How Police Are Different Around the World

Police are organized differently in other countries

Canadian "Mountie"
••• Robin Smith/Getty Images

While criminal justice and law enforcement share a lot in common across nations, there are also plenty of key differences. If you're used to what law enforcement looks like in the United States, you may be surprised to learn just how different the structure, organization, and even practices of police agencies around the world can be.

A Rose by Any Other Name

For the most part, the functions of police organizations—and the jobs of police officers—are the same or similar from country to country. Whether you're in Russia, New Zealand, France, the United States, or Argentina, police officers are responsible for maintaining public order, ensuring safety and security, and preventing and investigating crimes.

Same Mission, Different Design

The differences become apparent when you begin to look at how those institutions are organized, the equipment they use, and the ways in which they go about their jobs.

Perhaps the most striking difference in policing between the various nations is the structure and organization of the police system itself. These differences are broadly categorized as centralized and decentralized. These terms refer to the number and authority of police organizations within a country and the specific role of those agencies.

The System in the United States

The United States reflects a decentralized system in which there are multiple levels of law enforcement and police services, all of which are essentially independent of each other. In the U.S., every political subdivision has the ability to provide police services, so that almost every city, town, village, county, and state has at least one and possibly multiple law enforcement agencies, all of whom operate within their own chains of command.

While these organizations often cooperate and operate in concert with each other, they also perform overlapping and duplicative services and are not formally responsible for one another. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are approximately 17,000 different police forces within the U.S., making the nation perhaps the most decentralized country in the world with regard to policing.

In contrast to the decentralized model seen in the U.S., Sweden employs a completely centralized police force, in which only one agency, the Rikspolis, is responsible for providing law enforcement, policing, and investigative services to the entire country.

Various Levels of Centralization

While the U.S. and Sweden are the opposite extremes, many countries demonstrate varying degrees of centralization. In Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are responsible for providing policing to every province with the exception of Quebec and Ontario, which provide their own provincial police forces. Other nations have regional or state police forces that are separated by geography or by roles and responsibilities.

Rules of Law

Besides the way in which law enforcement is organized, the next big difference is the way in which the criminal justice system is executed. Similar to the American criminal justice system, every nation has some semblance of court, corrections, and law enforcement components, but the authority of officers to make arrests, conduct searches, or even make traffic stops with or without reasonable suspicion or probable cause differs significantly.

Police in the United States cannot even temporarily detain a person without having at least reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime. They cannot make an arrest unless they have probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed and that the person they are arresting committed it.

By contrast, in many countries in Europe and elsewhere, you can be arrested just on suspicion of a crime. For this reason, arrests in and of themselves are not as devastating as they are in the U.S., where arrests are only made when a person is going to be charged with a crime. Court procedures, too, vary widely from nation to nation, as do individual rights with regard to the legal system.

Different Procedures, Same Goals

Though they may operate differently and they may be organized in a variety of ways, the goal of police officers, and indeed the criminal justice system, is essentially the same regardless of what country you're in.