Backgrounder

How Police Compare in Different Democracies

Recent killings by U.S. officers have sparked widespread calls for police reform and an end to systemic racism. Here’s how U.S. policing compares with other countries’ approaches.
New York City recruits graduate from police academy.
New York City recruits graduate from police academy. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Summary
  • Other advanced democracies organize, fund, train, arm, and discipline their police officers differently than the United States does. 
  • Many countries, including the United States, struggle with police brutality and tense relations between law enforcement and minority communities.
  • The United States far exceeds most wealthy democracies in killings by police, and officers seldom face legal consequences.

Introduction

The murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in the United States sparked a national reckoning with police brutality and systemic racism in 2020. Protesters’ calls to defund the police, ban the use of choke holds, and end practices that target minority communities prompted a public policy debate over police reform and an examination of how other countries approach policing. The trial of Derek Chauvin, the former officer convicted of Floyd’s murder, and further police violence—including the recent killings of Daunte Wright, a Black man, and Adam Toledo, a Latinx child, by white officers—have refocused attention on the issue.  

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The U.S. approach to policing differs from those of other advanced democracies, in areas including organization, funding, training, relations with minority communities, use of force, and accountability.

Do democracies organize police differently?

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Yes, and the number of police forces in the United States far surpasses those in other advanced democracies. Police systems in many countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) are more centralized than the U.S. system. Some countries, such as Sweden, have a single national force organized and overseen by the federal government. 

Others have a few national forces with differing responsibilities. France, for example, has a national force with jurisdiction over cities and another national force that focuses on rural areas, in addition to municipal police. Still others, such as England and Wales, have regional forces that enjoy some autonomy but must comply with central government standards, including on training and investigating misconduct.

The United States has about eighteen thousand law enforcement agencies, including local, state, and federal police forces. Canada, which administers police at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels, has fewer than two hundred police services, which themselves have hundreds of detachments.

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Many experts argue that standardizing training, oversight, and disciplinary procedures through a central authority, such as a state’s attorney general, could help to address issues in U.S. policing. “Centralized administration of policing makes it possible to set and enforce uniform standards throughout the police force,” says Paul Hirschfield, a sociology professor at Rutgers University who has studied policing in Europe, where most forces are centralized. 

A recent wave of legislation at the state level has helped standardize U.S. policing. However, centralization can be a challenging process. In one effort, the Netherlands consolidated its twenty-five police divisions into a national police force, but tensions remained between local and national officials. The government later admitted that the reform was too ambitious, though it continues today.

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How do countries fund their police?

Spending on law enforcement varies among similarly wealthy OECD members. At the low end, Finland spends less than 0.5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), while Hungary spends the most, at roughly 1.4 percent.

The United States spends close to 1 percent of its GDP on police. Local governments fund most of this, though state and federal governments finance their own law enforcement agencies. Activists and lawmakers have recently called to “defund” U.S. law enforcement agencies. To many people, this means diverting police funds to other services, including education, housing, mental health care, and community-led safety initiatives. 

 

A January 2021 analysis of the fifty largest U.S. cities found that, despite public pressure, more than half increased their spending on police for the 2021 fiscal year. During the November 2020 elections, no jurisdictions had ballot initiatives to directly reduce police funding. Still, voters in Los Angeles County, California, approved a measure that requires the county to spend 10 percent of its general fund budget on alternatives to incarceration, such as youth outreach programs and mental health care.

U.S. municipalities and states can receive financial and material support from the federal government. For example, the Department of Defense transfers excess military equipment to police, which has raised concerns that American police have become overly militarized. In the wake of protests over Floyd’s murder, the legislation that authorized the Pentagon’s spending for fiscal year 2021 prohibited transfers of certain equipment, including weaponized drones. Canada’s military also supplies police with equipment.

In Mexico, as in the United States, states and cities fund police forces to supplement federal law enforcement. Critics say the result is that wealthier areas have better trained and equipped forces. Australian and Western European cities generally don’t fund their own police forces. One exception is Switzerland, where many municipalities finance local departments to augment regional forces.

U.S. policing has also drawn controversy over excessive fines, fees, and asset forfeiture, a widespread practice in which departments profit from seizing the assets of citizens, many of whom are never charged with a crime. Law enforcement agencies elsewhere, including in much of Canada and the United Kingdom, also profit from asset confiscation. In some countries where corruption is rampant, officers collect bribes. To combat this problem, the country of Georgia fired and rebuilt most of its police force following the country’s 2003 revolution, though it has since experienced backsliding.

What are police responsible for?

Police perform many duties, sometimes in situations they aren’t trained for. In the United States, not only do local officers patrol communities, investigate crimes, make arrests, and issue traffic citations, they also respond to mental health crises, domestic disputes, and noise complaints. Some experts argue that this broad mandate can lead to unnecessary escalation and use of force. Researchers estimate that one in ten police calls in the United States is related to mental health. Approximately one-fifth of people shot and killed by police in 2019 showed signs of mental illness.

Some countries, as well as several U.S. cities, have sought to address this by creating specialized units to respond to mental health emergencies. In Stockholm, some responders drive a mental health ambulance. Through a similar program known as CAHOOTS in the Oregon cities of Eugene and Springfield, unarmed medics and crisis workers respond to 911 calls relating to individuals experiencing psychological crises, an approach other cities are trying to replicate. In 2019, CAHOOTS responded to twenty-four thousand calls, about 20 percent of total 911 dispatches. Other countries rely on unarmed professionals to respond to low-level crimes. In England and Wales, community support officers can fine someone who litters or confiscate alcohol from a minor, but they must ask police officers to make arrests. Experts say these and similar programs have reduced incidents of police violence.

“Just look at what police are doing right now and ask, ‘In which of these situations do I need an armed first responder?’ If we don’t need an armed first responder, why are police doing it in the first place?” says Tracey L. Meares, professor at Yale Law School and founding director of the school’s Justice Collaboratory.

What training do police undergo?

The duration and type of training varies widely worldwide. Recruits in the United States spend significantly less time in police academies than those in most European countries. Basic U.S. training programs take twenty-one weeks on average, whereas similar European programs can last more than three years [PDF]. In Finland and Norway, recruits study policing in national colleges, spending part of the time in an internship with local police, and earn degrees in criminal justice or related fields.

With hundreds of police academies, the United States lacks national standards for what recruits should learn. U.S. academies tend to emphasize technical skills rather than communication and restraint. According to a 2013 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report [PDF], academies on average spent the most time—seventy-one hours—on firearm skills, compared with twenty-one hours on de-escalation training (which teaches how to use conversation and other tactics to calm a situation without using force) and crisis-intervention strategies. In Germany, firearms training focuses on how to avoid using force. Japanese officers are trained to use martial arts.

Is police violence against civilians widespread?

Police brutality remains a problem in many advanced democracies. Officers worldwide have used aggressive means, such as rubber bullets and tear gas, to crack down on protesters, including French police during the Yellow Vests protests that began in late 2018. In October 2020, Nigerian security forces reportedly opened fire on protesters calling for police reform, killing twelve people. Police have also used deadly force when enforcing pandemic restrictions, including in Kenya.

The United States far surpasses most wealthy democracies in killings by police. U.S. police killed an estimated 7,638 people between 2013 and 2019. (According to the same database, they killed another 1,125 people in 2020.) In comparison, at least 224 people died in encounters with Canadian police between 2013 and 2019. Some countries, such as Finland and Norway, have gone years without police killings.

 

The UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials [PDF], adopted by the General Assembly in 1979, says officers should only use force as a last resort. U.S. police can legally use deadly force if they reasonably believe they or other people are in danger, but some critics have questioned whether officers can make this judgment call. Canadian law has a similar provision. In contrast, the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been ratified by forty-seven countries, permits force only when “absolutely necessary,” and individual countries more strictly regulate its use. For instance, police in most of Europe are barred from using many neck restraints, the controversial tactic that resulted in Floyd’s death.

In the United States, police are armed, increasingly with military-grade equipment. By contrast, more than a dozen other democracies generally do not arm their police with guns and may instead rely on firearm-equipped teams that can respond to high-risk situations. In Ireland, most police are not even trained to use firearms. UK police, who are usually unarmed, have themselves resisted calls for them to bear arms, in line with their philosophy of policing by consent, which maintains that police legitimacy is contingent on public approval of their actions. New Zealand’s typically unarmed police also follow this approach.

U.S. police departments often point to the country’s high rate of civilian gun ownership—more than 120 weapons for every 100 residents—to justify arming themselves. Forty-two U.S. police officers were gunned down in 2020. That same year, officers shot and killed roughly twenty-four times more civilians. All countries where police aren’t armed more tightly regulate civilian gun ownership than the United States does. In Iceland, where gun ownership is common, there has only been one documented case of a civilian killed by police in the country’s history.

How common are strained police-minority relations?

Worldwide, police often have tense relationships with minority communities. U.S. policing has a long history of discrimination. Black Americans are 20 percent more likely to have their vehicles pulled over and about three times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police. Discriminatory policing contributes to high rates of incarceration among minorities, oftentimes resulting in disenfranchisement, recidivism, and generational poverty.

 

Racial, religious, and other minorities are also stopped more often by police in much of Europe, despite generally lower crime rates among these groups. France has long struggled with rampant police targeting and abuse of Black and Arab people, which has at times sparked mass protests. Human rights activists have accused police in several OECD countries—including Greece, Italy, and North Macedonia—of arbitrarily detaining, torturing, or otherwise abusing refugees and migrants. Frequent deaths of indigenous Australians in police custody and prison have fueled outrage for decades.

New data-driven policing tools, which use technology to surveil the public and predict crime, could exacerbate racialized policing in Europe and the United States, according to anti-racism researchers. Facial recognition tools are less able to accurately distinguish between people of color, and U.S. police forces have faced allegations of perpetuating racism through data-driven profiling.

Discrimination has dampened public confidence in law enforcement. In the United States, trust in police varies by race, with Black Americans less trusting of police than others. Europeans typically trust police more than legal or political systems, though confidence in police is lower among certain minority groups than the general public. LGBTQ+ people are often wary of police. India’s Muslim communities share a distrust of police, who have been accused in recent years of failing to stop violent anti-Muslim mobs.

How have countries sought to improve police-minority relations?

Some countries have moved to diversify their forces. Some U.S. law enforcement experts say police diversity increases innovation, minimizes biases, and improves community relations. Northern Ireland, scarred by decades of conflict between the Catholic minority and Protestant majority, implemented a policy that the two groups each comprise half of its police recruits. This led to widespread trust in police by both groups, experts say, though there are still fewer Catholic officers.

Research on U.S. police has found that hiring more Black officers doesn’t necessarily reduce fatal encounters with Black civilians. Similarly, in postapartheid South Africa, which has a national police force, the government has pushed to employ more Black officers, especially in leadership positions; yet poor Black communities still suffer disproportionately from police violence.

Departments worldwide have also implemented community policing techniques to ease tensions. This includes deploying community liaisons, which in Australia work alongside officers to reduce crime and foster cross-cultural understanding and communication between police and minority groups. In Richmond, California, community policing efforts slashed crime rates and increased trust in police. Broadly, however, community policing tactics have had mixed results.

What does police accountability look like?

UN guidelines state that any effective police accountability system [PDF] must increase civilian control over the police, investigate cases of misconduct and act swiftly to address them, and reduce corruption.

Many countries rely on independent oversight bodies that have nationwide jurisdiction. In Denmark, an independent watchdog reviews all misconduct complaints and alleged criminal offenses by police. In England and Wales, police forces are legally required to refer serious misconduct cases, including any killing by an officer, to an independent watchdog. That agency also sets standards for how local departments should handle complaints, though fair-policing advocates have questioned its efficacy.

U.S. law primarily allows police departments to investigate themselves, though there are exceptions. Some states, such as New Jersey, require local departments to turn over investigations into officer-involved shootings to county or state authorities. Cities and municipalities also have their own oversight practices; during the November 2020 elections, voters in more than a dozen cities and counties approved initiatives to strengthen oversight, including by creating new bodies to review complaints or expanding the powers of existing ones. The Department of Justice (DOJ) can pressure departments to address systemic issues using consent decrees, or court-approved agreements between the DOJ and local law enforcement agencies. The DOJ signed fourteen consent decrees during the Barack Obama administration; the Donald Trump administration restricted their use, but the Joe Biden administration rescinded its predecessor’s limits on consent decrees in April 2021.

Many complainants of police abuse or misconduct never see an investigation or punishment for the officer involved. Canadian officers involved in fatal interactions are rarely charged, according to one study of such incidents between 2000 and 2017. Likewise, U.S. officers rarely face legal consequences for shooting and killing civilians; Chauvin’s convictions of murder and manslaughter for Floyd’s killing were exceptions. Police are also often shielded from lawsuits through a controversial doctrine known as qualified immunity. New York City recently moved to curtail this privilege for its police force, which is the country’s largest, and residents of King County, Washington, voted last year to require an investigation of whether an officer’s conduct caused an individual’s death. 

One strategy to prevent convicted officers from returning to the field is a national database that tracks officers’ terminations and criminal convictions. In March 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a sweeping bill named after Floyd to reduce racism in policing and to hold officers accountable, including by making it easier to prosecute them and by creating federally maintained databases to track police use of force and misconduct. The bill—which the Biden administration has called its “top priority” for police reform—now faces consideration in the Senate, where it stalled last year.

Recommended Resources

In Foreign Affairs, Laurence Ralph discusses global lessons for police reform.

This series from Eastern Kentucky University details the history of U.S. policing.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summarizes law enforcement structures in fifty-seven countries.

Vox explains alternatives to traditional police forces.

This Washington Post article describes how police tactics differ across countries.

This CFR Backgrounder compares U.S. gun policies and those of other wealthy democracies.

This CFR In Brief looks at tear gas and the politics of protest policing.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
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