Just to clarify, I’ve never been arrested (knock on wood!), but in the USA I seemed to semi-regularly have annoying little run-ins with police from time to time. Many of these stemmed from college days, and I while I won’t get into the specific idiotic details of those occurences, I probably should have been arrested a few times, and I was fortunate that I wasn’t. But there were also several instances where I did nothing or very little and found myself having an annoying and scary encounter with an imposing American police officer itching to exercise his authority. In contrast, the past 6 years in Europe have played out quite differently. So what are some general differences between police encounters in the USA compared to Europe?
The reality of most of the instances were that these were down and out people (one small time buyer was even dying of stomach cancer) and rehab needed to be the primary focus over incarceration and a ridicuclous fuss. Booking people over small drug crimes wastes resources, brands people with criminal records and creates a vicious cycle making it more challenging to integrate the incarcerated back into the work force. The USA has slipped in its worldwide ranking of its citizens ability to obtain upward social mobility. Just watching an episode of ‘Cops’ shows a glimpse into why the “land of opportunity” can be a very unforgiving and judgemental place.
European laws differ from country to country, but as previous residents of Amsterdam it seems ludicrous to incarcerate over a small amount of marijuana. In Germany, if you’re caught with a small amount of weed, your name might be recorded in the system, but you won’t go to jail over it (similar to what the state of Massachusetts has done). Fair enough, and we’re sure Justin Bieber would have preferred to be busted with his pot under German or Massachusetts laws rather than totalitarian Florida law.
But enough about drugs- let’s shift focus to the general differences in attitude between police encounters in the USA compared to Europe. The motto of American police is to “protect and serve.” While there are constant exceptions, I’ve frequently found the serving aspect of many American police officers to be lacking, and the protecting aspect to often be well over the top. In our current home of Dublin, Ireland, the Gardai (Irish police) don’t even carry guns, and neither do the British bobbies. When serious operations are required, special units can quickly be mobilized with the necessary firepower to deal with instances that involve more than $15 of crack. In fairness, the lax gun laws in the USA, that have made fortunes for weapons manufacturers, have made the job of an American police officer more dangerous than it needs to be.
2 years ago we rented a car in Florida and drove from Orlando to see friends in Fort Lauderdale. It was a beautiful trip that was dampened by an annoying an unnecessary run-in with a police officer in West Palm Beach. We pulled the car over in a construction area, in an upscale neighborhood to change out of my sandals because my feet were cold. It took all of two minutes for a police siren to be heard and a squad car to be parked right behind us. I was questioned as to why I was trespassing in a construction zone, which is considered a felony (even though I was only parked on the edge of the lot because there was no parking on the street). The officer asked me if I’d taken any construction equipment (which of course I hadn’t), ran our license plate, asked why I had a rental car and searched the vehicle. When everything came up clear, he was nice enough to apologize but said he just needed to be sure. Fair enough, but previously threatening to possibly arrest me over trespassing went way too far.
In Italy I once saw an Italian man screaming and pointing in the face of a police officer over a traffic disagreement. I was shocked, if that was in the United States, that man would immediately have been thrown to the ground and handcuffed for far less of a scene. Americans worry about the freedoms they’ve lost in recent years due to the Patriot Act, but the truth is that the USA has had elements of a police state for many years now, and many Europeans are aware of this. The American criminal justice system has in many instances been far too strict on many small “crimes.” I applaud states like Colorado and Washington for decriminalizing recreational use of marijuana. These are positive steps forward to having a less intrusive government that wastes fewer resources over frivolous matters, while arguing over a massive budget deficit that funds by far the largest military in the world.
The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 716 prisoners per 100,000 in the population. The closest European country is Greenland (I know right, who knew!) with 340 prisoners per 100,000 of their population. Our current home country of Ireland has just a fraction of both, with just 94 prisoners per 100,000 Irish residents. While there are elements of freedom of speech in America, having the highest incarceration rate in the world is the antithesis of what a free country is supposed to look like.
We’d love to hear some other stories about police run-ins on either side of the Atlantic, and your perceptions of differences between police in the USA compared to Europe. A good outline of some other differences between American and European culture can be read on Eupedia.