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Comparative Policing Revisited: The Struggle toward Democracy in the 21st Century

By Maria (Maki) Haberfeld

Policing is a profession I devoted my professional life toand enjoy writing about. When asked to write about comparative policing for Human Rights, the first thing that came to mind were the principles of democracy and how policing as a profession should be viewed as one of the foundation pillars of a democratic government. The legal profession should be seen as yet another pillar of this societal consensus that is predicated on guardianship of human rights, justice, and liberty.

While it is extremely rare to hear much complaint about the educational standards embedded in the legal profession, and the professionalism of its members is rarely challenged in the court of the public opinion, it is more than frequent to hear criticism directed at police organizations around the country and the world, and also against the individual members of the so noble profession.

Nowadays, no other police force around the world, counting the democratic police forces only, faces as much criticism as the law enforcement organizations in the United States. To understand the causation of this phenomenon, it is instrumental to look at this profession from a comparative angle. The different modalities of policing in democratic countries around the world have one thing in common, one that is absent from the overwhelming number of law enforcement agencies in the United States. These commonalities, and what we are so profoundly deficient in, are high standards for recruitment and selection.

Over 13,000 local law enforcement agencies in the United States represent an array of abysmal standards for recruitment and selection and attest to a very dark feature of the American police profession. The majority of the local law enforcement agencies in the United States do not disqualify candidates with prior criminal records, prior drug use, or an incomplete high school diploma. Furthermore, the local training is left to the purview of the state commissions that frequently allow for the bare minimum of mandatory basic training and very little, if any, in-service professional development.

No other democratic country allows for such abysmal standards. How can a profession represent one of the pillars of democracy, especially when this foundation pillar is so weak?

This comparative overview will focus on five other countries; each one represents, or represented in the past, at least one desired feature that needs to be highlighted in order to understand the grim state of affairs in American policing. A review of the Turkish National Police (TNP), which recently lowered its standards, is included to show the direct correlation between a weakening democratic government and the immediate lowering of standards for police professionalism.


While the TNP by the end of the twentieth century represented one of the most progressive police forces around the world, in 2015 its status and professional approach deteriorated in a rapid and worrisome manner that culminated with the closing of the Police Academy in Ankara and its prestigious advanced degree program.

The Turkish Police Academy was the equivalent of Police Staff College in the United Kingdom or police universities in some other countries. There was only one Police Academy located in Ankara. The head of the Police Academy held the title of president, which was the second highest rank after the general director of the TNP. The length of training at the Police Academy was four full academic years. Within this period, cadets received theoretical training in areas of police practices such as: introduction to law, penal law, criminal law and procedures;human rights;weapons training;police tactics and techniques;intelligence gathering; anphysical training, self-defense (martial arts), and crowd behavior.

Cadets who completed four years of training and passed all the exams graduated as police sergeants, who are appointed to any part of the country and to any police department or unit. Every three- or four-year period, they received an automatic promotion up to the rank of police chief. Comparative Policing: The Struggle for Democratization (M.R. Haberfeld & Ibrahim Cerrah eds., 2007).

The recent closing of the Police Academy in Ankara is especially worrisome as it coincides with the deterioration of some of the democratization on which modern Turkish society thrived in the past few decades. Taking away education and lowering the standards of police professionalism is one of the most dire signs that the democratic principles are endangered and at high risk of been violated. (Please note that one of the topics offered at the academy was “human rights.”)

By comparison, most police agencies in the United States provide three to six months of entry-level training to newly hired police officers. Due to fiscal constraints, training is kept to a bare minimum; however, one might speculate that other concerns play an important role in both content and length of a basic training. It is possible that an average career span of an American police officer is significantly shorter than in some of the countries mentioned in this article; however, career length should not be a valid excuse for not equipping our officers with the tools they need to effectively practice their profession. In addition, there are a number of countries in which an officer can retire after 20 or 25 years of service and still be exposed to wide-ranging and advanced training. Local political considerations might provide yet another insight. M.R. Haberfeld, Critical Issues in Police Training (3d ed. 2013) [hereinafter Police Training 3d].

Republic of Georgia

Nothing represents better the importance allocated to the guardianship of democratic principles than the investment of countries in transition from the communist regime to democratic governance and its police forces. One such example is the Republic of Georgia. The willingness of its government to fire scores of the former militia employees and replace them with highly educated recruits shines a spotlight on the importance of high standards for the creation of a professional and corruption-resistant force. Topping the quality manpower approach with building new modern police stations and precincts with literally and symbolically transparent glass walls represented the new and accountable approach to police professionalism that has no parallel in any other country. Matthew Light, Police Reforms in the Republic of Georgia: The Convergence of Domestic and Foreign Policy in an Anti-Corruption Drive, 24 Policing & Soc’y 318 (2014).

By comparison, some of the precincts or police stations in our big cities—be it New York, Chicago, or New Orleans—show how little importance local governments assign to the working condition of men and women who are authorized to use coercive force when necessary. What is the correlation? It is direct: if you work under dilapidated conditions, your health, both mental and physical, is affected, and so are your discretionary decision-making processes.


Japan’s high standards for police recruitment are evident by its severe screening of applicants’ backgrounds. A police recruit can enter the service as either a police officer or an assistant inspector. For both positions, the applicant is required to pass a national qualifying examination. Those recruited to the rank of police officer must have completed high school; approximately one-half of the police officers are university graduates. Candidates for the rank of assistant inspector must have a college degree and must have passed an advanced civil service examination. As a whole, police officers are better educated than the reminder of the Japanese population. M.R. Haberfeld, Critical Issues in Police Training (2002).

The candidates for police officers are recruited and trained at police schools in the prefectures. High school graduates spend one year at the school, and college graduates go through a six-month training. Recruits are offered courses in the following areas: law, police procedures, sociology, psychology, history, literature, and technical training.

The second year of training is devoted to on-the-job training. The new recruit is teamed with an experienced officer who has been selected to act as a tutor. The recruit then returns to the school for an additional six months in order to synthesize the theoretical training with the practical experiences of the job. Applicants who have been recruited to the rank of assistant inspector spend six months in the training academy at the National Police Academy, where the program is designed to develop the future police executives. In addition, there is an extensive system of special training designed to enhance officers’ skills in particular aspects of police work. David H. Bayley, Democratizing the Police Abroad: What to Do and How to Do It (2001).

Not only must the police recruits be free from any prior criminal behavior, but the same applies to their parents and close relatives. The importance of prior behavior of not just the candidates but also their families provides yet another glimpse, albeit admittedly extreme, to the level of seriousness that needs to be allocated to recruitment of candidates who, upon successful completion of the basic police academy, will be authorized by the states to use deadly force against the members of their communities.

In the United States, we continue to recruit and select recruits at the age of 19 or 20. Barely out of—or in many cases still in—their late teens, these men and women are expected to display wisdom, maturity, judgment, and social and emotional intelligence that most of us do not display until our late 20s and beyond. In some cases, like the Albuquerque, New Mexico, Police Department, recruits are even exempt from the basic requirement of finishing high school if they possess some characteristics that would qualify them under the “exceptional waiver” program. Thus, even the bare minimum qualifiers are compromised, which creates a new host of applicants who might have legitimately experienced some hardships in life; but these events do not necessarily justify an “exceptional” waiver. Police Organization and Training: Innovations in Research and Practice (M.R. Haberfeld et al. eds., 2011).


The basic degree in police studies is divided into three modules: 1) basic studies 1, (2) field work, and (3) basic studies 2. The field work takes place in a local district police department assigned by the Police University College. The total duration of the studies is two years. In addition, there is also a vocational focus. The curriculum and degree requirements have been set up to correspond to a college degree. Graduates from the Police University College have an opportunity to continue their studies at a university to earn an advanced degree, up to a doctoral degree. The Police University College focuses on providing training for commanding officers and for the police administration in general, with special emphasis on commanding-level police officers and police chiefs. It offers both scientific and practical courses in subjects relating to the police field. In addition, it carries out research projects and has close contacts to other colleges and universities; together these factors establish the basis for training in police studies. Police Training 3d, supra.

In the United States, in 2016, our average police training is about 15 weeks, with certain jurisdictions satisfied with nine or 10 weeks of training (e.g., South Carolina, certain police departments in West Virginia). The topics instructed in these police academies certainly do not include many of the humanistic themes included in other countries’ police academies. Also, most police academies are satisfied with a passing grade of 70, or in academic terms, something around the letter grade C. Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS), Bureau of Just. Stat. (2013),


Finally, it is important to take a look at a standardized approach to police recruitment, selection, and training: the Dutch Police‘s recent centralization of 26 local forces into one national unit, in order to streamline effective and professional enforcement. Years prior to its centralization, the Dutch Police had a highly centralized system of police recruitment, selection, and training. Prior to joining the police, the recruits followed one of the three basic courses of training: (1) as a surveillance officer, (2) as a constable, or (3) as a senior police officer.The responsibility for the implementation of the training and its quality was in the hands of the National Police Selection and Training Institute (LSOP). The LSOP was created in 1992 to verse and coordinate the various police training courses. Its actual responsibility extended much further and included assistance to local police forces in their recruitment and selection processes. In addition, it engaged in various projects related to police sciences.

The most interesting lesson in the Dutch Police recruitment, selection, and training process is its approach to specialized training. The separately designed training modules for surveillance and constables seem to target the problem of overspecialization, which essentially becomes a problem of under-specialization in American policing. The basic assumption in the United States is that all police officers should first complete the basic academy training, and later—only if possible, as most departments do not have many resources for in-service training—undergo a specialized training.

One of the most difficult problems to consider is the effectiveness and professionalism of individuals who are trained to be “generalists.” As in other professions, we move away from the “one shoe fits all” approach, and those who want to excel in their respective professions are required to complete additional courses/degrees to be called true professionals. American policing does not share this attitude: everybody in a given police academy is trained and educated in the same manner, and only later might receive some additional training that will turn the officer into an expert in the respective field, be it a detective or juvenile or vice officer, etc. The lack of a professional approach to specialized aspects of police work cannot be underscored enough here.

Lessons Learned

So, what have we learned from this comparative overview? It is fair to say that there are a number of themes that appear to be common to all the police forces featured in this article; and unfortunately, these themes do not seem to be taken under serious consideration in American policing. Some of these critical concepts include:

1. high standards for recruitment and selection—much more rigorous than the U.S. ones;

2. the length/duration of training—much longer than that offered in the United States;

3. topics/subjects of instruction are standardized for the entire police force and much more advanced in the liberal arts directions—the United States has no uniform standards;

4. advanced and specialized/specialist training offered by a centralized police training center—the United States has no centralized force; and

5. expectations from the graduates are above average—unlike the U.S. acceptance of a grade C.

The last theme appears to be the most critical one and needs to be addressed by police academies in the United States; addressing this issue does not require additional allocation of resources but speaks volumes about recruitment and selection procedures. If we cannot recruit and select candidates who can perform above average during the basic academy training, then something ought to be done to modify the current recruitment and selection procedures.

A final comparison involves the continued physical fitness of officers. The majority of police departments in the United States require their applicants to pass a physical agility test prior to being considered for recruitment. Although the agility tests vary by jurisdiction, most of them require the applicants to perform a number of push-ups and complete a one mile run in a certain amount of time. The same number of agencies, however, completely ignore these requirements once the recruits graduate from the academies and become police officers. An overwhelming majority of police forces in the United States do not require any of their officers to be in the same physical shape that was required for their recruitment. Needless to say, this is not the case in other countries.

Of course, this is only relevant if we truly want to create and maintain professional police forces that will indeed represent one of the foundation pillars of our democratic society. If, however, democracy and its pillars are of no real importance to us, then we can continue to recruit, select, and train our police officers in the way we do. In that case, we should not expect any radical or transformational changes in the way police officers will be viewed by the communities they police across the United States.

Maria (Maki) Haberfeld


Maria (Maki) Haberfeld is a professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. She has conducted extensive research in the areas of public and private law enforcement, provided leadership training to a number of police agencies, and authored a number of books on police organization, training, and integrity.