Why Do American Police Kill So Many?

Unknown-1[The following article by Paul Hirschfield, Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Rurgers University was originally published in “The Conversation” on November 25, 2015. He reveals some important findings that police professionals need to consider and that they be able to read, discuss, and put into action what he has found. In my book, Arrested Development, I cite four obstacles to police improvement: anti-intellectualism, violence, corruption and disrespect. Taking Hirschfield’s findings into consideration and applying them to police policies, training, leadership will go a long way toward overcoming at least two of these obstacles and begin re-building community trust and support.]


Why Do American Cops Kill So Many Compared to European Cops?

“Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first degree murder November 24 in the death of Laquan McDonald. A video released by police shows Van Dyke shooting the teenager 16 times.

“Van Dyke is an extreme example of a pattern of unnecessary deadly force used by US police. American police kill a few people each day, making them far more deadly than police in Europe.

Historic rates of fatal police shootings in Europe suggest that American police in 2014 were 18 times more lethal than Danish police and 100 times more lethal than Finnish police, plus they killed significantly more frequently than police in France, Sweden and other European countries.

As a scholar of sociology and criminal justice, I recently set out to understand why rates of police lethality in the US are so much higher than rates in Europe.

More guns and aggression

Such massive disparities defy a simple explanation, but America’s gun culture is clearly an important factor. Unlike European nations, most states make it easy for adults to purchase handguns for self-defense and to keep them handy at nearly all times.

Acquiring guns illegally in the US is not much harder. About 57% of this year’s deadly force victims to date were allegedly armed with actual, toy or replica guns. American police are primed to expect guns. The specter of gun violence may make them prone to misidentifying or magnifying threats like cellphones and screwdrivers. It may make American policing more dangerous and combat-oriented. It also fosters police cultures that emphasize bravery and aggression.

“Americans armed with less-lethal weapons like knives – and even those known to be unarmed – are also more likely to be killed by police.

“Less-lethal weapon holders make up only about 20% of deadly force victims in the US. Yet the rates of these deaths alone exceed total known deadly force rates in any European county.

Knife violence is a big problem in England, yet British police have fatally shot only one person wielding a knife since 2008 – a hostage-taker. By comparison, my calculations based on data compiled by fatalencounters.org and the Washington Post show that US police have fatally shot more than 575 people allegedly wielding blades and other such weapons just in the years since 2013.

“Racism helps explain why African Americans and Native Americans are particularly vulnerable to police violence. Racism, along with a prevailing American ideology of individualism and limited government, helps explain why white citizens and legislators give so much support to controversial police shooters and aggressive police tactics and so little to criminals and poor people.

Not racism alone

“But racism alone can’t explain why non-Latino white Americans are 26 times more likely to die by police gunfire than Germans. And racism alone doesn’t explain why states like Montana, West Virginia and Wyoming – where both perpetrators and victims of deadly force are almost always white – exhibit relatively high rates of police lethality.

“An explanation may be found in a key distinguishing characteristic of American policing – its localism.

“Each of America’s 15,500 municipal and county departments is responsible for screening applicants, imposing discipline and training officers when a new weapon like Tasers are adopted. Some under-resourced departments may perform some of these critical tasks poorly.

To make matters worse, cash-strapped local governments like Ferguson, Missouri’s may see tickets, fines, impounding fees and asset forfeitures as revenue sources and push for more involuntary police encounters.

Dangers in small places

“More than a quarter of deadly force victims were killed in towns with fewer than 25,000 people despite the fact that only 17% of the US population lives in such towns.

“By contrast, as a rule, towns and cities in Europe do not finance their own police forces. The municipal police that do exist are generally unarmed and lack arrest authority.

“As a result, the only armed police forces that citizens routinely encounter in Europe are provincial (the counterpart to state police in the US), regional (Swiss cantons) or national.

“What’s more, centralized policing makes it possible to train and judge all armed officers according to the same use-of-force guidelines. It also facilitates the rapid translation of insights about deadly force prevention into enforceable national mandates.

“In the US, the only truly national deadly force behavioral mandates are set by the Supreme Court, which in 1989 deemed it constitutionally permissible for police to use deadly force when they “reasonably” perceive imminent and grave harm. State laws regulating deadly force – in the 38 states where they exist – are almost always as permissive as Supreme Court precedent allows, or more so.

A different standard

“By contrast, national standards in most European countries conform to the European Convention on Human Rights, which impels its 47 signatories to permit only deadly force that is ‘absolutely necessary’ to achieve a lawful purpose. Killings excused under America’s ‘reasonable belief’ standards often violate Europe’s ‘absolute necessity’ standards.

“For example, the unfounded fear of Darren Wilson – the former Ferguson cop who fatally shot Michael Brown – that Brown was armed would not have likely absolved him in Europe. Nor would officers’ fears of the screwdriver that a mentally ill Dallas man Jason Harrison refused to drop.

“In Europe, killing is considered unnecessary if alternatives exist. For example, national guidelines in Spain would have prescribed that Wilson incrementally pursue verbal warnings, warning shots, and shots at non-vital parts of the body before resorting to deadly force. Six shots would likely be deemed disproportionate to the threat that Brown, unarmed and wounded, allegedly posed.

“In the US, only eight states require verbal warnings (when possible), while warning and leg shots are typically prohibited. In stark contrast, Finland and Norway require that police obtain permission from a superior officer, whenever possible, before shooting anyone.

“Not only do centralized standards in Europe make it easier to restrict police behavior, but centralized training centers efficiently teach police officers how to avoid using deadly weapons.

“The Netherlands, Norway and Finland, for example, require police to attend a national academy – a college for cops – for three years. In Norway, over 5,000 applicants recently competed for the 700 annual spots.

“Three years affords police ample time to learn to better understand, communicate with and calm distraught individuals. By contrast, in 2006, US police academies provided an average of 19 weeks of classroom instruction.

“Under such constraints, the average recruit in the US spends almost 20 times as many hours of training in using force than in conflict de-escalation. Most states require fewer than eight hours of crisis intervention training.

“Desperate and potentially dangerous people in Europe are, therefore, more likely than their American counterparts to encounter well-educated and restrained police officers.

“However, explanations of elevated police lethality in the US should focus on more than police policy and behavior. The charged encounters that give rise to American deadly force also result from weak gun controls, social and economic deprivation and injustice, inadequate mental health care and an intense desire to avoid harsh imprisonment.

“Future research should examine not only whether American police behave differently but also whether more generous, supportive and therapeutic policies in Europe ensure that fewer people become desperate enough to summon, provoke or resist their less dangerous police.”


Some things police leaders need to consider in order to significantly reduce use of deadly force:

  • Consider using the European deadly force standard of “absolute necessity” rather than “reasonable objectiveness.”
  • Investigate more intensely what European police are doing in terms of policy and training to abide by the European Convention’s requirement that only deadly force that is “absolutely necessary to achieve a lawful purpose” is permitted.
  • Press for enforceable national mandates on police use of deadly force.
  • Permit officers to shoot other than “center mass” to enable “less-than-deadly” use of force outcomes.
  • Spend more time on crisis intervention and conflict resolution training during pre-service and reinforce this initial training during in-service training throughout an officer’s career.
  • Increase the length of pre-service training so that the above training can be implemented along with more restrained tactical approaches that permit/require an officer to seek cover, de-escalate, slow down, and even back off from edged weapons confrontations.
  • Speak out against gun violence and support measures for more a rationale approach to gun sales ownership.
  • Support better community health care and work closely and in tandem with mental health practitioners.
  • Speak out and work against injustice and racism whenever and wherever it is encountered.
  • Support educational systems which equalize outcomes between whites and children of color so that all our children may begin adulthood with a  21st century education.


— As a creative leader, what are some other thoughts, ideas, and actions you have after reading Hirshfield’s article?

— How would you go about implementing them?


  1. Hi Chief, Just a couple of additional considerations, how do European police (and governments) handle drugs? When someone here decides to smoke “Spice”, and “loses their mind”, it’s a “police problem” (it shouldn’t be) and perhaps a “disorderly conduct charge (if that). Further, in lieu of gun control, how do European agencies (and governments) handle their mentally ill (yes, I’m that annoying guy who keeps bringing this up…). We provide mentally ill people the “freedom” and “love” to live in the street like squirrels, and when they “self medicate” (crack, heroin) they again become a police problem (just “love” the money and effort in having police carry Narcan now for repeat overdoses). Lastly, having police acquaintances in Greece, Switzerland, France, if you fire your weapon in the line of duty, no matter -how- justifed, they are in agreement that you are “through”… Beyond that, great posts as always…


    1. Hmmmm, again, John, some interesting observations. I am not that familiar with what all goes on in Europe but I am sure they are just as overwhelmed as we are with those addicted and those mentally ill. It’s a problem. But what makes the problem somewhat different over there is that there is not a reasonable expectation that a person contacted by police will have a handgun, a knife? yes, but not so many guns in so many hands…


  2. Hi Chief, I’m back with something for you to consider. How about a simple, non judgmental (at first) examination of the media? It would a appear that you cannot open a newspaper or magazine advertising an upcoming movie without (plug in favorite actor/actress here) being shown brandishing a firearm. Just once, I’d like to see those in Hollywood held to some accounting for what they portray (and make millions off). I read where San Francisco prohibits these type of movie posters. While not denying that guns (or nudity) exists, many generally agree that the viewing of it isn’t appropriate for all people all the time…


    1. Yes, John, I have often thought of that and how we glorify violence and use of force to solve a problem. Hollywood has a big influence and wouldn’t it be nice to see some positive role modeling out of Hollywood? A few years ago, I remember a study that documented the amount of violence pre-school and school age children see on TV and other media. And we wonder why we seem so violent as a nation? I am also not for censorship but, as you say, “appropriateness.”


  3. I agree with many of these recommendations related to increases in education and training for police officers.

    In general I believe that the quest for emulating European policing operations would fail. America is unique because for several hundred years Europeans who came here were in effect rejecting European cultures. Our Revolution and subsequent Constitution was the Americanization of the Enlightenment. The solutions to our problems will have to be equally unique (law of requisite variety).

    The recommendation on shooting other than center of mass is seriously flawed. The Rand study of a little over ten years of shootings in the NYPD revealed a range of 18% – 30% hit rate, depending on whether the suspect was shooting at the officer at the time the officer was engaging (low rate while being shot at). If anyone wants to improve that hit rate (or reduce miss rate), and we all should, then we will need to make considerable changes in officer fitness and training. To enable the level of accuracy under stress that would be required to shoot other than center of mass we would certainly reduce shootings overall because almost no one would ever leave the gym or range.


    1. Mark, you make some very good points. This is what I hoped we would be able to do on a national basis to discuss the present level of police use of force and find ways, somehow, to reduce it. I just don’t think we can keep going at the rate of 3 OIS per day and not face major pushback (or worse) from affected populations. It’s something we simply must do. Thanks for your input!


  4. While Dr. Hirschfield makes some interesting points, I cannot entirely agree with his premise. His research is somewhat flawed. Up until recently most European nations specified in his article were homogenous. With emigration flooding those countries today, I would like to see Dr. Hirschfield contrast this study with another in ten years and compare the results.

    The 3-year “police university” plan is a great concept. However, unlike most other countries, the United States has a decentralized police system which is under local government control. The Police Corps concept here in the USA was unsuccessful – that’s the closest American policing can come to the European model of “police university.” The better idea is to require improved educational requirements for entry-level policing, such as a minimum of a BA in criminal justice (or a related field). However, It was tried in Texas some years ago by the Texas POST (TCOLE), but was voted down by many rural Sheriffs and small-town police chiefs who could not attract otherwise qualified applicants.

    I cannot deny there is an element of racism among a number of American police officers, but I feel the number is actually very small compared to the 700,000 state & local officers in the field. Despite the spate of police involved shootings in the USA where young Black males were killed, I ask my criminal justice students to consider each case on an individual basis. Certainly the shootings of Laquan McDonald and Walter Scott cannot be defended, but it is certainly wrong to place them in the same category as the shooting of Michael Brown.


  5. Are there statistics available on the number of European police officers feloniously killed in the line of duty? If so, how do those numbers compare to the US numbers? How about stats on violent crime in general per capita? I don’t know the numbers, but I suspect many more officers are killed and injured here, and I suspect we have higher rates of violent crime. Also, is wealth distributed more equally in Europe? Is the quality of education and social and mental health services higher in Europe? How about gun control policy? I’ve read in several places lately about the lower rates of officer involved shootings in Europe and how we should emulate them, but it seems we may be comparing apples to oranges. I don’t deny there’s lots of room for improvement in American policing, especially when it comes to valuing human life. However, I think it’s unrealistic to believe that changes in police policy and mindset will help us achieve European-like numbers. Only major changes in social policy can do that.


    1. Comparative policing, studying police methods and practice in other cultures must be one of the things a professional police does. I know only a little about European and Japanese practices but what I have seen impresses me. As for the guns, Australia has a bit of the “wild west” in their culture and they have made remarkable advancements in controlling guns in their society. We need to study this, experiment, and see what works for us — that’s the technique of “continuous improvement,”which is what we all should do…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.