The history of policing in America is somewhat unique. As WUWM explored in June, the organizations that operate as our law enforcement were forged before the Civil War, where local patrols were mandated to return stolen property: runaway Black slaves.
But many other countries have radically different approaches to law enforcement that aren’t influenced by the unique racial and economic politics of the United States.
Gary Potter is a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies and the author of The History of Policing in the United States. He says European police do a better job of law enforcement because they have common standards and a more robust education.
"Police officers there have to go to three years of police college. It’s real college. And then two additional years where they don’t have arrest powers or guns. They have to work in the community and adapt to the community. That makes a huge difference," says Potter.
He also mentions that many European countries have a set of standards for how to recruit, hire, and educate police. Whereas in the United States, each police force has the ability to make their own decisions regarding these practices.
Since the killing of George Floyd, many have asked why former officer Derek Chauvin was employed with the Minneapolis Police Department because of the 18 complaints filed against him. This is not uncommon in larger city police forces, according to Potter.
“In the big cities, there’s actually a problem to some degree recruiting qualified applicants and that’s why we see police who have been disciplined or fired in one city, be hired in another city that is having trouble recruiting," Potter says.
Use of force is also quite different between Europe and the United States. “Use of force is extremely rare in Europe. In all six Scandinavian [countries], there have been over the last 10 years only 10 examples of death in police custody,” he says. In the U.S., 576 people have been killed by police officers this year alone.
Lack of use of deadly force does not mean higher rates of crime. According to Potter, the murder rate in Norway is .53 per 100,000 people and is 5 per 100,000 people in the United States. “Clearly, their policing works and ours doesn’t,” he says.
The difference Potter says is in how the police view their role in the community. In the United States, there is a culture of punishing people. In the Scandinavian countries, it is about solving a problem. He says if you are caught with illegal drugs in the U.S., you will be arrested and possibly serve time in jail. In Scandinavian countries, the police will take you to a drug rehabilitation service, without jail time.
These countries have focused on fixing the problems that cause crime. “You’re never going to stop crime with policing, you’re never going to stop crime with punishment and retribution. The only way to stop crime is by eliminating the problems that underly it. [Scandinavian countries] have done that,” says Potter.