Joachim Kersten, a senior research professor of criminology at the German Police University, told me that police training in Germany covers everything from how to respond to cases of domestic violence to how to disarm someone with a lethal weapon. In the latter case, he said, “the emphasis is not on using weapons or shooting.” Rather, trainees are encouraged to de-escalate, resorting to lethal force only when absolutely necessary.
This level of restraint isn’t unique to Germany—it’s a Europe-wide standard. In some European countries, the rules are stricter still: Police in Finland and Norway, for example, require that officers seek permission before shooting anyone, where possible. In Spain, police must provide verbal cautions and warning shots before resorting to deadly force. Even in circumstances where weapons aren’t used, police officers in Europe tend to be more restricted in what they can do. Chokeholds of the kind used to immobilize, and ultimately kill, Floyd are forbidden in much of Europe. Some parts of the U.S., including Minneapolis, California, and New York, have since banned chokeholds and other similar restraints as well.
“If you change the rules of engagement,” Hirschfield said, “if you make it more difficult to use deadly force, legally and through training, then police departments need to adapt” their tactics.
Part of the reason that police in Europe are loath to use lethal force is because in most scenarios, they don’t have to. Compared with the U.S., which claims 40 percent of the world’s firearms, gun ownership in most European countries is relatively rare. In Germany, “officers, with few exceptions in big cities, don’t have to expect that they will meet people who will shoot at them,” Kersten said. Indeed, a number of police officers in countries such as Britain, Ireland, and Norway aren’t armed at all.
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This is perhaps why police-related deaths tend to be more prevalent in the U.S. than in many of its peer nations. Last year, the U.S. recorded more than 1,000 killings by law enforcement, dwarfing the number of police-related deaths in Canada, with 36 in 2017; Germany, with 14 that year; and England and Wales, with three in 2018. (Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own police forces.) “There is a massive difference in the level of harm that police do in carrying out their duties in a society that, to begin with, has far more guns than Britain could ever imagine,” Lawrence Sherman, a director of Cambridge University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Policing, told me. “It creates a very different starting point.”
Even if the U.S. were to adopt similar standards to that of its European counterparts, it wouldn’t necessarily have the means to enforce them—at least not at the national level. That’s because, unlike many other similar countries, the American law-enforcement system is largely decentralized. The majority of the approximately 18,000 law-enforcement agencies across the U.S. are run at the city or county level, employing anywhere from one to 30,000 officers. The hyperlocalized nature of the system means that the standards and practices these agencies employ can vary widely. Unlike England and Wales, whose 43 police agencies are subject to the scrutiny of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, an independent body, American policing has no federal oversight authority.