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From guns to neck restraint: How police tactics differ around the world

The Washington Post's Rick Noack goes inside a police training school in Oranienburg, Germany, to look at de-escalation training for officers there. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Rick Noack, Stefan Czimmek/The Washington Post)

The knee-on-neck restraint used by Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd, for whose murder Chauvin was convicted, is banned in most of Europe outside of France. Armed police — such as those who fatally shot Breonna Taylor in her apartment in Louisville, Ky., last month — are not part of routine law enforcement in places such as Iceland or Norway. The Minnesota police officer who stopped Philando Castile’s car and fatally shot him in 2016 would have been violating Finland’s strict protocols for the use of deadly force.

In places such as Brazil, Egypt, Kenya — and most recently Hong Kong — accusations of police violence are common, and the agencies are often seen by rights groups as being held accountable less frequently than those in the United States.

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But in other countries, including many in Europe, the police practices that are causing outrage in the United States are either entirely banned or are far more strictly regulated. There have been some changes in the United States following years of organizing by activists and repeated police killings of Black Americans. Many police forces in the United States now ban the neck restraint used by Chauvin, who on April 20, over a year after Floyd’s death, was convicted of murder and manslaughter.

Still, Paul Hirschfield, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, said more apt parallels can be drawn between the United States and Latin America.

The United States is “more similar to many Latin American countries in terms of the vast inequalities, localized policing, and highly racialized function and history of policing,” he said.

Here’s how five police practices in the United States compare in Europe and elsewhere:

Where don’t police routinely carry guns?

The average police officers in Norway, New Zealand, Iceland, Britain, Ireland and some other nations are not armed. Many of these countries have had high-profile instances of alleged police brutality. But overall, the absence of firearms appears to lessen the level of tension between officers and civilians, opponents of armed police forces argue.

This approach has also worked in at least one nation with a relatively high gun-ownership rate by European standards: Iceland. According to the GunPolicy database, there were an estimated over 30 firearms per 100 civilians in Iceland in 2017, compared to five firearms per 100 people in Britain. (The United States had 120.5 guns per 100 residents in 2017, according to the Small Arms Survey.) Still, Iceland’s police do not routinely carry firearms.

5 countries where most police officers do not carry firearms — and it works well

George Floyd's death on May 25 has spurred people around the world to call out what they see as racial injustices and police brutality in their own countries. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Rick Noack/The Washington Post)

Iceland’s crime rate is far lower than the United States’ — and so is inequality and poverty. In Britain and Ireland — with significantly higher crime rates than Iceland — resistance to equipping police officers with firearms has historically come from inside police forces.

Terrorist attacks in London, Manchester and New Zealand’s Christchurch, among others, in recent years have mounted pressure on some countries to make armed police the standard rather than for special operations. After a gunman killed 51 people in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch in March 2019, New Zealand partially abandoned its approach of having only a select number of senior officers carry firearms. It widened the pool of firearms-carrying officers for a six-month trial period, and a review is now under way.

Norway faced a similar choice between arming and disarming police officers after far-right gunman Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in 2011. In 2014, police officers started carrying firearms more frequently following concerns that another attack could be imminent. But around one year later, amid a dropping threat level, the policy was reversed and officers disarmed again.

When can police fire a gun or shoot to kill?

While cops can be armed in most European countries, they have nowhere near America’s level of police killings. Hirschfield, who studies why U.S. police officers kill more people than their European counterparts, found that police shootings in the United States in 2014 were 18 time as lethal as in Denmark and 100 times more deadly than in Finland.

Americans are comparatively more heavily armed than Europeans, a factor Hirschfield said could lead police to escalate and use deadly force faster.

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But Hirschfield said another key factor is the legal framework. The European Convention on Human Rights allows police to use deadly force that is “absolutely necessary.” In contrast, police in the United States are permitted if they have a “reasonable belief” that their lives are in danger. Under these differing principles, a police shooting might be lawful in the United States and not according to European standards, said Hirschfield.

European Union countries set their own regulations within the commission’s framework. Some countries have stricter rules than others. In Finland, for example, a cop is expected if possible to seek a superior’s approval before using deadly force. In Spain, if possible the police officer must first fire a warning shot and shoot at a non-vital part of the body before they can shoot to kill, said Hirschfield, citing his research.

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What are the rules around neck restraint?

According to the Minneapolis Police Department’s own rules the day of Floyd’s death, the neck hold, or carotid restraint — in which officer Chauvin pushed his knee onto Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes to restrict blood flow — should only be used when the officer fears for their life. At the trial, several police experts testified that Chauvin failed to follow his training. Minneapolis Police Lt. Johnny Mercil, the use-of-force coordinator for Chauvin’s department, called the use of restraint “active aggression.”

Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd

In most of Europe, police officers are banned from using many kinds of neck restraints, sometimes also referred to as a chokehold, said Hirschfield. Germany allows police officers to only briefly use a version of it, in which pressure is temporarily applied to the head (and not neck) to subdue somebody. Belgium forbids police from completely leaning on a suspect even temporarily, according to the Associated Press.

One exception is France, where on May 28 officers used it to pin down a Black man in an incident captured by bystanders. In Hong Kong, police are also investigating a case in which a man died after police restrained and held him face down during an arrest.

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Under international law, “police should only use force as a last resort and to the minimum extent possible,” and neck restraints are treated as a serious form of violence, said Patrick Wilcken, a researcher on military, security and policing issues with London-based Amnesty International.

How does U.S. police training compare to Europe?

A police officer in the United States trains for an average of 19 months before being put on the job. In much of Europe, it’s three years.

“Training is a much more lengthy process in countries with national policing,” said Hirschfield. “You can impose national standards much more easily, and enforce them much more easily.”

Here’s how to identify the law enforcement officers and military personnel who have been mobilized in response to protests around the death of George Floyd. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

“In these more politicized contexts, local structures are the ones that decide about policing,” said Hirschfield. “The mayors and city counsels are in charge of regulating police … in some places the police exert a lot of influence on the policy process.”

He added, “Any time they try to adopt a reform … the cost is directly on the police force, [as] there’s no national police force paying. That makes it harder to reform.”

Some U.S. police leaders have also sought to learn from other nations. Following a spate of fatal police killings of Black men and the Ferguson protests in 2014, a group of police leaders sought advice from European counterparts on how to better avoid deadly force. Israeli police have partnered with U.S. officers to provide training in anti-terrorism tactics, a relationship human rights groups have criticized.

Where is de-escalation a greater police priority?

In many European countries, training may focus on how to use space and time to reduce a threat, as well as less-lethal weapons such as Tasers. In Japan, police officers are discouraged from using firearms; instead, they are trained in a form of martial arts called taiho-jutsu to wield if necessary.

In the United States, in contrast, crisis intervention and de-escalation “tends to be an afterthought and sometimes just a day” in U.S. police training, said Hirschfield. “If officers have time and there’s an investment in training, they could be trained in nonlethal ways of subduing people … [such as] pressure points or pain compliance techniques that are effective in subduing people with a very low risk of harm. ”

A guide to the less-lethal weapons that law enforcement uses against protesters

Police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other aggressive tactics against racial justice demonstrators have shocked many analysts and reporters, particularly those who have covered protests and revolts in other countries.

“Compared to some Middle Eastern countries, China, Russia, Turkey, our police are hopefully not as aggressive toward citizens,” said University of Arizona professor Jennifer Earl, who studies police and protests. But U.S. police are “much more militarized than [other] western countries,” she continued. “We do on average have more aggressive policing than our peers."

This report has been updated.