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Why Do American Cops Kill So Many Compared to European Cops?

By: , Posted on: December 9, 2015

NYC police prepare for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, 2015. Andrew Kelly/REUTERS
NYC police prepare for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, 2015. Andrew Kelly/REUTERS

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first degree murder November 24 in the death of Laquan McDonald. A video released by police shows Van Dyke shooting the teenager 16 times.

Van Dyke is an extreme example of a pattern of unnecessary deadly force used by US police. American police kill a few people each day, making them far more deadly than police in Europe.

Historic rates of fatal police shootings in Europe suggest that American police in 2014 were 18 times more lethal than Danish police and 100 times more lethal than Finnish police, plus they killed significantly more frequently than police in France, Sweden and other European countries.

As a scholar of sociology and criminal justice, I recently set out to understand why rates of police lethality in the US are so much higher than rates in Europe.

More guns and aggression

Such massive disparities defy a simple explanation, but America’s gun culture is clearly an important factor. Unlike European nations, most states make it easy for adults to purchase handguns for self-defense and to keep them handy at nearly all times.

Acquiring guns illegally in the US is not much harder. About 57% of this year’s deadly force victims to date were allegedly armed with actual, toy or replica guns. American police are primed to expect guns. The specter of gun violence may make them prone to misidentifying or magnifying threats like cellphones and screwdrivers. It may make American policing more dangerous and combat-oriented. It also fosters police cultures that emphasize bravery and aggression.

Americans armed with less-lethal weapons like knives – and even those known to be unarmed – are also more likely to be killed by police.

Less-lethal weapon holders make up only about 20% of deadly force victims in the US. Yet the rates of these deaths alone exceed total known deadly force rates in any European county.

Knife violence is a big problem in England, yet British police have fatally shot only one person wielding a knife since 2008 – a hostage-taker. By comparison, my calculations based on data compiled by fatalencounters.org and the Washington Post show that US police have fatally shot more than 575 people allegedly wielding blades and other such weapons just in the years since 2013.

Racism helps explain why African Americans and Native Americans are particularly vulnerable to police violence. Racism, along with a prevailing American ideology of individualism and limited government, helps explain why white citizens and legislators give so much support to controversial police shooters and aggressive police tactics and so little tocriminals and poor people.

Not racism alone

A German federal police officer in Berlin, November 24 2015. Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS

But racism alone can’t explain why non-Latino white Americans are 26 times more likely to die by police gunfire than Germans. And racism alone doesn’t explain why states like Montana, West Virginia and Wyoming – where both perpetrators and victims of deadly force are almost always white – exhibit relatively high rates of police lethality.

An explanation may be found in a key distinguishing characteristic of American policing – its localism.

Each of America’s 15,500 municipal and county departments is responsible for screening applicants, imposing discipline and training officers when a new weapon like Tasers are adopted. Some underresourced departments may perform some of these critical tasks poorly.

To make matters worse, cash-strapped local governments like Ferguson, Missouri’s may see tickets, fines, impounding fees and asset forfeitures as revenue sources and push for more involuntary police encounters.

Dangers in small places

More than a quarter of deadly force victims were killed in towns with fewer than 25,000 people despite the fact that only 17% of the US population lives in such towns.

By contrast, as a rule, towns and cities in Europe do not finance their own police forces. The municipal police that do exist are generally unarmed and lack arrest authority.

As a result, the only armed police forces that citizens routinely encounter in Europe are provincial (the counterpart to state police in the US), regional (Swiss cantons) or national.

What’s more, centralized policing makes it possible to train and judge all armed officers according to the same use-of-force guidelines. It also facilitates the rapid translation of insights about deadly force prevention into enforceable national mandates.

In the US, the only truly national deadly force behavioral mandates are set by the Supreme Court, which in 1989 deemed it constitutionally permissible for police to use deadly force when they “reasonably” perceive imminent and grave harm. State laws regulating deadly force – in the 38 states where they exist – are almost always as permissive as Supreme Court precedent allows, or more so.

A different standard

Annual fatal police shootings per million residents. Data are based on most recent available. US: 2014; France: 1995-2000; Denmark: 1996-2006; Portugal: 1995-2005; Sweden: 1996-2006; Netherlands: 2013-2014; Norway: 1996-2006; Germany: 2012; Finland: 1996-2006; England & Wales: 2014. CC BY

By contrast, national standards in most European countries conform to the European Convention on Human Rights, which impels its 47 signatories to permit only deadly force that is “absolutely necessary” to achieve a lawful purpose. Killings excused under America’s “reasonable belief” standards often violate Europe’s “absolute necessity” standards.

For example, the unfounded fear of Darren Wilson – the former Ferguson cop who fatally shot Michael Brown – that Brown was armed would not have likely absolved him in Europe. Nor would officers’ fears of the screwdriver that a mentally ill Dallas man Jason Harrison refused to drop.

In Europe, killing is considered unnecessary if alternatives exist. For example, national guidelines in Spain would have prescribed that Wilson incrementally pursue verbal warnings, warning shots, and shots at nonvital parts of the body before resorting to deadly force. Six shots would likely be deemed disproportionate to the threat that Brown, unarmed and wounded, allegedly posed.

In the US, only eight states require verbal warnings (when possible), while warning and leg shots are typically prohibited. In stark contrast, Finland and Norway require that police obtain permission from a superior officer, whenever possible, before shooting anyone.

Not only do centralized standards in Europe make it easier to restrict police behavior, but centralized training centers efficiently teach police officers how to avoid using deadly weapons.

The Netherlands, Norway and Finland, for example, require police to attend a national academy – a college for cops – for three years. In Norway, over 5,000 applicants recently competed for the 700 annual spots.

Three years affords police ample time to learn to better understand, communicate with and calm distraught individuals. By contrast, in 2006, US police academies provided an average of 19 weeks of classroom instruction.

Under such constraints, the average recruit in the US spends almost 20 times as many hoursof training in using force than in conflict de-escalation. Most states require fewer than eight hours of crisis intervention training.

Desperate and potentially dangerous people in Europe are, therefore, more likely than their American counterparts to encounter well-educated and restrained police officers.

However, explanations of elevated police lethality in the US should focus on more than police policy and behavior. The charged encounters that give rise to American deadly force also result from weak gun controls, social and economic deprivation and injustice, inadequate mental health care and an intense desire to avoid harsh imprisonment.

Future research should examine not only whether American police behave differently but also whether more generous, supportive and therapeutic policies in Europe ensure that fewer people become desperate enough to summon, provoke or resist their less dangerous police.

The author, Paul Hirschfield, is Associate Professor of Sociology and Affiliated Professor in the Program in Criminal Justice, Rutgers University. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.  See original article here.

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  • Mark Hom

    This anti-police posting irks me on several levels. First of all, I am
    not a law enforcement officer but I completed my medical residency in a city
    that was experiencing a peak murder rate due to the crack cocaine epidemic of
    the late 1980’s. I not only saw the carnage of the death toll in the ER (the
    VAST majority being black on black shooting), but I also experienced crime first
    hand because I had to commute in the city late at night on call. I walked into
    an armed robbery at a convenience store (lucky to have survived), I was
    confronted by a mugger (who I eluded by keeping a parked car between us), and
    had my wrist grabbed by one of two homeless people in a back parking lot (my
    Aikido training saved my neck). These were all random incidents that could have
    ended very badly. I can’t imagine intentionally placing my life in danger the
    way police officers do every day. Police are the thin blue line that keep crime
    at bay and prevent total chaos and anarchy. So this posting that demonizes brave
    American policemen really bothers me.

    As a scientist, this posting shows poor science. It reads as a
    preconceived political statement veiled as research. It cherry picks data, compares
    apples to oranges, uses the exception to prove the rule, and makes preposterous
    assumptions.

    You did not mention that the state grand jury, the federal investigation,
    and civil right prosecutors exonerated former police officer Darren Wilson in
    the Ferguson shooting. They could not disprove the officer’s claim that Michael
    Brown “leaned into (Wilson’s) patrol car, punched him, reached for his gun, and
    then after running away, turned and charged at him, making Mr. Wilson fear for
    his life.”

    The Laquan McDonald shooting case is yet to be decided but is a rarity.
    “The case marks the first time a Chicago police officer has been charged with
    first-degree murder for an on-duty fatality in nearly 35 years.” I am not
    blaming the victim, but if I were to act in the same way as Laquan by taking
    PCP, behaving erratically on dangerous streets of Chicago, slash a patrol car’s
    tire, and refuse to put down my knife, I would expect serious police reaction.
    Although Laquan was walking away from the late arriving dash-cam petrol car, he
    was in close proximity to other officers and not retreating from them.

    I object to the assumption that knives and bladed weapons are less
    lethal. A few box cutters in the hands of terrorists brought down the World
    Trade Center twin towers. The commonly taught “Tueller Drill” says that a knife wielding assailant can overcome and kill a policeman (with a holstered firearm) at an arbitrary 21 feet or less.

    You did not mention the repercussions when officers are limited by the “hands
    off” policies you advocate. In wake of the Baltimore Freddie Gray riots, the mayor
    of Baltimore admitted “I’ve made it very clear that I work with the police and
    instructed them to do everything they could to make sure that the protesters
    were able to exercise their right to free speech…we also gave those who wished
    to destroy space to do that.” The result was the burning of businesses and
    looting of 27 pharmacies and 2 methadone clinics, and because of that, “There’s
    enough narcotics on the streets of Baltimore to keep it intoxicated for a year.
    That amount of drugs has thrown off the balance on the streets of
    Baltimore.”

    Both the head of the DEA and director of the FBI believe that the recent
    spike in urban crime is a result of the “Ferguson Effect” of anti-cop rhetoric and
    police pull-back on enforcement. “Chuck Rosenberg, head of the U.S. Drug
    Enforcement Administration, said Wednesday that he agrees with FBI Director
    James Comey that police officers are reluctant to aggressively enforce
    laws in the post-Ferguson era.”

    Police work is very dangerous and requires brave police officers. Your title
    image insinuates that they need to disarm and remove their protective vests to
    look less intimidating. US police officer’s need to be well armed is explained
    by the oft-studied 1986 FBI Miami shoot out when FBI agents (under-equipped with revolvers)
    faced bank robbers armed with automatic high-powered rifles and ballistic
    vests. In the current day police need to be well armed (not disarmed) to counter heavily armed
    Jihadists, street gangs, and drug cartels.

    Your dream of a gun free America is unrealistic and unconstitutional. It would only result in disarming law abiding citizens.

    One more personal experience was when I was treating a young urban male
    who shot himself in the thigh when he drew an illegal sawed off shotgun from his pants in an
    attempt to kill a police officer. I spoke to the arresting officer who I
    thought showed remarkable restraint for not firing his own weapon in self-defense.
    Of course, cases like that don’t make the headlines.

    • Ben Thompson

      As Americans are endoctrinated with the Police shoot to kill ethic im afraid the only non scientific method is to presume an officers right to take a life without a senior officer deciding first. In the UK and many other countries, just like america, violence is on the increase With knifes and guns. But the way to deal with a fire is not with fire. As a trainee forensic psychologist in the UK, I believe better training for officers and removing guns from the community would drastically help in reducing gun crime. It works, its proven and many studies have been carried out to show this.

      • Mark Hom

        The British 1774 import ban on firearms and gunpowder to America followed by the British 1774-75 confiscations of firearms and gunpowder in America is what historians believe created the armed militias and triggered the American Revolution. Nazi gun registration quickly led to gun confiscation. Many Americans feel that the first step of an oppressive government is gun confiscation and is why we are protected by the Second Amendment which states, “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Fortunately we won the war of independence and freed ourselves from British tyranny and later eclipsed the colony-based British empire. A tiny fraction of US police encounters require deadly force and in the vast majority of those cases, they are proven to be justified. Illegal use of guns is certainly a problem, but confiscating guns from law-abiding citizens and demonizing police are not viable solutions. If you have a way to coerce Jihadists, street gangs, and drug cartels to voluntarily surrender all of their guns, ammo, knives, pipe bombs, and crock pots I would love to hear it. Our police do use less lethal force when indicated, but these methods are not completely benign either. In a case reported just today, a suspect died after being pepper sprayed by police. People have also died from tasers and bean bag shotguns. When suspects are high on drugs like PCP or protected by ballistic vests, they can be immune to less lethal methods. The trend of course, is more heavily equipped criminals and terrorists.

        • Tullus

          Dear Mark; it seems to me you are a NRA member, as your arguments come straight from their list of pro-gun and anti-gunlegislation rhetoric.
          You willfully misinterpreted the facts of the above article, which you even dare to call non-scientific and in order to make it on yourself even call it “preconceived political statement veiled as research”.
          All this is in the spirit of the known NRA argumentation, making it perfectly clear where your intentions of writing your long pro-gun , pro-gun use and mostly belittling US police brutality originate from.
          The#1 ridiculous argument of the NRA: THIS WILL LEAD TO THE GOVERNMENT CONFISCATING OUR GUNS – you made here, too. THIS WILL MAKE IT HARDER FOR LAW-ABIDING CITIZENS TO OBTAIN GUNS you said so “It would only result in disarming law abiding citizens”….
          THIS WON’T ACTUALLY PREVENT SHOOTINGS OR STOP CRIMINALS FROM GETTING THEIR HANDS ON GUNS – you made that point clear above …
          So why would anyone here take your NRA rantings against an objective article of comparing the US police deadly force used , against (indeed comparable) numbers of the police forces in European States as a serious critique?
          There is a clear interest of NRA operatives, to appear “objective” even so their at times even racist intentions are seen between the lines, so you try to justify the brutal killing of a young Chicagoan man, YSe you did exactly that: you blamed the victim with claiming actions that had nothing to do at all with the shooting, this is called character assassination, which is a very typical method of the police defendants in such case (Ferguson included!) So your political intention to justify the typical GOP stance on beating up poor citizens is just as lame as always from your side – your are a self declared “scientist’ background does not change a bit your real intentions to get the police to use more force against us citize for your warped view of “law and order” – no Mr. Hom – you are not seriously scientifically arguing – you are an NRA-GOP posterboy of political gun propaganda!

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