Policing policies have been under scrutiny in the United States following a number of recent, highly publicized cases of police brutality and killings. Following the death of George Floyd, a Black American, who was brutally murdered by a white police officer in plain view, police reform, defunding, and systemic racism have been topics of serious discussion, both locally and nationally. Other developed democracies, such as the United Kingdom, Norway, and Finland, have not experienced the level of police killings as has been seen in the U.S. (Rael, 2022). One must look at current policing practices in other countries, as well as consider cultural differences, to determine how policing can change for the better in the United States.
How Policing Practices Differ
In terms of policing practices, there are several significant differences between the U.S. and other developed countries. In the U.K., Norway, and Finland, most police officers do not carry guns (Rael, 2022). In Finland and Norway, police officers must get special permission to use their guns. In the U.K., only certain police units are armed with guns. Finland has strict protocols against use of deadly force. Chokeholds or applying pressure on an individual’s neck or throat are specifically banned in most European countries. These countries also have much more stringent qualifications with regard to becoming a police officer and the training involved. For instance, in Norway, only qualified, top candidates are chosen to serve. They must complete three years of education and training that result in a bachelor’s degree, as well as undertake an additional 50 hours of operational training every year following. Finland also requires that prospective police officers study policing in college, earn a degree in criminal justice or the like, and spend some training time interning with a local police force.
In contrast, the average time spent learning how to be a police officer at a police academy in the United States is only 21 weeks or less than six months (Rael, 2022). Further, training is not consistent across police academies in the U.S. as there is no national standard, although, research shows that over three fourths of policing education in the U.S. is learning firearm skills. Conversely, less than one fourth of police training in the U.S. is spent on de-escalation and crisis intervention. It is only recently that local governments in the United States have considered deploying mental health professionals with and without police to deal with situations that involve people experiencing behavior health crises, whereas, Norway, Finland, and Sweden have been doing this for years.
In Canada, policies are also changing to encourage community-oriented public safety. In 2019, for example, Ontario passed the Community Safety and Policing Act mandating all municipalities in the province to develop a Community Safety and Well-being Plan (City of Toronto, 2021). The plan would establish a more collaborative approach between police services and other local service providers, such as social services, mental health services, youth services, and education. The hope is that if there is more of a focus on preventative measures, there will be less reliance on traditional police services. Similarly, communities in Manitoba have adopted community mobilization frameworks to develop strategies for less police-focused public safety (Gorkoff et al., 2021).
When it comes to public safety and policing policy-making, one could say the key stakeholders are extensive. First and foremost, there are the community members who, historically, have been marginalized and discriminated against by the traditional system of policing, such as people of color. Second, are the public agencies and providers of public safety: local government, law enforcement, social services, healthcare services, recovery services, the criminal justice system, and education system. Third, is the public at large, including community residents, businesses, neighborhood groups, etcetera. Politically, this is an important group of stakeholders as public opinion can sway political movements, politicians, and political will.
Implementation of policing policies is particularly challenging in the U.S. since there are no national standards for licensing or certification of peace officers (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2020). Each state establishes its own standards. As might be expected, some states have stricter requirements than others. While associations, such as the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, may provide guidance for minimum standards, these standards are not mandatory. Education and training requirements for peace officers vary widely from state to state, and even locally. In addition, there are multiple criminal codes in the U.S. – there is a federal criminal code and each state has its own criminal code. Unlike the U.S., there is only one criminal code in Canada (Government of Canada, 2021). This allows for standardized police training, police practices, and investigative policies across the provinces and territories.
Policy Dynamics, Key Planning Issues, and Current Events
Communities across the U.S. have been discussing reimaging the police since the protests and riots of 2020. While the initial reaction was to defund, more recently, and primarily due to a rise in crime, mayors of big cities are looking to increase spending on police (NBC News, 2022). The question is, then, can police services remain funded and the community still see positive change? Can the U.S. adopt some components of policing policies employed in the U.K., Finland, Norway, and/or Canada, or is it an all or nothing proposition?
Rael (2022), in discussing what America can learn from its European counterparts, notes three takeaways: one, the U.S. should allocate more funds to social services and less for policing, two, the U.S. should provide advanced police training and education, and three, the U.S. should implement police oversight authorities. The first point supposes a false choice – it assumes that much-needed funds for social services can only come from funds that were allocated to policing. However, depending upon local and state budget priorities, both can be fully funded and collaboration between police and service providers can still be encouraged or mandated. The second and third points are more critical ones to consider. As discussed earlier, police in the United States do not receive sufficient training and education, particularly, when it comes to use of force and de-escalation. Rather than defunding police, there should be discussions about increasing funding specifically for training and education. In addition, the federal government should consider implementing federal policies to set minimum standards for training, police practices, and investigative policies, so there is some level of standardization across the states. Implementing police oversight authorities (or enforcement) at a national level, to ensure that those minimum federal standards are met across the states, would be essential.
Although much can be learned from other countries regarding policing policies and practices, there are logistical differences that must be considered. For instance, the United States does not have one criminal code – it has 50. Training and oversight also varies by state. Further, representatives of the 50 states of the United States have yet to partake in critical conversations about a national gun control policy, immigration policy, reparations policy, addressing systemic racism, or improving education. In order to move forward with reimagining the police on a national level, these topics must be included in the discussion. For instance, it would not make sense to require police to be unarmed when gun violence in the United States is higher than any other country (BBC News, 2022). National politics aside, communities should consider incorporating community safety and well-being into their own public safety plans. Public safety needs to involve a multifaceted approach involving community policing, social services, education, and health care. However, it does not mean decreasing the number of sworn personnel. It means giving police departments the resources they need to do their jobs more efficiently, more effectively, and in a way that is more community-oriented.
BBC News. (2022). America’s gun culture in seven charts. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41488081
City of Toronto. (2021). SafeTO: A community safety & well-being plan. https://www.toronto.ca/community-people/public-safety-alerts/community-safety-programs/community-safety-well-being-plan/
Gorkoff, K., Bartlett, N., Heringer, R., Yavuz, M., & D’Sena, N. (2021). Networked architectures of crime prevention: Community mobilization in Manitoba. Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, 63(3/4), 89–111. https://doi.org/10.3138/cjccj.2021-0008
Government of Canada. (2021). The criminal code of Canada. https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/ccc/index.html
National Conference of State Legislatures. (2020). Law enforcement certification and discipline. https://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/policing-oversight-and-new-legislation.aspx
NBC News. (2022). How Democrats went from defund to refund the police. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/democrats-went-defund-refund-police-rcna14796
Rael, A. J. (2022). Shifting the culture: What the United States can learn from European policing practices. Tulane Journal of International & Comparative Law, 30(1), 195–213.