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Defunding the police: Does Europe offer lessons for the U.S.?

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 18 June 2020 16:04 GMT

FILE PHOTO: Seattle police hold batons as they form a line in front of the department's headquarters downtown during a protest calling for a 50% defunding of the Seattle Police Department and investment in community based solutions in Seattle, Washington, U.S. June 3, 2020. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson - RC222H9WT4J1/File Photo

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As calls to scale back the remit of the police mount in the United States, we spoke to experts about some alternative policing models in Europe

By Thin Lei Win

ROME, June 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Calls to "defund the police" have grown in the United States since the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in police custody.

President Donald Trump has dismissed the movement as radical. But advocates say scaling back the remit of the police and bolstering other services is viable.

We asked two policing experts about alternative models the U.S. could consider and potentially adapt.

Why it matters:-  

Since 2015, 5,400 people have been killed by U.S. police officers, according to the Washington Post, which has been tracking all fatal shootings by police.

This year alone, 429 people have been shot dead, 88 of whom were black, according to consumer data firm Statista

Even when population is taken into account, those figures stand in stark contrast to the number of fatal shootings involving police in England and Wales (3 in 2018), France (26 in 2018) and Canada (36 in 2017). 

Which European countries police differently?

Sweden

A mental health ambulance, staffed with two specialized psychiatry nurses and a paramedic, respond to emergency calls in Sweden from people with severe mental health or behavioural distress.

Before it was launched in 2015 in Stockholm, those kind of distress calls were handled by the police. Now the mental health ambulance team coordinates with police.  

A 2020 study found the team "created a safe environment and actively involved the patient in their care by creating an open and safe place for dialogue". 

In the U.S. about one in four of the people shot by police are those with mental health crises, said Dennis Kenney, a former police officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Georgia

In 2004, Georgia's newly-elected government, in a bid to tackle corruption, abolished its police force entirely and rebuilt a scaled-back version.

"By 2006, Georgia had one law enforcement agent for every 214 citizens, compared with one for every 78 citizens before the reforms," according to studies by Princeton University and the non-profit Centre for Public Impact

"Carjackings and auto thefts, once commonplace, nearly disappeared," then-President Mikheil Saakashvili wrote in a recent article. "We hadn't needed so many police. We only needed good police," he added. 

Finland 

The country has a "groundbreaking" policy called Housing First which was introduced in 2008, according to Megan O'Neill, a community policing expert at the Scottish Institute for Policing Research.

"The idea there is if someone is drug-addicted or homeless or has a chaotic lifestyle that they're given supportive housing first, and then given all the treatment they need," she said

Experts say this differs from policies in many places which focus on the homeless sorting out their own problems, be they unemployment, mental health or family breakdown, before they can get permanent accommodation. 

Long-term homelessness has gone down for 10 consecutive years, latest governmental figures showed, making it "the only country in Europe where the number of homeless people is on the decline", according to Finish non-profit Y-Foundation.   

England and Wales 

Between 2008 and 2010, England and Wales had a very large programme around neighbourhood policing, said O'Neill.

"A big part of community policing in England and Wales are police community support officers. They're paid and their job is to get to know their local communities, to patrol on foot… and certainly they can't arrest people, but they do all that engagement work," she said.

Unfortunately, the programme "came to a screeching halt in 2010, when the Conservative government came into power and cut funding to the police by 20% over the next five years", she added.

What are the differences between policing in Europe and the U.S.?

Armed versus unarmed

Most police officers and citizens in many European countries, including Britain, Ireland and Norway, are not armed and experts say this means officers are more focused on de-escalating the situation using communications and minimal violence.

Even in Iceland, where there are more than 30 firearms per 100 civilians, the police are usually not armed and so far it has had one fatal police shooting.

This is much more difficult in the U.S., where 42% of households have one or more guns, according to the GunPolicy database.

"The police have a legitimate concerns that in many, many instances… they run the risk of being the only people who are unarmed at the event," said Kenney.

Laws

The European Convention of Human Rights said police can only use deadly force when "absolutely necessary".

In contrast, police officers in the U.S. can do this if they "reasonably" perceive imminent and grave harm, according to Paul Hirschfield, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University.

Structure

The U.S. has 18,000 police departments, 90% of which have 10 or fewer officers, said John Jay's Kenney.

"So we have a lot of little-bitty police departments scattered across the country, which makes any sort of evolution of policing very problematic," he said.

"If you've got an idea you want to promote for the profession you have to sell at 18,000 different times."

Europe, particularly western continental Europe, has a more centralised model of policing with varying levels of devolution.  

Given those differences, can Europe's policing models be replicated in the U.S.?

Yes, but it won't be easy, experts say. 

To reorient policing in ways similar to Europe would be "quite an undertaking" because the United States is so vast and many Americans would object to police reform coming from centralised government, said O'Neill.

It would also be costly and requires a culture shift where rewards are based on the number of arrests, number of stop and frisk and crime rates going down, she said. 

"Having said that, the U.S. can absolutely (learn from Europe). The U.S. is a very rich country and the resources are definitely there," she added.

Kenney agrees there are many obstacles including cost.

"When you have a person in mental distress, there's no need to send somebody with a gun whose primary tool is arrest. But what we can't agree on or haven't tried to agree on is who do you send instead?"

"Frankly, the reason that we give it to the police now is because we don't want to pay for that. And so, when the bill comes due for the reform, I think we can probably expect to see some of the enthusiasm wane."

So what does "defund the police" actually mean?

For O'Neill defunding the police doesn't mean necessarily reducing the number of police, but reorienting what their purpose is and how they work with other agencies.

Kenney believes the term can be interpreted in many ways.

"What (this movement) is hopefully going to do is create a rethinking of the meaning of police, and in some jurisdictions that will lead to reform. In others, that will lead to abolition and completely restructuring," he said.

Is police reform underway in the U.S. right now?

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to reform police practices but civil rights groups and top Democrats said it was insufficient. 

Trump's order encourages police departments to employ the latest standards for use of force, improve information sharing so that officers with poor records are not hired without their backgrounds being known, and add social workers to law enforcement responses to non-violent cases, officials said.  

The order is "better than nothing but not by a tonne", said Kenney, who has studied police forces around the world.

"It converts the chokehold to a form of deadly force. That's a good thing. The only time officers would be allowed to use it would be when they'd be justified in using deadly force but that's open to an awful lot of interpretation," he said.   

Related stories:

Trump signs order on police reform after weeks of protests about racial injustice

U.N. rights body to examine 'systemic' U.S. racism and police brutality

Atlanta mayor says 'abundantly clear' review of policing needed

 

(Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink, Additional reporting by Nellie Peyton and Umberto Bacchi, Editing by Tom Finn (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org))

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