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To Protect and to Serve: Global Lessons in Police Reform

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Laurence Ralph writes in Foreign Affairs:

Public outcry over the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd earlier this year has ignited mass demonstrations against structural racism and police violence in the United States. The protests have reached every American state and spread to countries around the world; they arguably constitute the most broad-based civil rights movement in American history. Protests against the brutalization of communities of color by the U.S. criminal justice system have been growing for years, but the explosive scale of the uprising this spring and summer makes it clear that the United States has reached a national reckoning.

Most Americans now understand that their country needs a radical transformation: polls conducted in early June found that a majority of U.S. citizens support sweeping national law enforcement reforms. But as Americans embark on an urgent public conversation about policing, bias, and the use of force, they should remember that theirs is not the first or the only country to grapple with these policy questions. Many reform advocates and researchers have already begun to look overseas, pointing to countries where police training looks vastly different than it does in the United States: countries where police departments take far different approaches to the use of force or have even disarmed entirely, where criminal justice systems have adopted alternative sentencing programs, and where authorities have experimented with innovative approaches to de-escalation.

Some of these ideas could be adapted for use in the United States. For too long, a culture of American exceptionalism has been a barrier to the implementation of policies that have improved public safety around the globe. Now, the United States’ capacity to heal as a nation could very well depend on its willingness to listen and learn from the rest of the world.


If Americans and their political leaders are to glean useful lessons from the experiences of other countries, they must first examine the practice of policing in the United States and try to define—as precisely as possible—the nature and scope of the problem. The aggressive tactics that U.S. police departments employ today were shaped by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. During the late nineteenth century, the slave patrols and militias that had regulated the movement of enslaved people before emancipation coalesced into more formalized police forces, and they continued to enforce the racial hierarchy in a segregated nation. In the second half of the twentieth century, as the country slowly and often grudgingly integrated, police departments honed the tactics of those earlier eras as a new means of controlling and repressing Black Americans. In response to the protests and unrest of the 1960s, police forces developed the kinds of quasi-military techniques that Americans today have seen applied to a new generation of protesters. In recent decades, police departments have systematically harassed Black communities with stop-and-frisk methods and aggressive fines, which municipalities craved to supplement their shrinking budgets in an age of tax cuts and austerity.

This kind of policing does not simply threaten the quality of life in Black communities; it is a matter of life and death. In 2014, ProPublica published one of the most comprehensive analyses to date of racial disparities in deadly police encounters. Its examination included detailed accounts of more than 12,000 police homicides between 1980 and 2012, drawn from the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports. During this three-decade period, ProPublica found that young Black men were 21 times as likely to be fatally shot by law enforcement as were their white peers.

The ProPublica investigation went on to describe how white officers, who were responsible for 68 percent of the police killings of people of color, typically reported that they had used deadly force out of fear for their physical safety. Reliance on this rationale increased substantially after the Supreme Court’s 1985 decision in Tennessee v. Garner, which held that the police could use deadly force if a suspect posed a threat to a police officer or to others. In the four years preceding Tennessee v. Garner, “officer under attack” was cited in just 33 percent of police killings; 20 years later, over another four-year period, it was cited 62 percent of the time, eventually becoming an almost infallible legal defense for police officers who kill.

The U.S. government has not made data on police shootings available to the public since 2013, despite a number of high-profile fatal police shootings that would have made these records a matter of keen public interest. Although the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013 requires U.S. law enforcement agencies to provide basic information about the people killed while in custody, the extent to which individual police departments have complied with this mandate is unclear.

Citizen-led organizations have tried to fill the void. A group called Mapping Police Violence maintains a comprehensive, crowdsourced database on police killings in the United States, scouring social media, obituaries, and criminal records in an effort to account for every lost life. In an analysis of the more than 8,200 police killings that have taken place in the United States since January 2013, Mapping Police Violence found that African Americans were three times as likely to be killed by law enforcement as were their white counterparts. Crucially, the group’s findings contradict the common assumption that police officers kill African Americans at higher rates because they pose a greater threat: police departments of the 100 largest American cities killed unarmed Black people at a rate four times as high as the rate for unarmed white suspects. Still, in a shocking 99 percent of the cases the group analyzed, no officers were convicted of a crime.


The analysis by Mapping Police Violence also contained another revealing finding: the group compared the victim data it had compiled against published crime rates and found no correlation between levels of violent crime in American cities and the likelihood of police killings. This presents a stark contrast with the rest of the world, where correlations generally exist between crime, social instability, and police killings. The United States is a wealthy, stable outlier in the list of countries with the highest rates of police killings. In 2019, the rate at which people were killed by the police in the United States (46.6 such killings per ten million residents) put it right between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (47.8 per ten million) and Iraq (45.1 per ten million), both of which are just emerging from years of conflict. Countries with levels of police brutality comparable to that in the United States are generally far more violent places to live and include ones, such as Egypt and Iran, that are often described by human rights campaigners as “police states.”

Other factors also differentiate the United States from wealthy, stable countries with low rates of police killings. For one thing, the countries with the lowest rates, such as Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Japan, have instituted mechanisms for police oversight at the national level. Although police unions exist in countries with low levels of police violence, these unions are generally affiliated with larger organizational bodies, such as Sweden’s Confederation of Professional Employees and the German Confederation of Trade Unions, and do not have as much power to insulate officers from punishment as police unions in the United States do. Many professional groups in the United States have experienced sharp declines in union membership since the 1970s, yet American police unions remain strong, and union protection frequently makes it difficult to hold police officers accountable for misconduct.

Compared with the law enforcement infrastructures in countries that have lower levels of police violence, the U.S. law enforcement infrastructure is extremely decentralized. There are nearly 18,000 police agencies in the United States. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 July 2020 at 2:56 pm

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