policing by first centralizing their police standards, which ensures that every police department and academy teaches the same material. In the Netherlands, Norway, and Finland, after receiving some form of postsecondary education, the government requires police attend a national police academy for three years to learn this centralized material. In Germany, the process takes at least 130 weeks—more than two full years of preparation. European training is longer because the departments deem it necessary to give officers an all-inclusive and thorough police training to practice communicating with emotionally disturbed individuals and to approach various scenarios through the lens of conflict resolution, rather than one of violence.

Despite the United States’ heavy reliance on police, America has one of the most untrained police forces in the Western world. In North Carolina, it takes 1,528 hours to become a licensed barber; to be a police officer it only takes 620. In Louisiana, police need only 360 hours of training, while licensed manicurists need no fewer than 500 hours. While we can all feel safe visiting a North Carolina barber or Louisiana manicurist, being properly protected by law enforcement in those states is not guaranteed. These disturbing numbers aren’t just reserved to a couple of states either. The average American police training lasts only 19 weeks. This rushed mode of training is inextricably linked to the disorganized and overly gun-reliant local American police forces. Professor Peter Kraska at Eastern Kentucky University showed that 80 percent of police paramilitary deployments were for “proactive” applicants—meaning instances of police-initiated violence, not in response to civilian violence. These deployments are employed by local police departments who don’t have the resources to appropriately respond to threats. As a result, Kraska has recorded 275 instances of “seriously botched” SWAT raids on private homes, many of which resulted in innocent civilians being killed.

While it is noteworthy that some American police departments prioritize de-escalation, these disjointed and decentralized police standards have led to the evolution of two types of police departments: those focusing on militarized force and those focusing on peaceful de-escalation. The former is primarily responsible for the increase in police shootings; the latter are departments who adhere to more European principles.

The former of the two departments is the problem. In the year 2016, the number of fatal police shootings in the United States has totaled a record 963. Countless police officers and politicians have defended these high numbers by blaming the American people’s aggression or the multitude of guns in our country. Most of these opponents use this reasoning to justify not increasing police training. But knife violence in England is a major issue despite British police only killing one person with a knife since 2013. In America, knives aren’t a major tool for violence, but our police have killed more than 575 people wielding knives since 2013. The weapons aren’t the problem, police training is.

Exhaust All Options

The sufficient time the European police use for training fosters a culture that minimizes violence and prioritizes the protection of all citizens, including alleged criminals. For the Europeans, this training supports their most crucial policy: the gun is only a last resort. In Spain, training requires that officers always fire a warning shot and aim for non-vital body parts before ever considering a lethal action; in Finland, training stresses that officers need to get permission from a superior officer before shooting. Without these centralized initiatives, many American police departments follow a path of militarization by focusing on how to protect themselves and their fellow officers, rather than the citizens they are bound to defend. This is demonstrated when the typical American police recruit will spend 58 hours trained on how to use a gun, but only eight hours learning the department’s use of force policy. This difference in police training correlates with use of force in practice.

Police departments should not have to choose between training their officers in either peace or force—both should be taught extensively. To best serve the people, American police need to know how to properly use force to protect themselves, and they should be equipped to resolve conflicts without the tools in their gun belts. These departments need to follow Europe’s example of uniting behind a centralized policy of de-escalation rather than militarization. These departments also need a policy that focuses on comprehensive training that includes working with emotionally or mentally ill people, and resolving situations peacefully. Such changes will finally begin a shift in American policing from the current “shoot first” policy to Europe’s “think before you shoot” mindset. Peaceful outcomes are not just reserved for Europe; they can happen here, too.

Image Source: Flickr/thomashawk

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