Why Do U.S. Police Officers Use More Excessive Force Against Civilians Than Many European Countries and What Can Be Done?

By Abbie Carver

This year, allegations of police violence and use of excessive force have generated many disturbing headlines.[1] So far this year, 807 people have been shot and killed by police officers.[2] Although there is no federal database that reports police violence,[3] studies suggest that in 2015, police killed a total of 1,152 people in the U.S.[4] Many of these cases involved questionable deaths of young black men.[5]  For example, in August of 2014, teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri.[6] In November 2014, twelve year old Tamir Rice was shot by Cleveland, Ohio police when he was playing with a toy pistol.[7]

Neither police officers in these cases were indicted.[8] In the United States, it is possible for an officer to be sued for an intentional tort; negligence; a violation of the Civil Rights Act - 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983; and be charged under both state and federal criminal codes. Id. However, despite the persistent problem of police officers’ excessive use of force, courts continue to avoid second-guessing police actions and only sanction severely egregious misconduct.[9]

American police are 18 times more lethal than Danish police and 100 times more lethal than Finnish police.[10] In addition, American police kill significantly more frequently than police in France, Sweden and other European countries.[11] Paul Hirschfield, a scholar of sociology and criminal justice studied police violence in both Europe and the United States and attempted to identify the root causes of the high rates of police lethality in the U.S.[12] First, Hirschfield suggests that most state laws in the U.S. make it relatively easy for adults to purchase guns; therefore, American police are “primed to expect guns.”[13] Unsurprisingly, the study found that American civilians armed with weapons (even non-lethal weapons) were more likely to be killed by police.[14] However, the availability of weapons is not unique to the United States; although knife violence is a persistent problem in England, British police only killed one person wielding a knife in 2008 (who happened to be a hostage-taker).[15] Hirschfield also suggests that pervasive racism in the United States makes civilians more vulnerable to police violence.[16] However, many studies conducted in the U.S. over the past few years have suggested that racism is not the cause of pervasive police violence — that violence equally applies to all American races.[17] Regardless of the cause of fear, these findings suggest that police officers use excessive force when they fear civilians’ use of violence.[18]

Hirschfield also found that more than one fourth of deadly force victims in the U.S. were killed in small towns, although only 17 percent of the U.S. population lives in these towns.[19] In Europe, small towns and cities employ municipal police who are generally unarmed and lack arrest authority.[20] In some countries, such as Britain, Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand, officers are unarmed when they are on patrol.[21] “‘The practice is rooted in tradition and the belief that arming the police with guns engenders more gun violence than it prevents.’”[22] In contrast, British police officers have considered themselves to be guardians of citizens, who should be easily approachable; 82% of British police do not want to be armed.[23] Hirschfield believes that part of the problem is that the United States fosters police cultures that emphasizes bravery and aggression.[24]

Some activists have argued that gun control laws in the United States should encourage disarmament of both United States citizens and law enforcement, modeled after many European countries.[25] However, “[m]ost experts agree, however, that it would be counterproductive to suddenly disarm U.S. police officers without addressing the origins of crime.”[26]

In the alternative, the United States could adopt a more stringent deadly force standard. In 1989, the United States Supreme Court deemed it constitutionally permissible for police to use deadly force when they reasonably perceive imminent and grave harm.[27] Only 38 American states have laws regulating police and the use of deadly force and almost all of the laws are as permissive as the Supreme Court precedent.[28] In contrast, European countries must conform to the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires all signatories to permit deadly force only when “absolutely necessary” to achieve a lawful purpose.[29] Specific laws in each European country may require additional, more stringent standards; for example, Finland and Norway require police to obtain permission from a superior officer before shooting anyone.[30]

While working towards laws that disarm both citizens and police, the United States may benefit from passing legislation permitting police officers to use deadly force only when absolutely necessary — just as required by the European Convention on Human Rights.

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[1] John Wihbey & Leighton Walter Kille, Excessive or reasonable force by police? Research on law enforcement and racial conflict, Journalist’s Research, http://journalistsresource.org/studies/government/criminal-justice/police-reasonable-force-brutality-race-research-review-statistics (last updated July 28, 2016).

[2] Fatal Force, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2016/ (last updated Nov. 6, 2016).

[3] Anna Almendrala, Be Wary Of Studies That Deny Racial Bias In Police Shootings, Huffington Post (July 27, 2016), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/police-shootings-studies-racial-bias_us_5796f2d8e4b02d5d5ed2b4aa.

[4] 2015 Police Violence Report, Mapping Police Violence, http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/2015/ (last visited Nov. 6, 2016).

[5] Id.

[6] Wihbey & Kille, supra note 1.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.; Jack Ryan, Overview of Police Liability, Legal & Liability Risk Management Institute, http://www.llrmi.com/articles/legal_update/liabilityoverview.shtml (last visited Nov. 6, 2016).

[10] Paul Hirschfield, Why American Cops Kill So Many Compared To European Cops, Huffington Post (Nov. 30, 2015), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/american-cops-lethal_us_565cde59e4b079b2818b8870.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] See id.

[18] See id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Rick Noack, 5 countries where most police officers do not carry firearms — and it works well, Washington Post (July 8, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/02/18/5-countries-where-police-officers-do-not-carry-firearms-and-it-works-well/.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Hirschfield, supra note 8.

[25] Noack, supra note 17.

[26] Id.

[27] Hirschfield, supra note 8

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.