Separate the Needed from the Un-Needed

Every country of course has their unique challenges. But I think it would be wrong to assume that every country operate the way it does because the uniqueness of that country requires it.

Norway frequently imports policies from other countries. Of course it is always considered whether these policies can be adapted to our local conditions.

I think you’re dead right about the problem. The question is how to solve it?

By focusing on the actual problem and talking about it. Begin to talk about the procedures. Should they really be like that? Talk about the procedures rather than this endless white-guilt self flagellation. Changing racist attitudes is a long and slow process. Procedures can be changed much faster.

American police have those procedures because they’re in a much worse situation than Norwegian ones. This in turn helps generate a warlike culture in them.

The problem here is that your underlying assumption is that these procedures make American cops safer. It is my claim that frequently these procedures make American cops more unsafe.

Rapid escalation of a potentially dangerous situation is not a good policy. That is what American procedure often suggests. America has for a long time now had a low affair with the Zero-Tolerance principle. That was a choice. Nothing suggests that was the right approach for America. In fact I believe much of the research around that approach later showed that it never worked as promised. Yet it had a deep appeal to basic instincts of the “tough on crime” crowd.

Let me take a few examples, to try to make my case.

Norwegian Prison Reforms

Norwegian prisons in the 90s had a escalating problem with violence in prison. Using American logic regarding danger we should then have begun with much harsher procedures. Gone all in on Zero-Tolerance.

We did exactly the opposite. In the midsts of an increasingly violent prison population with ever more foreigners, we began an entirely new regime focused on turning prison guards from brutes with sticks into social workers. Instead of their job being about merely keeping inmates in check, they actual job became to socially interact with prisoners. We saw a reduction in violence and recidivism from these reforms. We took the humane approach where we focus on normalizing prison life. Treating prisons more like regular humans, and less like animals.

Of course this requires some leap of faith. You need some trust in humanity. That people treated better will behave better.

American and European Military Occupations

We have examples from the rest of the world where we can see the American approach next to an alternative approach in the same country.

First let me define what I deem the American approach in dealing with civilians:

  1. Assume the worst. They can be killers or terrorists. Assume guilty until proven otherwise.

I have friends who served in e.g. Kosovo. One said they always avoided standing next to American soldiers because that increased your risk. Contemplate that? Why did my friend think it was least save close to an American soldier?

The reason was that American soldiers where the most feared ones was due to their heavy handed tactics. Wearing full body armor, sun glasses and always holding the gun ready while spending no time around civilians. American troops would go on patrols in full armor and then retreat back behind their heavy fortifications.

Other international forces prioritized normalizing the situation with civilians, be wearing lighter outfits, socializing with locals, not wearing sun glasses but giving real eye contact. It meant locals trusted and felt comfortable with other occupying forces, while they feared American soldiers.

This pattern as replicated itself in many places across the world. E.g. for a significant time the British where able to keep the South of Iraq far more calm than the American sector. This is because they used a soft approach rather than than the American way of being geared up and throwing your weight around, showing who was the top dog.

Now this war is all beginning to be a faint memory to me, and all its details. But as far as I remember the US did not begin to see improvement in their situation until a more soft approach was taken where soldiers increasingly embedded with Iraqi locals. This may seem more dangerous, than being inside your fortress.

But it operates on the same logic as Norwegian prison guards discovered. In Norway we call it dynamic security as opposed to what is called static security which is the preferred American approach.

Dynamic security is about establishing security by getting people to trust you and by learning to know the people you police well so you can quickly pick up when then are going bad. This is more effective than adding ever more kevlar and barbwire.

You Got to Recognize a Problem Before You Can Solve It

But I feel like there has to be a happier medium, wiser ways of handling danger. Perhaps some US police forces have figured it out.

It would be presumptuous of me to assume I got all the answer to how the US police should operate. But I don’t think I am being unreasonable if I claim like Alcoholics Anonymous, that your first step has to be to recognize you have a problem.

Right now I don’t see any debate going in the US about police procedures and training. Sure in some corners. But you hear really only two version depending on whether you talk to American on the political left or the political right.

Liberals will almost exclusively focus on systemic racism in the police. Sure, I agree that is a problem, but even removing racism would still leave a big problem.

Among conservatives there frankly seems to a be detachment from reality. Either with claims that there is no problem at all. Just a random couple of rotten Apples. Other times the claim is we need more guns. While others say society cannot do anything it is all up to individuals to start behaving better, or some other variation of “close your eyes and do nothing.”

A debate on police procedures and training ought to be obvious, but it isn’t happening. When you got a country with such serious police problems as the US, it is very strange that almost nobody latch on to the fact that police training in the US is measured in weeks while in the rest of the west it is measured in years!

If we take the starting point that it is far more dangerous and challenging to be a police officer in the US than in Norway, then tell me the logic of having US police training being around 21 weeks, while Norwegian police training is 3 years?

That does not add up. The cop in the most challenging environment should get the best training. But they don’t. US police get little to no training is de-escalation, psychology, social work etc, while they are the ones probably most in need of it.

Is Culture or Need Driving US Police Behavior?

I will also challenge the assumption that US police behavior and training is primarily a product of American conditions. US police is organized locally and local variation are immense.

Grand Forks, North Dakota is not the same as Chicago. I like to see the rational for why cops in North Dakota should act as if they are working in Gotham City.

I lived in Grand Forks. Not much happens there. It is the size of a pretty regular Norwegian town. Yet I quickly noticed the cops there had a very different attitude from Western European cops, based on what I observed directly and all the stories my friends told me.

There is no reason why cops in small towns like this should be more heavy handed than London metropolitan police.

I think the problem is American cops and perhaps the public at large have been raised on too much cheap pop-culture teaching them cops are some kind of Batman or Dirty Harry beating up the bad guys. Cops should not think of themselves as action heroes or wild-west legends with guns.

The community and social work aspect should be taken more serious. One has to stop dividing the world into bad guys and good guys. Rather it is a world where some people at some times have done something bad. But that should not define them as people, or means they are no longer human.

Human life matters, even if it is the life of somebody who did a crime. This matters because as soon as you dehumanize everybody suspected of being a criminal and turn them into punching bags, the police loose all respect and cooperation they need to be effective at their job.

It may feel great to be the top dog who everybody quiver and fear in the sight of. But to actually solve crime and get the people who did it in a neighborhood, you need people who feel comfortable around you and who trust you. That is hard to achieve in a world full of a lot of shades of gray and cops want to turn it monochrome: it is either black or white.

One cannot merely complain about “the other guys,” government has no authority or ability to reform or change how a crime gang operates. That is out of their control. They can only affect that indirectly through changing how the police operates.

You cannot ask the ghetto to change first, because that is not an organization with rules and procedures you can change with the stroke of a pen. A police organization in contrast can be changed, by political choice.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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