Policing: An Informal Comparative Look at Germany vs America
Back in 2014, an article was published by Business Insider comparing European and American policing and prison systems. The article focused on Germany, and concluded that their prison system was better than the US's because it sought to rehabilitate incarcerated individuals. Data supported that America’s prisons sought to punish their residents. In the 8 years since that article was published I am forced to wonder if America’s prisons have changed much since then.
In my recent trip to Germany I decided to take my learning beyond the Internet by having conversations with real Germans. I talked with Norbert Mueller who retired from the police force after 40 years of service and Regina Tross, a police officer for 10 years. I also spoke with three millennials: Lara Mueller, Vanessa Kern, and Robin Baum. These conversations helped me to produce a list of four reasons why I believe Germany's policing is better than ours.
1. Better Training of Officers
The greatest difference between US and German police officers is the amount and quality of training they receive. In the US, 55% of states only require a high school diploma or GED to apply to a police academy. Applicants are required to pass a psychological exam before entering police academy, and then the length of training varies in each state but on average lasts about 3-8 months. During this short time officers are supposed to learn all they need to know about traffic laws, search and seizures, criminal statutes, and the proper use of a weapon.
By contrast, police officers in Germany are required to undergo training for 3 years. They receive a bachelor's degree in policing by completing theoretical studies, equipment training, physical conditioning and spending time at different police stations. When asked about her training Regina said “In my opinion the training was really good. As a police officer you have to know a lot of things, not only laws, but also conflict management, intercultural competence, forensic science, criminology and much more. After three years of study I had a solid base of knowledge that I built on over the years with my practical experiences.” Police officers in the US need to know the same amount of information in order to perform their job well, but they are currently condensing all this into 6 (or even less) short months.
Not only is Germany’s training more advanced than ours, but their selection process ensures they are only investing in quality applicants. Norbert described his experience of the interview process “In the 80s it was a two day interview process that included physical and mental tests. In the beginning my group started with 14 people but only 3 were selected in the end.”
Both Norbert and Regina believe the level and quality of training was one of the biggest differences between officers in Germany and in the US “German training is more comprehensive. It is easier to become an officer in the United States because Germany is much more selective” said Norbert. “Police training in the US is way too short. As a police officer there is a lot you need to know, a variety of situations you need to practice reacting in and you need to know how to properly handle all your equipment. Also you need to understand what your role as a police officer is inside society and which values you are standing for as a representative of the state. In my opinion, the three years I did here in Germany were absolutely necessary” said Regina.
I asked Vanessa, Robin and Lara to rate German police training on a scale from 1-10 and their responses averaged to an 8 because they all believed that the current standard of training is high, and younger police officers are being trained very well.
2. Communication & Deescalation Skills Development
A crucial aspect of training as an officer is effective communication and deescalation skills.
In the US, there have been numerous high profile altercations between police officers and citizens that have led to deaths due to lack of proper deescalation skills.
A 2015 survey of police academies found that recruits spend a total of eight hours on deescalation, crisis intervention and use of force training. Robin shared that “American officers shoot much easier than German ones,” because even individuals outside of the US are aware of the desperate need for more extensive training in this area.
In Germany, deescalation is considered the most important part of their training. This is reflected by the emphasis on deescalation throughout all three years of their training. Norbert noted a positive shift in German officer deescalation; in the past skills taught were all very physical, either tackling or arresting the individual, but now the emphasis is on better communication. He even shared a story about younger partner “When we needed to deescalate a situation I was ready to use force and handcuff the individual, but my colleague insisted on using communication and he was able to control the situation.”
3. Officers Never Patrol Alone
Police officers in the US typically patrol by themselves because it is cheaper, and there are numerous complaints about not having enough officers to have two to a car or that jurisdictions are too big to partner up. But, patrolling alone can be unsafe for both the lone officer and the individuals they interact with. Two officers patrolling together provides safety and accountability; if altercations go south there is immediate backup present. Additionally, having another officer present typically ensures the proper procedures are being followed.
In Germany patrolling alone is unheard of for officers, rules state that all officers must patrol in pairs because one person can’t effectively concentrate on all aspects of police stops. Regina said she would never think of patrolling without a partner because “From the point of self-protection it’s really a dangerous thing. It is better to always have someone by your side to care for your back.”
Norbert Mueller, top center, with his squadron in front of their police station.
4. Higher Public Approval
In the midst of arguments to Defund the Police it is evident that the public opinion of police in America is not the greatest. Public opinion is an important aspect because it is essential for public order, trust and respect for police officers leads to more cooperation with them. Once public opinion is low, trust is broken and respect is lost, chaos ensues in communities.
A saying in Germany is “Police- your friend and helper” and although their public rating is not perfect there is an overall trust and respect for police officers. Police departments in Germany conduct regular surveys to gauge the public opinion of officers. In a survey conducted in 2017, 80% of Germans said they trusted police officers.
I conducted my own survey with Lara, Vanessa and Robin to better understand their opinion of police. They stated that police officers have mixed reviews among the public but they are generally trusted. On a scale of 1-10 their averaged answer for police trustworthiness and likeability was 7.6.
I learned a fair amount about Germany’s criminal justice system and policing during my trip. It is important to note that Germany's system is not perfect, and America’s is not completely inadequate. But, in direct comparison with each other it is clear that we have some serious changes to make.
I hope one day we will be able to say ‘Police- your friend and helper,” like they do in Germany.