Why police don't pull guns in many countries

More-rigorous training and better community relations limit police shootings in Germany, Britain, Canada, and other nations. Lessons for the United States. 

Olivia Harris/REUTERS/File
Police guarded the entrance to Downing Street during a rally in London protesting a proposed attack on Syria in 2013. Most members of London's Metropolitan Police force still don't carry guns.

The officer, alert but cautious, pounds on the suspect’s door. “Polizei!” he says forcefully, in his native German. A man thrusts open the door and walks out. His hands are at his side, but the policeman notices a gun tucked into the man’s belt. He pulls out his own firearm in response. He then moves briskly backward, coaxing the man to place his weapon on the ground.

The cop is commended for his actions.

The next officer up bangs on the same door. “Polizei!,” he says. This time the person walks out carrying a baton, not a gun. So the cop doesn’t pull out his pistol. He brandishes instead a can of pepper spray – a reflex response that also garners praise afterward.

The scene here in what looks like an outdoor movie set seems as if it would be basic enough training at almost any police academy in the world. But today’s course for the new recruits in the Ruhr Valley in western Germany represents just one small part of an educational process that will last for three years, during which the officers will be drilled in alternatives to pulling a trigger. Today’s shooting training is subtitled, tellingly, “Don’t shoot.” And it’s far from the only lesson they’ll receive in restraint. Each recruit earns a bachelor’s degree as part of basic police training – a requisite before getting a badge and a beat.

Those in charge of this vast complex in Selm, in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, say the rigorous education standards help to widen an officer’s vision when stress narrows it – when he or she has only seconds to consider how to confront a menacing suspect. 

“In every head of every policeman there is the aim not to shoot,” says Col. Uwe Thieme, the four-star senior police director at the state’s office for education, training, and human resources. “We try to make all police officers recognize that you are not a good guy if you are shooting. You are a good guy if you are not shooting.”

Their message is sinking in. In a nation grappling with neo-Nazism, new displays of intolerance against immigrants, and the threat of Islamic terrorism, German police rarely pull their guns. So far this year researchers have tallied four fatal shots fired by police. In the United States, there have been more than 400.

Nor is Germany alone. Around the world, police shootings are a rarity in many industrialized nations – even some with serious crime problems. For instance:

  • Canada recorded an average of 12 fatal police shootings a year between 1999 and 2009. 
  • British police fired their weapons on just 51 occasions between 2003 and 2013. 
  • In Japan, the last time a suspect was shot by a police officer was in 2012.

Now, as a handful of highly publicized police shootings fray already taut relations between police and black communities in the US, experts and law enforcement authorities are searching for ways to solve a pressing social problem – and wondering whether other nations might hold lessons in how to do it.

The US, to be sure, is a different country. Some argue that the ubiquity of guns in America is a major reason that many seemingly innocuous incidents escalate into fatal shootings. At the same time, racial tensions in the US are more pronounced than in many other countries. Yet analysts believe that other nations have adopted a number of practices that contribute to less-contentious relations between police and residents – and might make a difference on US streets. These range from more-rigorous police training, to changing the way officers interact with residents, to requiring more education for cops. 

“In Germany, a gun is not sexy; it is not part of [a police officer’s] masculinity...,” says Joachim Kersten, a professor at the German Police University in Muenster, noting that knowledge is the key to defusing tense situations. “If [police] have to be dominant in a situation, they don’t need a gun for that.”

•     •     • 

To this day, one of the most curious spectacles in all of policing is the sight of a British bobby, sans weapon. 

In the 1990s, as American cities were adopting the “broken windows” theory of crime-fighting – the idea that clamping down on minor infractions will help stamp out major ones – Britain began debating more-aggressive methods of policing, too. Yet, with few exceptions, a “zero tolerance” approach didn’t prove popular with British police, who viewed it as heavy-handed and indiscriminate. In fact, police in London were taught from the beginning to be anything but aggressive.

The bobbies – the name given to the Metropolitan Police – were created in 1829 by Home Secretary Robert Peel at a time when the military was feared. The police force, at its core, was, and still is, seen to serve the community and fight crime by consent, rather than to serve the state. That’s why bobbies were given a smart blue uniform, not red, the color of the militia’s. Even today, they can be seen in Prussian helmets carrying, notably, batons not guns.

The threat of terrorism, not to mention the number of guns flourishing on the black market, has sparked a recurring national debate about whether Britain’s police should begin to carry firearms. But the police themselves have been the first to oppose such a move, even in the heat of the London bombings in 2005. A survey by the Police Federation in 2006, the latest available, found that 82 percent of its 47,238 members did not want officers to be routinely armed on duty, despite almost half saying their lives had been “in serious jeopardy” during the previous three years.

“Having police officers patrolling neighborhoods and being routinely armed could be seen as a more military type of police service, which is unlikely to be supported by either the police or the public,” says Steve White, a former firearms officer and chair of the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers.

Nevertheless, the image of the cheerful bobby in Britain has taken a hit in recent years – as the force has been accused of discrimination and acting with impunity. Police killings in Britain are extremely rare, but when they happen, they’ve sparked riots on the scale of what America has seen in Ferguson, Mo., and in Baltimore. The slaying of gang member Mark Duggan in 2011 led to protests in North London that spread across the country.

But such incidents only tend to reinforce the belief among many British residents that guns are not the solution. “Violence breeds violence,” says Patsy McKie, a mother of three whose youngest son, Dorrie, was killed in August 1999 during a spate of shootings in Manchester, and “criminals and drug dealers would want to defend themselves if they thought policemen were always carrying guns.” 

So Britain has worked out a solution that is largely viewed as the right balance between keeping policing community-oriented and keeping the nation safe, says Peter Squires, professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton. While most “bobbies on the beat” do not carry guns, armed police are never far away. Armed response teams and vehicles often patrol or are on standby. It’s the classic “British compromise,” he says.

•     •     • 

Yet even where guns are routinely carried, use of them is far rarer in Europe and some other English-speaking countries than in the US. Many experts link that partly to education and pay, which have turned policing into a well-respected career with prestige and perks. In the US, police training lasts on average 19 weeks. In much of Europe that would be unthinkable, says Mr. Kersten. German police, for example, train for at least 130 weeks.

In fact, since 2008 in North Rhine-Westphalia, becoming a police officer means a stint at a university, sitting in law classes, learning about the cultural customs of Muslims, and debating ethics. 

Outside the classroom, during training activities such as target practice, recruits are surrounded by messages urging prudence. “Super shooting, I hope you never need it in real life,” reads one poster at the facility in Selm. Another lists the number of times police fired their guns each year up to 2010. In that year, there were 9,450 shootings. Of those, 9,342 involved animals.

The lengthy training regimen in Germany doesn’t seem to discourage people from wanting to become cops, either. Some 8,000 candidates competed to join North Rhine-Westphalia’s 40,000-strong force. Only 1,640 spots were available.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s emphasis on higher education was identified as a “best practice” that could be applied to police departments in the US by the RAND Corp., a think tank, and the Bureau of Justice Assistance, an arm of the US Department of Justice, in 2012. “It’s in everyone’s interest for police out there to have bachelor’s degrees,” says Rob Davis, the chief social scientist at the Police Foundation in Washington, who co-wrote the report.

•     •     • 

Money is another factor that many experts believe could help improve the quality and professionalism of police forces. In few places is that strategy more apparent than in Canada, where police command some of the best law enforcement salaries in the world. Pay there often tops six figures a year. 

Figures from Statistics Canada, a government agency, show that police officers are paid on average more than many well-respected white-collar professionals, including elementary school teachers, registered nurses, and social workers – all of whom must have college degrees, unlike police. A government list of public employees earning more than $100,000 in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, revealed that more than half of the Toronto Police Service earns six figures when counting overtime pay.

That has drawn men like Sgt. Peter Leon to its ranks. He joined the Toronto police force 27 years ago, the summer after graduating from a university with a degree in history and political science. He says police officers view their work as a career rather than a job, with good benefits and opportunities to advance. “Everybody comes on as a frontline uniform patrol officer, and there’s opportunities to specialize in different things,” he says.

The force here, like elsewhere, is not without its controversies. Some high-profile accusations of abuse in Canada in recent years have sparked calls for increased accountability and led the Toronto Police Service to launch a pilot program in May that entails 100 officers wearing body cameras, just like many of their US counterparts.

But higher salaries might be just as effective in curbing police misconduct as a video lens. Money can attract recruits with “soft skills” and postsecondary education, says Irwin Cohen, Royal Canadian Mounted Police research chair at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia. Departments want officers with these qualities because they are better able to deal with confrontation and the public. 

“Now police are recruiting people with great communication skills and empathy skills and [who] have a good understanding of psychology and sociology because we’re realizing more and more that that’s the more effective kind of police officer,” he says. “Your most important tools as a police officer are usually not the ones that are on your belt anymore, but that are in your brain.”

 •     •     •

One of the main recommendations to come out of a commission appointed by the Obama administration in the wake of the latest law enforcement crisis is a revival of “community policing.” In many ways, Japan has been perfecting this concept since 1874. Proof of this sits off a main street in Sakura, on the outskirts of Tokyo.

There the koban, a mini police station, is located near the railway station, a bank, a bakery, and a bento shop. It is nothing special. It’s even a bit drab. But like the 6,000 other kobans across Japan, its doors are transparent, so visitors can peer in and police peer out.

Locals in Sakura say they are accustomed to seeing one or two officers constantly manning it. And even in an age of GPS and Google Maps, visitors often come in asking for directions, helping to build “relations of trust between police and a community,” says Akihiro Onagi, a professor of criminal law at Hokkaido University. Police officers and members of neighborhood associations “are acquainted with each other,” Mr. Onagi says. It’s a main reason, he says, Japan’s cops hardly ever fire their guns. In fact, they did so on only six occasions last year – none deadly. 

Japanese police officers won’t even reach for their guns if they get hurt, says Hidehiko Sato, a former commissioner general of the National Police Agency. When they do, it is only because “they have absolutely no other means.”

It doesn’t hurt that Japanese police rarely find themselves in threatening situations to begin with. They are working in one of the least violent societies in the world, not to mention one of the most homogeneous. Japan has the globe’s second lowest homicide rate after Singapore, according to United Nations figures, with 370 homicides in 2013, compared with 16,121 in the US.

Community-police relations are also more peaceful because, in Japanese society, citizens defer to the authority of law enforcement officers. “Many Japanese people tend to believe what authorities say,” notes Koji Harada, a former police chief at the Kushiro branch of the Hokkaido Prefectural Police. “I strongly believe that is a legacy of the centralized feudalism in the Edo Period [1603 to 1868].” 

But a society still fixated on hierarchies also helps keep police power in check. A police officer involved in an unjustified shooting would be automatically demoted, Onagi says. The officer and even the person’s bosses “would feel an invisible pressure and be often relegated to a lower position,” he adds.

 •     •     •

Still, policing by nature is always going to involve some tension between cops and residents. In many Latin American countries, such as Brazil, where standards are often low and the consequences for misconduct nonexistent, police kill far more suspects than their American counterparts. Even in countries with relatively few shootings, authorities face challenges.

In France, for instance, many Muslims harbor little trust in the police. This is particularly true among the poorer immigrants living in the banlieues, or outer suburbs, of major cities.

On a recent evening, as thick rain clouds menaced the sky, a group of protesters gathered in a Parisian banlieue to protest a judge’s acquittal of the police in an infamous case from 2005: Several teenagers fleeing police ran into a utility substation and two of them were electrocuted. Their families wanted the police to be held responsible for their deaths. “There is no accountability,” argues Moroccan-born Farid El Yamni, an engineer, who says that his brother was killed in 2012 by French police.

Studies show the French trust their police less than people in some other European countries, including Britain and Germany, trust their own police forces. “The French police are not predominantly preoccupied with their relationship to the people but their relationship to the state,” says René Lévy, the director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research, who wrote the book “History of the French Police.” 

As a rush of asylum seekers and economic migrants arrive in Europe, fleeing war and poverty in their own countries, many believe the police-citizen strains will only increase. In Germany, a recent case of police abuse against migrants in Hanover generated national scrutiny.

Yet even the German police’s toughest critics say this case is an exception. Alexander Bosch, who heads the policing and human rights section for Amnesty International in Berlin and trains police throughout Germany, says that, even though racial profiling is a common problem, the “German police are quite good.” They regularly rank in surveys as the nation’s most trusted institution.

In a gritty section of Dortmund, a major city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Abir Hichem, who is Moroccan, walks down a street lined with teahouses and Internet cafes. As a minority, he says he trusts the police. If he had a problem, he’d turn to them.

Lawyer Norbert Zohn is complimentary of cops, too. In fact, he says something that would surely be envied in many American cities. “The presence of police officers does lead to calm,” he says. “It makes you feel safer.”

Contributing to this report were Ian Evans in London, Valentina Jovanovski in Toronto, and Takehiko Kambayashi in Sakura, Japan.

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