One of my favorite scenes in the show Parks and Recreation features the lovably uptight bureaucrat Ben Wyatt telling the camera— “I’m not afraid of cops. I have no reason to be. I never break any laws, ever. Because I’m deathly afraid of cops.”
I remember feeling this way before I moved to England. Since returning a few months ago, that feeling is back again. The strange thing is, I know now what it’s like not to be scared of the police. When I was living in England, I started to see policing in a more positive way. From my conversations with other Americans living overseas, I got the sense that they felt differently too. That’s when I started to realize that there might be an opportunity here to uncover how the practice of police work in England compares to that of America, and how their differing approach might point to ways to heal the relationship between the public and the police in the US.
Of course, policing in England isn’t perfect, by any means. And there are plenty of other statistics-driven articles out there comparing policing in America to policing in other countries around the world (see notes section at the end). It would be naive to think that a whole set of practices and policies can be imported wholesale to a totally different cultural and sociopolitical context. I also know that the relationship between the public and the police in the US has challenges on both sides—not only because people (like the beloved and well-behaved Ben Wyatt) are afraid of the police, but also because the police are oftentimes afraid of what they may encounter in their day to day work. But the differences I discovered in my own experience living abroad and trying to learn more about how British and American police work compare, have convinced me that there are valuable lessons to be learned from our friends from across the pond.
There are valuable lessons to be learned from our friends from across the pond.
My first trip to England was on a study abroad in 2007. During my time there, the news covered the story of Ann Sanderson, a woman shot and killed by police. Law enforcement personnel were called to the scene when she was seen waving a handgun in the center of town. She refused to put the gun down and waved it at the police before the single, fatal shot. Sanderson was the first woman to die in Great Britain due to shots fired intentionally by police. At the time, I was so shocked that this was the first instance of British police using lethal force against a woman, that I took scissors to the page, to preserve the story.
I returned to England in 2016, this time to stay for several years as a researcher. One evening after dinner, I went to drop off a friend at a nearby train station. As we scurried down to the car I realized I had neglected to grab my wallet. I announced my mistake and turned to retrieve it, but my friend—a native Brit—stopped me. He asked, “Why do you need your wallet?” I replied, “Because I’m driving.” “Why would you need your wallet to drive?” he asked. I answered simply, “Because I need my driver’s license.” Without the tiniest bit of irony, he followed up, “Why would you need your driver’s license to drive?” A bit exasperated by this point, I told him, “In case I get pulled over.” “Pulled over?” “Yes,” I said. “By the police?” “Yes,” I said. At this point, I think he actually laughed out loud. He went on to explain that our chances of being pulled over by a police officer were extremely slim and that even if we were pulled over (which we wouldn’t be), and even if a police officer asked for my driver’s license (which they wouldn’t do), I could just say, “I’m terribly sorry, it’s at home” and then verify that later by presenting the license at a police station. His bafflement at what is legally required of American drivers has stayed with me—not least of all because I envy how casually he dismissed the possibility of being pulled over, and the straightforwardness of his belief that you can simply apologize to a police officer if there seems to be a problem. Compare his cavalier attitude about driving without a license to my responsibly checking that I have my license, registration, and insurance information with me every time I leave the house to drive. Compare his advice to simply say “I’m terribly sorry” to how I learned to never apologize to a police officer in the USA because it could be translated into liability in a traffic accident or culpability in an alleged traffic violation.
When lockdown began in England, I remember telling a coworker about an interaction with the police. As I was driving into the center of town, the officer was clearly visible, out of his vehicle, and waved me over to the side of the road. He explained that they were out asking people where they were coming from and where they were going, to ensure that the community was aware of and adhering to the new lockdown measures. I explained that I had just left my home and was headed over to a nearby park to exercise for the day. And that was it. No sirens. No flashing lights. No being pulled over. Just a small impromptu checkpoint in the center of town.
Imagine my surprise when my colleague responded with outrage at this “ridiculous” use of police power. “What if you didn’t want to tell them where you were going? You should be able to go about your business as usual! You weren’t doing anything wrong. They don’t have any right to question you.” In his eyes, this was an inadmissible abuse of authority, to interrupt my day and question me; a backward step on a slippery slope toward state control. Not excessive force or violence. Not unwarranted search and seizure. Not unlawful detainment. Asking a question. That was out of bounds. Compare this to the “Comply, don’t die” and “Don’t resist arrest” messages US citizens sometimes take away from interactions with law enforcement. Compare this to black students being taught to ask officers, “Am I free to go?” and to avoid doing anything that might “spook” police. Police in the US, in too many cases, are functioning outside of the very laws they are meant to uphold.
As I’ve reflected on these experiences and tried to learn more about how British and American policing practices compare, I’ve arrived at several ideas I’d propose we consider ‘importing’ back to the states.
Transparent Communication & Signage
The widespread use of speed cameras is a noticeable difference in traffic policing in England and one that allows for far fewer interactions between the public and the police. Rather than an intimidating sheriff hidden on the side of the highway, pointing a radar gun at passing vehicles, there are warning signs as you approach, and second warning signs, and reminder signs, when speed cameras are in use. In fact, they even put up signs when the cameras are not in use.
That’s right. They tell you when no one’s watching.
I have also seen signs stating that there are unmarked police vehicles in operation in the area. So people are aware that the police are working nearby. Variable speed limits are common on motorways, and they adapt according to road and weather conditions, to reduce congestion and help everyone get to where they are going in a safe and effective manner. If your average speed is being checked, again, an excess of signs will indicate this, to ensure that no one is caught unaware.
The police tell you where the cameras are! How quaint.
Compare that to the speed traps, hidden cameras, unmarked police cars, and other common American policing practices that rely on pretense and subterfuge. Compare that to having local police lurking on roadsides to capitalize on your missteps, based on departmental incentives or to meet municipal revenue goals, especially at the end of the month. Since the 1970s, cities in the USA have increasingly relied on fees and fines as a major revenue source, often second only to local taxes. Yet when police officers are under pressure from local governments to generate revenue, they are less able to focus on promoting the public good and enhancing public safety.
If I could change one thing about the practice of policing in the USA in order to improve the relationship between the public and the police, this would be it. We need to end predatory traffic enforcement practices that set up citizens and officers in a game of cat-and-mouse, with officers chasing down offenders to meet externally imposed quotas, rather than focusing purely on promoting public safety. If the point of traffic laws is to actually improve public safety, learning from the British may be a compellingly good way to go about it. There are 12.4 road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants each year in the United States, with 7.3 road fatalities per 1 billion vehicle miles. That is compared with 2.9 road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants in the UK each year, and only 3.4 road fatalities per 1 billion vehicle miles. Maybe the best way to keep people safe on the road is to stop relying on tactics that look more like entrapment than protection.
To me, the openness and honesty between the police and the public in the UK were hilarious at first. My American friends and I used to laugh and tell people back in the USA about these adorable British quirks. The police tell you where the cameras are! How quaint. And they tell you when the cameras are off! How funny. They even tell you when there are unmarked cars in operation. How bizarre!
Over time, we stopped laughing. We started feeling different on the roads. We felt safer. And we started wishing that we could bring that feeling back home.
Limited Police-Citizen Interactions
Of course, I learned about speed cameras in England the hard way. Even with all the warning signs, I accidentally surpassed the speed limit by a few miles per hour and received a ticket in the mail. What can I say? Driving on the left isn’t as easy as it looks. I received and responded to the ticket without ever interacting in person with the police. I had a chance to refute the charges if I wished at my convenience, rather than during an unnerving interaction through my car window.
Overall, there are far fewer interactions between the police and the public in the UK, per capita, than in the USA. Remember that encounter with the police during lockdown? It’s the only time I interacted with a police officer in England. Fewer total interactions mean that there aren’t as many opportunities for potential conflicts between police and the public and that less publicly-funded police time is spent on handing out fines and fees instead of focusing on serving and protecting people, for example by solving violent crime (which, yes, happens at lower rates when police are pressured by their local governments to generate revenues through fines, fees, and asset forfeiture).
We’re spending at least 375 million dollars on just the time it takes for individuals and law enforcement officers to interact.
In the United States, over 82% of all police-initiated contacts with members of the public are traffic stops. And as the tragedies of 2021 attest, traffic stops can escalate into far worse, far too often. In England and Wales, roughly 75-95% of all traffic offenses are addressed using cameras. No personal interaction required. No stopping on the side of a road. And far fewer chances for officers and civilians to butt heads, and to distract passersby with the hazardous conditions of stopped vehicles and flashing lights. Across England and Wales, officers conduct traffic stops with roughly 0.75 to 1.5% of the adult population each year. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 350,000 to 700,000 members of the public who have traffic-related encounters initiated by the police. In the United States, that figure is closer to 10%, with the most recently available data from 2015 clocking in at over 25 million traffic-related, police-initiated contacts.
If we were to adopt Britain’s measures, and a greater proportion of traffic stops could be processed without in-person interactions, it could substantially reduce police-public interactions. No more asking citizens to face frequent traffic stops, not knowing how they will be treated. And no more asking officers to approach vehicles, not knowing what they will find. That seems like a win-win for a stronger and safer relationship between police and the public.
I decided to run the numbers on the costs of police-initiated interactions, so many of which my time overseas suggests could be easily avoided. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Police-Public Contact Survey, in 2015 American police initiated contact with just over 30 million people, or roughly 12% of the population, across everything from warranted arrests to helping someone whose vehicle is broken down on the side of the road. Let’s assume that each contact takes 20 minutes. At an average police wage of $30 an hour, that’s over 300 million dollars on police time spent interacting with members of the public during police-initiated encounters. Not to mention that at the federal minimum wage (7.25 at the time of writing), that’s nearly 75 million dollars in lost time for members of the public. And that’s before other costs, like officers’ time spent on paperwork, public funds spent on equipment, citizens’ and officers’ time spent filing and investigating complaints related to these encounters, and so on. That means we’re spending at least 375 million dollars on just the time it takes for individuals and law enforcement officers to interact during traffic stops.
Of course, not all police-initiated contacts with the public are replaceable. But just by reducing traffic stops—which again, form the significant majority of all police-initiated contacts in the USA—we could save a huge amount of money that is currently being spent on police wages during traffic stops. Reallocating police time and funds away from in-person traffic stops would also have the follow-on benefit of changing the broader dynamics of police and citizen contact. For instance, assuming we could reduce traffic stops by 85% (similar to what has been done in England and Wales) and that other forms of contact between the police and the public did not increase, the proportion of traffic stops would decrease by 41% relative to other police-initiated forms of contact. And if my British experience is any indication, that could be the beginning of a more harmonious, and less strained relationship between the police and the public.
Signalling Respect & Collaboration
As ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars in the UK make their way to a destination, weaving through traffic, they frequently turn off their sirens. For instance, in crowded metropolitan areas, they stop their alarms when traffic comes to a grinding halt and there isn’t enough space to get around. Or on open roads and highways, I have observed emergency vehicles turn off their sirens when they reach a gap in traffic. It’s such a simple gesture of respect and courtesy toward others on the road and in the neighboring areas. Rather than sending unnecessary noise out into the ether, they use their sirens only when they need to communicate with surrounding vehicles. And then they turn them off.
They just needed a chance to work with the police without fear of reprisal.
They just needed a chance to work with the police without fear of reprisal.
This is another unexpected British-ism that fosters a greater sense of courtesy and consideration between emergency personnel and the communities they serve. Just another small difference. But one that, to me, speaks volumes.
Not long ago, I heard Dave Checketts deliver a speech in London, where he talked about collaborating with local police during his time working with the New York Knicks. The Knicks gave away tens of thousands of tickets to locals who came forward to voluntarily turn in contraband items to local police precincts during a pre-specified period of immunity. The community response was overwhelming. As the season progressed, it became clear that only a handful of the donated tickets were ever used. These community members didn’t need an extra incentive. They just needed a chance to work with the police without fear of reprisal. Giving them that chance made all the difference. Because of course, it wasn’t about free tickets to basketball games. And it wasn’t about the Knicks. It’s never about the Knicks. (:
A few years ago, I was walking in a downtown area in the United States, when I came across a protest led by the family of a young man who had been shot and killed by police. The scene of his family members standing outside the police precinct peacefully protesting, calling for justice, and waiting for change, was a wake-up call. I went online to learn more about his story and found out that he had matched the physical description of a robbery suspect, and was pursued from behind by police officers who shouted for him to stop. He was wearing headphones and didn’t hear them. When he reached into his pocket and turned around, they assumed the worst and fired their weapons in order to protect themselves from what turned out to be the cell phone in his pocket. The pain of those left behind—of the families and friends of victims, and of the officers who have to live with the guilt of taking an innocent life—should be a call to action for all of us. This young man is just one of thousands who have been killed by police in America over the years without receiving due process or being convicted of a crime, as the breadth of police overreach has grown to a fever pitch. How can we continue policing in a way that leads to the deaths of individuals who are innocent before the law?
We must end the widespread, senseless violence and animosity.
The Book of Helaman tells the story of Nephi, who laments the “awful wickedness” in Zarahemla. One of the key issues he points to is that there is “no justice” in the land; the innocent are condemned while the “guilty and the wicked go unpunished because of their money.” A legal system that ensures the protection of the innocent, and the accountability of the culpable, is a prerequisite for aligning our democracy with the principles of God.
Furthermore, a legal and law enforcement system that upholds due process is critical. Zarahemla’s history continues with the sedition of local law enforcement personnel of the day who used lethal force, without due process, against innocent individuals. Their families, friends, and colleagues worked together “to deliver those who were guilty of murder from the grasp of justice” —to protect them from accountability under the very laws that they were meant to be upholding. This unconscionable turn of events was the beginning of the downfall of this society as the “regulations of the government were destroyed” and as divisiveness, tribalism, and violence spread.
The Doctrine and Covenants states that “No government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life. We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld.”
Equity and justice in the administration and enforcement of laws that secure individuals’ liberties and livelihoods. That is the objective. We must end the widespread, senseless violence and animosity that exists between members of the public and officers of the law in the United States. We must address the system-wide failures of American policing, to better protect and serve our communities. Increasingly, we are collecting the data and generating the insights we need to create practicable ideas and solutions for how to get there. We all deserve better, and we have a civic and moral duty to do better. For ourselves, our communities, and for the future of our nation, it’s time to work together to improve policing.
For more detailed research and debate around these and other important issues in policing, I’d recommend reviewing Oxford Bibliographies’ entries on Police Use of Force, Deadly Force, Police Effectiveness, Violence Against the Police, Body-Worn Cameras, and Policing, Policing, and Policing and Law Enforcement.
In the USA, law enforcement officers shoot, kill, and incarcerate more people per capita than in most democratic nations, and American police officers fire more bullets in a single encounter than some other countries do in a whole year.