21 August, 2014

Ferguson to Karlsruhe: Policing in America and Germany

I've been watching the news out of Ferguson, Missouri with a heavy heart. Hearing of the fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager by police and then seeing images of protestors being confronted with even more guns, armored vehicles, tear gas and physical violence is like watching something out of an occupied war zone, not small-town USA. Given what has happened in Ferguson, I feel that now is a good time to write about the differing approaches of the police forces in the United States and Germany.

The various local police forces in the United States often behave more like paramilitary groups than forces designed to maintain peace and order. Following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the protests, which started out peaceful, quickly escalated as police in riot gear and military-style equipment descended on the town. The claim was that the police are there to maintain order, but with all that heavy gear, one has to wonder what sort of order they are hoping to maintain. (Great article on police militarization in Ferguson: http://www.businessinsider.com.)

This isn't even an isolated incident. Violence towards protestors, and any other individual who might potentially be a "threat," is in fact fairly standard US police procedure. (Anyone remember the pictures of a police officer pepper-spraying peaceful protestors at UC Davis in 2011?) The common consensus seems to be to shoot first and ask questions later, and the sheer quantity of bullets used in stand-offs between suspects and police shows a distinctly trigger-happy police force.

In 2006, New York police unloaded more than 50 bullets on a single suspect, and a Florida SWAT team shot 110 times at a man suspected of killing a police officer. In 2011, Miami police shot at a reckless driver more than 100 times. And just in the month of April 2012, New York police shot at a suspected murderer 84 times and Los Angeles police shot at a 19-year-old man fleeing in a car 90 times. In all of these cases, the suspect was killed and in some cases bystanders were injured as well. And these are only the cases that were listed in a single short news article (source: http://rt.com/usa/us-germany-85-shots-022/), which I encourage you to read, and only cases in which an absurdly large number of bullets were used. There are many, many other examples of civilian deaths at the hands of a gun-wielding police officer.

And a further sobering statistic: although American police officers are required to submit a report every time they use their gun in the line of duty, there are no comprehensive statistics available for the total number of people killed by police in the United States. I don't know if that is on purpose, to cover up the disgracefully high number, or if it is just a result of laziness, but either way that's pretty appalling. However, there is a different statistic available, that of "arrest-related deaths," which stands at 4,813 for the period from 2003 to 2009. The total number of deaths caused by police officers is surely much higher than that.

Compared to the legacy of violence that continues to be perpetuated by the United States police, the German Polizei are a model of conscientious peace-keeping. Remember that reckless driver I just mentioned who was shot at 110 times in Miami? Miami police used more bullets on that one person than the entire German police force used that whole year. In 2011, police officers in Germany used a total of 85 bullets, and 49 of those were warning shots not even aimed at people. As a result of the 36 shots aimed at suspects, 15 people were injured and 6 were killed. Although 6 deaths is by no means a good thing, it's still better than the hundreds or thousands of police-related deaths in the US each year. To German police, shooting is seen as a last resort, while in America it seems to be the go-to tactic for dealing with unfriendly "criminals."

(For an even starker contrast, look at Iceland: in December of last year an Icelandic police officer killed someone for the first time in the country's nearly 70-year history. Click HERE for the story.)

In general, there is an ever-increasing sense in America that cops are the enemy. This is especially felt by people of color, who are more frequently and systematically mistreated by police and are incarcerated at a much higher rate than whites. A perfect example of this is the New York Police Department's "stop-and-frisk" policy. Police officers in certain neighborhoods in NYC are required to stop, question, and pat down a certain number of people per day/month. The officers are free to use their own judgment when choosing who to stop, and all someone has to do to seem suspicious is be the wrong race. The numbers don't lie: more than 87 percent of the people stopped in the last 10 years were black or Latino. The video below gives a much more thorough account of the policy, and you can hear a recording of a "stop-and-frisk" in action made by a teenager who was stopped repeatedly in his own neighborhood. It's pretty disturbing.


Even among the white population, police are not viewed kindly. Even I, in my time as a (white) college student, felt less safe when police were present, because I never knew if these particular cops on that particular night would be the types to abuse their power and arrest me for a seemingly minor infraction. All it would take is being in the wrong place at the wrong time or saying one wrong word and I could end up in jail. And as a woman, I could never be sure that a brush with the predominantly male police force wouldn't end with some sort of sexual harassment or abuse. Luckily it never came to any of that for me, but not everyone is so lucky.

It's been a bit difficult for me here in Germany to get used to the idea that police don't have to be feared. Police here are professional, non-violent, and are not interested in apprehending everyone for every minor infraction to get a quick promotion or to fulfill the requirements of their job. The motto of the German police is "Dein Freund und Helfer" (your friend and helper), which seems to reflect the general German mentality about law enforcement: they are there to help, and their presence is seen as a good and reassuring sign. The most trouble you're likely to get from the police here is a 20 euro fine for riding a bike at night without a light.

Another noteworthy difference between the two countries is there are many more female police officers in Germany than in the United States. The police officers here, at least the ones in Karlsruhe, always work in pairs, and during the entire year that I've been in Germany I've only seen one or two pairs of officers that were exclusively male. All the other pairs I've seen (and I see cops here on a regular basis) have been a man and a woman. I'm not sure why this difference exists; maybe Germany does a better job of recruiting women to the police force, or maybe women here are more attracted to the profession because it's not as militarized and soaked in violence as it is in the United States. But whatever the reason, routinely seeing women as law enforcement officers is reassuring. Gender equality in any form is great, and seeing it in the police force is very exciting for me.

I think everyone can agree that the police in the United States are out of control. As things stand, America is well on its way to becoming a police state. I find myself saying this a lot, but I'm glad I'm in Germany where things are calmer and the police don't violently abuse their power. As with many issues, I wish the US would look to other countries and seek to emulate their positive examples. But maybe, in this case, violence is just too much a part of American culture for anything to change. 

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