Police Systems: A Comparative Analysis of the United States, Norway, Iceland and Finland

“Riot police” licensed under CC BY 2.0.

by Paul Bhekimpi Tshele, July 12, 2017

Police brutality has become a contentious topic in the United States (US). A system originally set up to be the “shepherd” of the society designed to protect citizens and monitor criminal activity has morphed into a corrupt and perilous force. Unlike Norway, Iceland, and Finland, the US police are heavily and unnecessarily armed with guns and military equipment, a situation that promotes the shooting and killing of citizens, primarily those of color. While this is presumably not the agenda of all US law enforcement officers, the unlawful killings of Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Melissa Williams and Timothy Russell demonstrate the severity of this issue. These repeated incidences of manslaughter with little or no consequences for the police not only surges anxiety and distrust among US citizens, specifically African American citizens, but they have also made it apparent that in order for police brutality to be terminated, major reform needs to happen.

US Police officers arm themselves with military weapons such as grenade launchers, M16 rifles, and machine guns, among other military gear1. This obscures the line between soldiers and police officers, creating discomfort, and in some instances, a war-like scene that inflames fear and distrust among citizens. The US government justifies these overly armed officers as a ‘scarecrow’ to society–an innocent tactic used to scare citizens into following the law. The armament of US police departments was implemented in the early 90’s through the military-transfer program1. Back then, violent crime plagued American cities and the police felt outgunned by the African American drug gangs. Today, the US police departments are still heavily armed with firepower and military gear, despite advancements in weapon technology and force. This has created a pandemic in which the police are out of control and civilians are completely powerless in situations of conflict. Some big cities use federal grant money, funded by taxpayers, to buy this military-grade gear. The South Carolina Richland County Sheriff and Captain, Chris Cowan, once said that arming the police departments “allows the department to stay in step with the criminals who are arming themselves more heavily every day”1. Why would the police wage war against the citizens they are supposed to protect? Perhaps a better use of tax dollars would be to invest in rehab facilities to reduce the drug-related crime or implement a system of screening and thorough background checks for citizens who wish to bear arms. Either of these options would effectively reduce gun violence more than fighting violence it with more violence.

In addition to the excessive armament of officers, another issue of concern is the lack of consequences for officers who abuse their power at the expense of citizens. For example, the recent case of Eric Garner, a Black man who was allegedly selling loose cigarettes when he became a victim of police carnage. The US police officer Daniel Pantaleo used excessive force on Garner despite his utterance “I can’t breathe”, and this unacceptable chokehold eventually contributed to Garner’s death. Despite the fact that Pantaleo had received multiple misconduct allegations prior to his confrontation with Garner—more than is typical for his department—he was repeatedly sent back out on the street without punishment. Furthermore, following Garner’s death, Pantaleo still received minimal punishment and he wasn’t indicted by the jury2. While it is important for police to feel they can perform their job without risk of punishment, there needs to be a system of checks and balances to ensure that if they do behave unethically or unlawfully, there are consequences. Clearly, the current system is insufficient.

Pantaleo’s, and other similar incidences can also be attributed to the lack of adequate training for police in how to engage with all citizens, amid racial disparities. According to Stephanie Nebehay of Reuters, Noureddine Amir, the chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) noted that “This is not an isolated event and [it] illustrates a bigger problem in the United States, such as racial bias among law enforcement officials, the lack of proper implementation of rules and regulations governing the use of force, and the inadequacy of training of law enforcement officials”3. The United States police are trained as if they are soldiers, and it becomes difficult for them to engage with black citizens who are often suspected of criminal activities without resorting to violence.

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The fear, insecurity, and distrust of law enforcement officers experienced by US citizens is not a universal phenomenon. In Norway, Finland, and Iceland, their police force is perceived to ensure security and uphold peace for its citizens. In Iceland, the police are punished for shooting and killing a citizen. Per Pro-Libertate, the police are sent to mandatory training and removed from their field training programs for shooting a suspect to death5. The police officers are also sent to seek grief counseling to deal with the burden of taking an irreplaceable human life. The Icelandic police do not shoot to kill suspects for public pageantry or heroism even in circumstances that can be considered justifiable and necessary. Rather, the Icelandic police protect human life without the use of guns, and “the practice is rooted in tradition and the belief that arming the police with guns engenders more gun violence than it prevents”6

Similarly, the Norwegian police officers engage with citizens in nonviolent means. The Norwegian officers only use firepower in situations of imminent threat, such as terrorist attacks. In the instance that a Norwegian officer does need to exert violence, such as shooting a suspect, they shoot to injure, not to kill. The role of the police is to protect the lives of all citizens, including the citizens engaging in criminal activities. As a result, there is a strong sense of togetherness and friendship between the Norwegian police force and citizens.

The use of non-coercive means is further articulated by Knut Moi, a Norwegian official working for the Ministry of Justice whom I interviewed in 2015. Moi speculated that the differences in historical narratives and ideology are primarily what separate the US and Norwegian police forces. With no history of slavery, the racial discrimination that poisons American society is uncommon in Norway. Furthermore, Norway has a strong social mentality in which citizens work together and are willing to sacrifice some individual liberty for the common good. This is in stark contrast to the ‘American Dream’, which puts freedom and individual pursuits above all else. Additionally, Moi stated that the Norwegian police rely on the principle of proportionality, in which the punishment accurately corresponds to the crime. Contrary to the United States, Norwegian prisoners are still valued as important people who deserve another chance in life. As such, Norwegian guards don’t mistreat prisoners the way US guards do. The US prisons are places of punishment where, in particular, black male prisoners are heavily mistreated, tortured and even killed. The former Chicago Police Department Detective, Jon Burge, who is now a convicted felon, tortured black citizens until they falsely confessed to crimes they did not commit.

One of the Jon Burge torture survivors, Darrell Cannon, explained that police brutality in prisons and the use of violent tactics such as pressing an electric cattle prod to the testicles was common practice to Blacks while he was imprisoned. Cannon was tortured to the point where he falsely confessed to participating in a murder case. So while Norwegian prisons are places of rehabilitation that cultivate virtue and build good character to the imprisoned citizen, the American prisons seem to be places of depression where black citizens are falsely arrested and wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. When asked to comment on the incident of Eric Garner, Moi highlighted mutual trust as the critical element facilitating the cordial relationship among authority figures and citizens in Norway. I also believe the US media plays a role in stigmatizing black men and other men of color as uneducated, violent, criminals. Compounded by these racial ideologies, the role of the police has shifted from protecting all citizens, to an effort of sequestering black citizens who ‘threaten’ society, as depicted by the media.

Finland has implemented a virtual policing system, aimed to facilitate interaction between police officers and the community7. The system utilizes social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube) as spaces for communication and crime preventive measures including social support networks, self-management tools, and numerous other community resources. These media platforms are free and simple to use, which allows officers to effectively assist more citizens in larger regions. The Finnish virtual police system simply requires an electronic user authentication, then a “Citizen’s Account” profile is created. Once an account is made, citizens receive decisions and notifications relating to their online services, as well as access to a host of resources, such as direct communication with officers that otherwise wouldn’t be feasible.

In a similar effort, Norway has begun using social media as a crime preventive measure. In August 2009, the Norwegian police launched a new website that provides them with electronic solutions on how best to combat crime. Thus, social media is being used as an innovative tool to cultivate trust and harmony between the police force and the community, primarily by eliminating communication barriers.

There is a fundamental difference between the Scandinavian countries and the US in that the Finnish and Norwegians believe arming police increases violence, whereas the militarization of the US police is believed to decrease violence. The Norwegians and Finnish use technology and electronic feedback to build cordial relations with their citizens and promote peace within the society. While the police departments of some US cities have gradually begun to engage with the community via social networks, implementing a widespread virtual policing system in the US may prove to be less effective. For example, due to the history of slavery, racism and white supremacy that still complicates the American system of governance, virtual policing may exacerbate the racial profiling that already exists in many US police departments. For instance, the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager who was shot and killed by a white policeman, Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown was shot by Officer Wilson after he ran away. There was no need for the use of a gun. But, it seems race is always a factor in situations that involve black American citizens and police officers. The notion that when an African American child runs away the police officer feels compelled to shoot and kill him, highlights the racism plaguing US police departments. These kinds of actions not only irreversibly destroy lives and families, but they are toxic to all of the society. Rather than protecting citizens, promoting peace, and building trust, police brutality instills fear, and escalates violent protests because citizens feel the need to fight and defend themselves. Therefore, rather than advocate for the adoption of European models to work in the United States, I challenge the abolition of the widespread racial ideology that condemns African Americans as repertoires of lawlessness and the demilitarization of the US police departments. Together these actions may thwart the unnecessary shooting and murder of black or other citizens of color.

To advocate for systematic changes of the US police system, we must consider the social context of individuals because this also contributes to the level of trust in the police. Ethnicity and neighborhood environment—neighborhood disorder and perceived insecurity and crime—are factors that influence trust between the police and citizens3. In the US, there is a large gap of wealth between high-income, predominantly white citizens and everyone else. The presence and quality of policing depend on the socioeconomic demographic of the neighborhood. For example, low-income black neighborhoods are flagged as being troublesome and crime infested, which promotes the harmful stereotyping of those residents as uncooperative, hostile criminals.

Even the international community reluctantly blames the US police brutality on black people and other citizens of color. These neighborhoods are therefore disproportionately monitored with a heavy police presence, creating opportunities for acrimonious encounters between the police and citizens. Moreover, the police misconduct—planting evidence on suspects, unjustified street stops, and verbal and physical abuse—is far greater in communities with high crime rates, as their actions are not likely to be questioned by the greater society. This all feeds into a vicious cycle of police corruption and abuse of power, with low-income people of color being most vulnerable. Therefore an important first step in establishing trust and respect between police officers and citizens is to reverse the mentality that low-income black neighborhoods are places of crime and hate, and high-income white neighborhoods are places of opportunity and security.

In ensuring peace and security in the community, trust is a necessity. Dorian Schaap, an International Relations Comparativist of Radboud University, writes that the role of police is to build trust with citizens. This increases citizens’ compliance with the law and improves the readiness of citizens to intervene in cases of minor problems of social disorder in their neighborhoods (Schaap, 2012). The police trustworthiness also increases feelings of ease and a sense of belonging. The killing of black citizens by the US police, however, severely erodes any sense of unity within a community. Instead, it alienates black citizens as societal misfits by mistreating black citizens as “three-fifths of a person”, a scenario that fiercely undermines their sense of belonging and gratitude in society. Moreover, it creates a ‘victim cycle’ in which the police presence discomforts black citizens as they view themselves as police targets.

In summary, the primary role of the police should be to protect and shield citizens from criminal activity. Considering the effectiveness of Scandinavian police systems, radical systemic changes need to be implemented in the United States police departments. Such changes might include police disarmament and mandatory race training for all law enforcement officers. Replacing heavily armed police with non-violent means of enforcement will promote peace and cultivate trust, which will inherently reduce crime in a feed-forward mechanism. Additionally, the US media should change its dialect to stop perpetuating blacks as criminals. Lastly, we as a community need to educate each other about the intrinsic value of respecting one another despite our racial differences.

References

  1. Apuzzo, Matt “War Gear Flows to Police Departments”, New York Times, 8(June, 2014) retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/09/us/war-gear-flows-to-police-departments.html?_r=0
  2. Baker, Al and Mueller, Benjamin “Records Leak in Eric Garner Case Renews Debate on Police Discipline”, (March, 2017). Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/22/nyregion/nypd-eric-garner-daniel-pantaleo-disciplinary-records.html?_r=0.
  3. Nebehay, Stephanie “U.N. urges U.S. to stop police brutality after Missouri shooting”, Reuters, 29(August, 2014), Retrieved from: http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/29/us-usa-missouri-shooting-un-idUSKBN0GT1ZQ20140829
  4. The White House, United States Government. (2015) “Executive Order 13688: Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition.” Retrieved from: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/le_equipment_wg_final_report_final.pdf
  5. Pro Libertate “What’s Wrong with Police in Iceland” Pro Libertate, 5th (December, 2013) retrieved from: http://freedominourtime.blogspot.com/2013/12/whats-wrong-with-police-in-iceland.html
  6. Will, George “Eric Garner, criminalized to death”, The Washington Post, 10(December, 2014) retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/george-will-eric-garner-criminalized-to-death/2014/12/10/9ac70090-7fd4-11e4-9f38-95a187e4c1f7_story.html
  7. Polisi-Police of Finland, Finland Government. (2015) “Police in the social media.” Retrieved from: https://www.poliisi.fi/finnish_police/police_in_the_social_media
  8. Schaap, Dorian “Assessing the impact of procedural justice, the instrumental approach, and proximity policing in an international comparative perspective”, (June, 2012) Radbound University Nijmegen retrieved from: http://www.ru.nl/publish/pages/757346/d_schaap_thesis_v2.pdf.

Paul Bhekimpi Tshele is a Zimbabwean human rights activist, the founder and President of Human Rights Care, an organization that advocates for the rights of women and LGBT.

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