Justice

How Police Outside the U.S. Respond to Violent Threats

A man wielding a knife in Newport Beach, California, was fatally shot by police last weekend after he refused to drop the weapon. That's not the kind of news that would garner national attention in the U.S. — where more than 950 people were killed by police in 2016 alone — but in other countries law enforcement rarely employs lethal force.

David Alan Sklansky, a criminal justice professor at Stanford Law School, told ATTN: there are reasons for that, from inadequate and inconsistent training on how to confront an armed suspect to the fact the U.S. has more violent crime than many other developed nations.
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To be sure, U.S. police discharge their weapons more frequently than officers in other countries in part because there are more guns in the U.S.. That doesn't explain why U.S. police also use lethal force more frequently against individuals wielding knives than their European counterparts, though.

From 2008 to 2015, police in the U.K., for example, fatally shot "only one person wielding a knife," The Huffington Post reported. In contrast, police in the U.S. "fatally shot more than 575 people allegedly wielding blades and other such weapons" from 2013 to 2015.

It's not that the blades are more dangerous in North America. Indeed, there are "very few instances in which police officers are killed by people with knives" in the U.S., Sklansky noted, which "suggests that our protocols for dealing with people who seem hostile and have a knife should be reexamined and revised." One tactic — de-escalation training — would teach officers "skills that can be used to ratchet down a confrontation, rather than making it more confrontational."

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De-escalation often entails "waiting," Sklansky said. "It'll involve knowing how to talk to people who may be emotionally disturbed or mentally disturbed or under the influence of psychotropic substances."

What does de-escalation look like in practice? Check out what happened after London police encountered a man waving a machete in a public street in 2011.

Here's another example, where London officers used a Taser to subdue a knife wielding suspect.

In both situations, police were able to effectively neutralize and arrest armed suspects without opening fire. That's not to say that U.K. police never resort to firearms — just last month, officers gunned down a suspected terrorist who killed five people outside parliament — but the use of lethal force against armed and unarmed suspects is considerably more common in the U.S.

According to PRI, U.S. police kill about 15 times as many people as Australian police annually, 31 times as many people as German police, and 78 times as many people as U.K. police.

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There are several factors that contribute to this disparity, but one that stands out is the need for departmental accountability, Sklansky said.

"We need to hold departments more accountable for the deaths that they cause," he said. "In lots of cases, police officers fatally wound suspects when they're complying with procedures they've been taught and acting reasonably based on what they've been told to do — but what they've been told to do and what they've been taught is wrong."