Police Encounters in the USA Compared to Europe

I’ve not been arrested yet (knock on wood!). But in the USA, I have semi-regularly had annoying little run-ins with police. Many of these stem from college days, but not all of them. While I won’t get into the specific idiotic details, I probably should have been arrested a few times. I was fortunate that I wasn’t. But there were also several instances where I did nothing or very little. I still found myself having a scary encounter with an American police officer. 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?

Photo: Jess Loughborough / Creative Commons.

American Police Officers Target Blacks, Minorities and Small Time Drug Offenders

What sparked me to write this happened while watching TV in Manchester, England. I’d had a few pints at the pub. Then kicked back in bed to find an American episode of Cops on TV. I hadn’t seen the show in years and decided not to change the channel. As I continued viewing I couldn’t help feeling quite depressed and disturbed.

The focus of this mini Cops marathon dealt with diverting scores of undercover man power to take down small time drug dealers and buyers on street corners, people literally purchasing $10-$15 of marijuana or crack. Each time an undercover deal was made, squad cars and cops swarmed in from all sides to take down these “villains”. The suspects were then interrogated, handcuffed and the police officers proceeded to give themselves a pat on the back for a job well done.

The “Land of Opportunity” Can Be Harsh and Unforgiving

Most of these police encounters involved down and out people. One small time buyer was even dying of stomach cancer. Rehab needed to be the primary focus over incarceration and a ridiculous ordeal. 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 judgmental place.

Some Countries in Western Europe Offer More Individual Freedom

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.

Differences in Police Attitude Between Europe and America

But enough about drugs. Let’s discuss 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 many 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. Neither do the British bobbies.

When serious operations are required, special units can quickly be mobilized. They have the necessary firepower to deal with instances that involve more than $15 of crack. Lax gun laws in the USA have made fortunes for weapons manufacturers. They’re made the jobs of American police officers more dangerous.

photo of marijuana leaf and handgun to highlight police differences

No Random Police Encounters in Six Years Living in Europe

In 6 years of living in Europe, we haven’t had a single police encounter. Yes we are a bit older now. But there was an instance in the Netherlands where we should have had some explaining to do. It was the night of the Gay Pride festival in Amsterdam. We were hanging out with friends on the canal drinking some beers. We suddenly inherited one of the commercial paddle boats that are only rented during the day.

Since we were fairly intoxicated, we decided to take the paddle boat on a joyride. Right over to the red light district at 1am. This was an area where the paddle boat should not have been. It was also well past the hours they are allowed to be rented. In the course of our 2 hour joyride, a few police officers made direct eye contact with us. Then simply kept on going about their business. They obviously had better things to be on the lookout for. After all, the paddle boat was still in central Amsterdam. So the company would most likely recover it the next day… In the USA, we surely would have been forced to dock the boat and disembark. Then we most likely would have been searched, and perhaps have even gone to jail.

Police Encounter in the “Sundown Town” of West Palm Beach, Florida

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 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 a trespassing felony went way too far.

After that encounter I learned about sundown towns. Sundown towns are historically unwelcoming places for non-whites once the sun starts going down. As I can pass for latino, I was clearly racially profiled by the community and police of West Palm Beach.

A Police Encounter I witnessed in Rome, Italy

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 USA, that man would immediately have been thrown to the ground and handcuffed. 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.

America Has the Highest Incarceration Rate in the World

The USA has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 655 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. Also, only 107 Canadians are in prison per 100,000 people.

Why is that and how can the United States do better with regards to prison reform? For starters, systemic racism in US police departments needs to end. Police resources should not be spent busting small time drug buyers. These are often people struggling with mental health issues, and are not hardened criminals.

Police forces need to remember the serve part of “protect and serve.” The police force is part of the community and while they have a tough job, they are not above the law themselves. Many American communities need significant investment and police reform.

Tell Us About Your Police Encounters Around the World

We’d love to hear some other stories about police encounters on either side of the Atlantic. What are 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.


  • Alex&Bell

    Alex and Bell originally met while solo traveling after finishing university in 2002, in Brugge, Belgium. Alex grew up in the USA and Bell hails from Australia. During our nearly 20 year marriage we've lived around the world, including spending six years living in the Netherlands and Ireland. We have traveled to nearly 70 countries and enjoy giving readers authentic and quality travel tips. Alex is an award winning travel journalist and travel planner, who also freelances for other outlets. Bell is an award winning PhD scientist who currently works for a non-profit lung cancer advocacy research organization called Lungevity. Happy travels and if you have any questions leave a comment or drop an email!

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13 thoughts on “Police Encounters in the USA Compared to Europe

  1. What an interesting post! And so well written.

    Luckily, I haven’t had any incidents in the USA, yet (and let’s hope it stays that way) – except for maybe a border patrol type of officer at the airport who was apparently shocked that I didn’t print my return ticket (of course … everyone in Europe is dying to stay and live in the USA… haha) and was talking to me rather loud while looking at the top of my head, not in my eyes (which I thought was incredibly rude! … cultural difference, I guess?). But when it comes to policemen, I do notice that they – and military personnel alike – walk around in the USA as if they feel very … special. As long as they don’t abuse their ‘specialness’, I think it’s kind of cute. I mean, it’s good when people feel proud of their job.

    In The Netherlands, it’s the opposite, I think. I always get the feeling that policemen feel like ‘the lesser person on the street’, like they are sort of embarrassed. I imagine it’s because they don’t want to be seen as the writing-parking-tickets-kind-of-guys, because people on the streets hate those guys (even though their ‘services’ are kind of useful for regulating parking in overcrowded cities like Amsterdam). Or maybe it’s because policemen are seen by some of my right-wing fellow Dutch citizens as ineffective and lazy people. Frequently, I hear the American system being praised because over there ‘they at least have guns and they DO something when someone messes with them or others’. One of the examples that is mentioned is one during New Year’s in Groningen, a few years ago: a group was disturbing a neighbourhood, big time, and the police waited until the riots were over. Also, whenever a child molester or some other criminal gets arrested, it’s often the result of American investigation efforts (and their budget is probably like 10-100 times larger). So people are wondering: why do we have to wait for the Americans to help us out?

    Just in general, I think it’s funny that policemen are so strict in the USA, because I think American people would feel more obliged to step into violent and unjust situations, themselves, to solve the problem. In the Netherlands, people just wait and do nothing and wait for an official to solve problems.

    I would like to see the Dutch policemen in a nice uniform with red ribbons on the side of their pants, like their Italian counterparts. I think that would do the trick, haha; and then carrying a gun would not (still not) be necessary. I mean, a policeman should be accessible to ask him for the time or for directions, in my view. And if he’s carrying a gun, I would rather just stay away from him!

    1. Thanks so much for the compliment and sharing a really interesting and different perspective on this!

      In some situations the Dutch police are probably too lax. The laws regarding fireworks sales around New Year’s do seem to cause a lot of chaos in an otherwise pretty peaceful and laid back country. It’s incidents like around New Year’s that fuel Fox News conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly to paint a picture of the Netherlands like it’s a nation of anarchy (as he did a few years ago). So many Americans visit Dutch towns and are amazed by how well off, clean, bike friendly and family oriented the country generally is.

      But even though we lived in the Netherlands for 3 and 1/2 years we actually weren’t fully aware that Dutch police were perceived as you said, or felt this way themselves. As we lived in Amsterdam we could survive without knowing Dutch, but it meant we didn’t have full access to fully understanding the country, which takes many years anyway. Over 2 years on in Ireland, with the same language, we are certainly learning new things about Irish culture all the time.

      That’s interesting that US authorities are sometimes involved in child molestation cases in Holland! I wonder if these are often pertaining to US citizens. I know the US spends resources enforcing underage prostitution laws in countries like Thailand- so if an American visits say Thailand for sex tourism and tries to have sex with a 16 year old, there are some eyes keeping a look out to prosecute back in the USA. But as far as we know, underage prostitution in the Netherlands shouldn’t be any more pervasive than what it is in the USA. So it seems this speaks even greater volumes on how much the USA spends patrolling the world!

      Taxes are really high in the Netherlands so maybe the Dutch police could use a bigger budget! Funny comments about their uniforms 🙂 Thanks again for the great perspective!

      1. One other thing I’d like to address- despite all the guns in the USA, no “law abiding”, gun toting American citizen has ever foiled one of these crazy mass shootings. This argument keeps getting thrown around by right wing Americans for more guns to be sold, the problem is, it just never happens.

  2. I love that the cops in Amsterdam didn’t interrupt your wacky boat adventure!

    I think in the US the police ‘culture’ can vary so much from city to city and cop to cop. They can go out of their way to help you or decide to make an example and go way overboard.

    1. Hi Jess, thanks for the comment! Yeah, we thought that was pretty cool of the Dutch police too 😉

      I totally agree about US police culture. I just for some reason have had a lot of bad experiences with them (despite ultimately not going to jail). In Lancaster, Ohio I was pulled over for speeding and backup was called for some reason. There were 3 squad cars behind me and they searched my car with no probable cause. I hadn’t been drinking or had any criminal record- I was just speeding and not insanely. I’ve had bad experiences in Florida and Georgia, but also cops who let me off the hook in Florida when I was younger. I’ve also had a police officer go out of his way big time for me in West Virginia.

      But you’re absolutely right that it’s a mixed bag with cops in the US. I just think on average they aim to be more intimidating than Western European police.

  3. The poLICE in the USA are wildly hated by millions of Americans.
    We have SWAT team raids here over small amounts of pot.
    When SWAT teams raid a home they almost always shoot ones pet dog.
    Many “cops” have shot dogs as small as ten pounds.
    I’m ready to get a passport and leave the USA for good.

  4. I live in the Netherlands and a while ago, I called the cops around midnight, because I smelled gas.
    Two of them came by and checked the windows and vents.
    They then said; “Well, other people had been complaining about a funny smell too, and we’re álmost sure it’s from a factory nearby that had a leak of (non-toxic) fumes this evening.
    But we wanted to make sure that you didn’t have a real gas-leak. Thank you for calling, sleep well and goodnight.”
    They travelled about half an hour to my house, júst to check for sure. Even if they could’ve easily said; ‘Oh, nevermind, that’s probably the factory that the 11 people in your city, have also complained about”
    But no, they wanted to make sure everyone was safe and so they visited everyone that had called.
    (Mind you, these were not the cops that needed to ‘catch bad guys’, so they weren’t leaving important jobs unattended.)

    And when I went by the station, to alert the cops on someone that was bothering me, they sat down with 2 cops and filled in a form, continously saying that it was a good thing that I came by. They apologized for having such a long fill-in-form and said they felt I was handling the situation very maturely.
    Then the police officer left to get me a cup of hot coco and cracked a couple of jokes about their interior and explained they’d just had a course in drug-abuse and what new information they’d heard.
    Just talking a bit, smalltalk to end the conversation. I thanked them and 3 months later, I met the guy on the street. He said; ‘Is that guy still bothering you, or have things been solved? Ah good to hear!”

    ‘Bad encounters’ haven’t really been there, only fair corrections.
    One time I forgot to put my seatbelt on, so the cop tapped on the carwindow and went; ‘Hey! Your seatbelt!’
    I once rode by bike on the pavement and he said; ‘Hey…don’t.”
    I once forgot to buy a trainticket, so the ‘train-officer’ had to write a fine. I was 12 and panicked, rambled my adress wrongly and he let me phone my parents and let thém tell him the adress. I said; ‘It’s my first fine, I don’t knw how this works.’ He giggled, congratulated me on my first fine and explained how it worked.
    And perhaps, right across the border, a German Polizei that got pretty angry when I sat on the back of a bike (something that’s legal in the Netherlands, but not in Germany.)
    They threathened with a fine of 5 euro’s and let me go after I promised to walk the rest (which I didn’t, I jumped back on the bike after they went around the corner, but to be fair, I wasn’t being reckless or dangerous, so who cares.)

    The encounter with the German ones was a bit too ‘harsh’ for my likings though. They usually give you a warning, this was almost a fine, for something I didn’t even know was forbidden (and it was a lonely road, in the middle of the night, we weren’t posing a danger.)

    But youknow, if I lived in the USA, I genuienly think I’d just burst into tears with each cop that’d make me pull over.
    Knowing how focussed they are on misusing their power and how the system works with them and against the civillians…I would just be frightened and néver éver trust them with anything.

    I’m very thankful we have our Dutch cops, that only spring into action whenever there’s a real threat. No ‘first shoot then ask.’ It reminds me of a part in Harry Potter actually.
    Barty Crouch, a criminal, has been caught and needs to be send to Azkaban-prison, (ofcourse after a hearing and after he confesses everything.) Minister Fudge is paranoid and brings Dementors into the castle, for ‘his own protection.’
    He can’t trust the Dementors, who are greedy, hungry for souls and do not feel human-like emotions, so they pin Barty to the floor without any questions and suck his soul out.
    After which Dumbledore, the voice of reason in all this, says; How could you, now we will néver know whý he murdered them and all the other valuable information he had.’
    To which Fudge replies nervously; ‘Ah, whatever, I bet he was just a lunatic that went on a killingspree, we haven’t lost much I bet. The main thing is, that we are al safe now, right? I needed to be safe, I needed my guards.’

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Emma. Generally, Dutch cops are definitely more laid back than American cops. Not to paint all American cops with the same bad brush stroke though. Some communities are far more challenging and stressful for American police and the citizens who live there than others. Some things are shifting in the US, but the country has definitely taken a step back with the Trump administration. When healthcare in the US becomes a right, there is more equality, and fewer automatic guns, perhaps then we’ll see a shift away from the violent culture we have now. You know there’s a problem with a culture when blood and guts are allowed on prime time TV but showing a nipple is not OK. Huge difference between the Netherland and United States. The Netherlands is generally a better place to live in our book.

  5. I am an American Police Officer. I can only speak for my department and my state which holds very high standards of police conduct, which conduct changes whenever there is a disagreement with how the police conduct themselves which is a great thing about America, even if at times it will cause a headache.

    I’ve seen so many videos of European police officers subduing criminals with only using a taser or some sort of non lethal, not even having a firearm nearby. I also see these same police officers nearly die each time. I am quite frankly amazed that more police officers do not die in Europe from these deadly encounters.

    Police training across the nation is very combative in nature, we are always expecting a fight and it’s been that way for quite some time. Whatever it is, large cities seem to create a lot of problems, a lot of problem people. I serve in a rural area that sees most crime come from a large city, the people move here because it’s cheaper or drug dealers decide to start up business in a sleepy place (drug usage and the market of drugs has an extremely negative impact on people and communities which is why we are extremely harsh on drugs)

    We defend values such as modesty, honesty, and living in good ways free from addictive things such as drugs and pornography which has permeated both Europe and large cities in the United states, which slowly creeps to strangle everybody everywhere. There’s a lot of people who see sex and drugs as little things not worth enforcing, when these two things are the two primary reasons for such crime in America.

    I do agree, in Europe, crimes are not enforced. The amount of crimes one can do is far less than that of the United States. The people of the United States seek to resolve these problems and we do it with laws, and the police execute those laws. There are laws against speeding to protect people. There are laws against drugs to protect people. There are laws against pornography to protect people. Strangely, many of these laws are being tried, tested, and removed causing much more problems in America. What drug use is rampant behind the scenes is now open in states like California, Oregon, Washington, what was and still is pornography is now readily accepted by an increasing majority of people.

    The real problem with the United states is there are half the country, with police officers with this half, that fight against immorality and that which is not right or good, and the other half is okay with it. That’s the root that has caused the conflicts here. Europe may have given up on morality a long time ago, but many Americans still fight for it. This is naturally a conflicting existence here, and thus there is conflict.

    I could talk about mental health services being more limited in America vs Europe which has quite good wellness services, but that is more of a political point than the reason why police act so differently.

    1. Thank you for sharing your opinion. While we disagree with much of this, we appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts and you bring up some good points.

      You said “Europe may have given up on morality a long time ago, but many Americans still fight for it.”

      We lived in Europe for 6 years and it’s much more nuanced than that. Laws in European countries are still vastly different on major issues like sex, drugs, alcohol, etc and have vastly different punishments. France is generally stricter on crime and punishment than the Netherlands, etc.

      We believe that ridiculously high healthcare bills and lax laws on the food industry are immoral concepts in the US. Also, alcohol is legal in most of the US and that causes just as many problems in terms of violence, road fatalities, etc compared to drugs.

      When the US banned alcohol during prohibition, it didn’t work. People just made alcohol at home and the government lost out on tax revenue. There was a major problem in cities like NYC before prohibition, as life was especially tough then and more people turned to alcohol in excess. New York City was apparently never more alcoholic than it was during the late 1800’s.

      The US government has looked at countries like the Netherlands, which has tolerated marijuana for many years and seen the crime rates are not higher there. And, in polls, more Americans have tried marijuana and are more frequent marijuana users compared to the Dutch. So the war on drugs in the US hasn’t worked.

      You bring up some valid points with modesty and clashing cultures. We can’t have the population hooked on the worst drugs, etc. There’s no perfect solution, but tolerance should be a focal point of Christianity, and too often in the US it’s not.

      Thank you for your service to your community.

  6. Well I live in the US, and haven’t been pulled over by european cops, but have had experiences with American Cops.

    Situation 1: Small town cop

    We were on a road trip in rural Idaho. We were pulling a boat behind our vehicle. As we were going through a small town, a cop pulls us over. My parents were confused because we were not speeding. The officer claimed that we “flew” past a boat inspection checkpoint on the interstate and was reported by someone working there. He claimed we needed to prove our boat did not harbor invasive species and that ours had “green stuff” on our propeller. The cop threatens us with a misdemeanor and huge fine. My dad gets mad/confused and says we didn’t see the checkpoint and would be happy to go back to the inspection point. The cops tells us it is down the road a few miles back. He lets us go (eventually) and we drive back to the Idaho-Washington border. There was no checkpoint. We cannot find the checkpoint and come to the conclusion that the cop was bored and needed to pull someone over.

    Situation 2: Intruder

    Another instance was when next door, someone broke in and started beating the couple next door with a cudgel and pepperspray. The woman fled the house and came to our house in the middle of the night. We let her in and she was injured and covered in pepperspray. Her husband was still being beaten in the house. We called 911 and about 20 police cars swarmed our street. They broke into their house (the suspect fled) and found that the man was seriously injured. The police tried to wash off as much pepperspray off of the woman in our living room. Detectives came into our house and interrogated her in the kitchen. We sat awkwardly in the living room, for we needed to eat breakfast and get ready for school and work, but the police were in the kitchen.. The interrogation lasted 2 hours. We gave her new clothes and she was taken into the police hq. Detectives stayed at our street the day and tore apart their house. Everything was searched and cleansed of pepperspray. They never caught the suspect.

    Situation 3: Trespasser

    During this instance, there were a group of trespassers on our property. We have land, and people drove their SUV’s all over our field one day. We reported it to 911 and they sent a policeman over. By the time they arrived, the people had left. They still look a look around. They were nice.

    Situation 4: School Lockdown

    One day during school, someone accidently triggered the lockdown alarm. We were at recess and were immediately brought into the gym and lined against the wall. SWAT arrived and searched the school. The school administration explained the mistake. Thankfully it wasn’t the real deal, but it still was scary for 3rd grade me to see my school swarming with police people and the SWAT team.

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