An American Looks at European Police — 1971

“Long periods of pre-service training, great concern about individual freedom, less concern over enforcement of public morality, strict controls over use of firearms…”

th-1I wrote this back in 1971 after I have received a grant from my university to study police in Europe. Reading this, now almost a half-century later, I see most of what I believed about the art of policing a free society was reinforced by this trip. I had just completed my master’s degree in Sociology and had many ideas about how to police our nation. Visiting my counterparts in Europe was a fascinating and enriching experience that carried me through my career. Interestingly, the blindness we have today about race, immigration, and developing honest and trusting community-relations continues not only in our country, but in most all of Europe. What I did not write about was the profound experience I had seeing and working with uniformed women police while I was there. That experience changed my life and leadership in so many ways.

An American Looks at Europe’s Police

thEditor’s note: David C. Couper, author of this article studied police practices last summer in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and London under a grant from the Criminal Justice Studies Department of the University of Minnesota. Couper is public safety director for Burnsville [MN]. December 26, 1971, Minneapolis Tribune.

Long periods of pre-service training, great concern about individual freedom, less concern over enforcement of public morality, strict controls over use of firearms – these are the marks of European police that set them apart from American police.

On the other hand, European police share with their American counterparts the problems of student unrest, increasing drug use among young people, difficulty in attracting qualified recruits and the strains of police-community relationships.

One of the greatest differences is in training. European police do not take this lightly as we seen to do in this country. In the countries I visited, preservice or recruit training courses run from a maximum of three years to a minimum of one year of intensive training. In America we still allow police officers in many of our cities to enforce the law without any training whatsoever.

European policemen cannot understand our practice of giving a man public trust and authority to arrest and use force without intensive preservice training. In Minnesota we only require that a new policeman an eight-week certified training academy within the first year of his service, Communities under 1,000 population need not formally train their policemen at all.

England’s National Police College at Bramshill is a senior command school for police executives. Our FBI National Academy cannot compare in any way to the quality of this curriculum. We must provide our nation’s police administrators with significant managerial training to help them deal with the complexities of policing our changing society.

Europeans are also very concerned about individual freedom. Arrest with incarceration is a serious move and is generally used only in situations involving dangerous offenders or those offenders who may interfere with an investigation. Perhaps European police administrators are more concerned about individual freedom because many of them, sentenced to concentration camps during World War II, were themselves prisoners. I noticed this attitude particularly in the Copenhagen and Amsterdam police departments.

The London Police Department was the only agency I surveyed that did not issue firearms to its police. However, European police departments that do issue firearms to their men have strict regulations authorizing the use of a firearm. They may be used only to save their life, the life of another, or to stop a fleeing, dangerous felon. When London policemen are issued firearms, such as in situations when they must apprehend an armed person, they may use that weapon only of their life or the life of another is in danger. They may not use a firearm to halt a fleeing criminal regardless of the offense.

Generally, the enforcement of the public morality in Europe is not the concern of the police. Prostitution is legal in most of the cities I studied (except London), with laws regulating only operating territory and personal health requirements of prostitutes. Laws also forbid the presence of juveniles in red-light districts. European police do not seem to be very enthusiastic about regulating the consenting sexual behavior of adults in private.

They are, however, adamant about drug abuse. In these countries marijuana is not a popular drug of abuse, mainly because it is not grown in these northern European countries and is more difficult to smuggle than other drugs. Instead, the main drug traffic is in hashish. Drug-enforcement activity is directed towards apprehending traffickers instead of users. Policemen who encounter hashish users with a small amount of substance (five grams or under) generally take the name of the individual and confiscate the drug. However, if the individual possesses a large amount of the substance or is involved in trafficking, he is arrested and charged.

In spite of these differences between European and American police, there are a great many similarities, European police have problems concerning student unrest (police are sometimes even called “pigs” and are equally upset). They are alarmed over the increasing amount of drug use by their youth. They have difficulty attracting qualified young men into the police service. They also have problems relating to the public and in dealing with minority immigrant groups.

I was quite concerned with the large, centralized operations of European police and how they are able to relate to the public. I discussed neighborhood or community police with the, and most seemed to agree with the concept. (Neighborhood or community police services assigned policemen permanently to small “neighborhood” districts, encourage policemen to establish residence in these neighborhoods and, in short, attempt to develop mutual trust, concern and a cooperative effort in reducing dysfunctional community behavior.)

Although the European police I interviewed agree with this concept, they feel that its implementation will be a long way into the future. Only the London police are implementing “unit beat” policing which operationalized this concept. They are attempting to deliver personalized police services to their communities through this program.

I was also concerned with the attitude I perceived concerning “outsiders” or immigrants to these cities. The police indicated to me, in many instances, certain “scapegoating” tendencies toward these immigrant populations, who are mainly southern Europeans. The police equate increasing crime in their countries with the recent influx of these immigrants. Yet these immigrant workers are needed in order to supplement indigenous work forces.

In London, many race problems are also beginning to emerge. There are many charges of police brutality and discrimination in the press by British blacks. However, most British policemen I talked with do not believe that any racial strife similar to that in the United States will ever occur in their country.

I am afraid such an attitude is, at best, dangerous because it curtails any substantive towards prevention or correction. I did, however, talk with some policemen in the community relations unit of Scotland Yard who wished to study our racial experience, our past as well as present dealings with minorities, with an eye toward prevention.  These policemen agreed with me that system-wide approaches to problem-solving are needed in the areas of health, education, housing and economic opportunity, as well as in criminal justice.


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