Defund the Police? Some European Countries Say It Works for Them

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Finnish police van. Photo by Tomo Sumi via Flickr

Although President Donald Trump has dismissed calls for defunding police as “radical,” the approach has been adopted successfully by law enforcement agencies in several countries in Europe, reports the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Defunding the police doesn’t mean necessarily reducing the number of police, but reorienting what their purpose is and how they work with other agencies,” says policing expert Megan O’Neill.

In Sweden for example, crisis distress calls that were once largely handled by police, are now responded to by a mental health ambulance, staffed with two specialized psychiatry nurses and a mental paramedic.

Although some U.S. police departments have begun using Crisis Intervention Teams, involving teams of community health workers and police officers, it’s still not a widely accepted approach to a problem most experts say should not be handled as a public safety threat.

“In the U.S. about one in four of the people shot by police are those with mental health crises,” said Dennis Kenney, a former police officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

One of the most radical changes to policing came in the country of Georgia, which “abolished its police force entirely and rebuilt a scaled-back version.”

By 2006, the country had one law enforcement agent for every 214 citizens, compared to one for every 78 citizens prior to the change.

As a result, carjacking and auto theft rates decreased almost entirely.

Finland’s “groundbreaking” policy, called Housing First, focuses on giving the homeless the support and housing they need to get off of the streets, O’Neill said.

“The idea there is if someone is drug-addicted or homeless or has a chaotic lifestyle that they’re given supportive housing first, and then given all the treatment they need.”

In the United Kingdom, a program of neighborhood policing that operated until 2010 helped to bring down long-term homelessness.

Police “community support officers” patrol on foot and do not make arrests, O’Neill said.

However, the program ended with when the Conservatives came to power in 2010 and cut funding to police by 20 percent over five years.

There are several fundamental differences between the policing in Europe and that of the U.S., including that the officers overseas are primarily unarmed.

“Experts say this means officers are more focused on de-escalating the situation using communications and minimal violence.”

In the U.S., it is more common for households to have firearms, so police do not want to take the chance of being the only unarmed party at the scene.

The widely varied structures of policing in the US make it difficult to reform the system in a uniform manner, says Kenney.

“The U.S. has 18,000 police departments, 90 percent of which have 10 or fewer officers,” he said. “This means any type of change in the way policing is done will have to be communicated to 18,000 different departments.”

O’Neill acknowledged that reorienting policing in ways similar to Europe would be “quite an undertaking because the U.S. is so vast and many Americans would object to police reform coming from centralized government.”

Read the full story here.

This summary was prepared by TCR News Intern Tayler Green.

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