Are Police Immune to Reform?

Reform-based training has not stopped police violence

Posted Aug 24, 2020

For over a century cities across the United States have periodically responded with anger over police violence—organizational reforms, training programs, ethics codes, civilian oversight and increased pay—with little success. Political scientists and social psychologists have long held that any serious discussion of policing practices, including police rules, training standards, reform efforts, must be part of a new consensus committed to uniting the American public around human dignity.

According to a recent Foreign Affairs article, the aggressive tactics that many U. S. police departments employ today were shaped by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. The slave patrols and militias that regulated the movements of enslaved peoples before emancipation coalesced into more formalized police forces, as they continued to enforce the racial hierarchy in a segregated nation. During the 1960s police forces developed the kinds of quasi-military techniques that Americans today have seen applied to a new generation of protestors.

This kind of policing threatens the quality of life in Black communities. An examination of detailed accounts of more than 12,000 police homicides between 1980 and 2012 found young Black men were 21 times as likely to be fatally shot by law enforcement as were their white peers. White officers, responsible for 68 percent of the police killings of people of color, typically reported they used deadly force out of fear for their physical safety. Reliance on this rationale increased from 33 percent to 62 percent following the Supreme Court’s decision in 1985, which held that police could use deadly force if a suspect appeared a threat to a police officer or others, an almost infallible legal defense for police officers who kill.

Of more than 8,200 police killings since January 2013, African Americans were three times as likely to be killed by law enforcement as were their white counterparts. Contradicting the common assumption that police officers kill African Americans at higher rates because they pose a greater threat, police departments of the 100 largest American cities killed unarmed Black people at a rate four times as high as the rate for unarmed white suspects. In 99 percent of the cases analyzed, no officers were convicted of a crime.

Moreover, there is no correlation between violent crime rates in American cities and the likelihood of police killings. This presents a stark contrast to the rest of the world, where correlations do exist between crime, social instability, and police killings. In 2019, the rate of which people were killed by police in the United States (46.6 per ten million residents) was between that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (47.8 per ten million) and Iraq (45.1 per ten million). Countries with levels of police brutality comparable to that in the United States are generally far more violent places to live, such as Egypt and Iran, which are often described as “police states.”

In the Netherlands (2.3 police killings per ten million) 23,500 unarmed “police officers,” known as BOA’s,are deployd in addition to the regular police force of 55,000. BOA’s are trained in noncriminal issues to remain calm while de-escalating conflict, inquiring about a person’s well-being, trying to reduce the person’s anxiety—even while asking for identification, issuing fines, and making arrests. Similar techniques are used in the United Kingdom (0.5 police killings per ten million), Norway (1.9 per ten million), where use of deadly weapons and combat techniques, such as chokeholds, are restricted.

Another commonality among countries with low rates of police violence is their training programs. In the United States basic training can take as little as 21 weeks. In Germany (1.3 killings per ten million in 2019) training takes two and a half years, and in some circumstances it takes up to four years to become an officer. Iceland, which has had only one fatal shooting in its history, requires two years of training.

While many reform-based practices have been tried in the United States, they have not made a dent in the country’s rate of police killings. One reason frequently given is the prevalence of guns, which is comparable to no other country. Faced with a heavily armed populace, U. S. law enforcement agencies often argue for military-grade weapons and the right to use deadly force. Yet, the prevalence of guns does not fully explain the rate of police killings.

Countries with the lowest rates of police killings, such as Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and Japan, provide police oversight at the national level. Although police unions exist in these countries, they are affiliated with larger organizational bodies, compared with the United States, which has nearly 18,000 decentralized police agencies. 

It may be time to consider federal standards for the multiple localized police authorities across the country—lengthening training programs, restricting the use of deadly weapons and combat techniques, and weeding out those predisposed to hate and violence.

Activist groups seek to abolish or dramatically redirect the billions of dollars that now go to police departments toward providing health care, housing, education and employment. It is important to note that the Scandinavian countries with the lowest rates of crime and police violence provide comprehensive social programs that have been successful at moderatng class distinction by reducing poverty. Reducing poverty would be a major step in lifting the everlasting subjugation of Black lives in America.

* This blog was co-published with                                                                 


Ralph, L. (2020). To Protect and to Serve: Global Lessons in Police Reform, Foreign Affairs