Differences and Similarities: Policing in the US and the UK

Updated Tuesday, 23rd February 2021
How does policing in the US and the UK operate and how does this feed into debates around policing and racism?


There are some important differences between policing in the US and the UK (referring to England and Wales exclusively as they have a particular legislative and governance context). There are some stark differences in the prevalence of guns/firearms among the general public, the number of police killed in the line of duty, and the number and race/ethnicity of civilians killed in police shootings and in custody. These differences shed light on the particular landscapes in which policing operates in both countries and in which debates on policing and racism might be understood.


Differences in Policing Practices & Structures

(Evans, 2007; Potter, 2018; Britannica, 2019; Walker, 1996; Serhan, 2020)



England & Wales

Majority of officers carry guns on a routine basis

Few officers carry guns on a routine basis (though there are specific armed units)

More ‘militarised’ approach to policing

More ‘community’ policing and policing ‘by the consent of the public’

Very decentralised police forces: 18,000+ police forces with varying practices and codes of conduct

Very centralised police forces: 43 Police Forces across England and Wales with national oversight and standardised codes of conduct

Amount of training varies across forces

Considerable training required to become a police officer

Amount of education required to become a police officer varies across forces

Educational requirements are standardised and follow specific guidelines for entry into the profession

No national or federal oversight of police forces or police conduct

National and governmental inspection and oversight of police forces and police conduct


Difference in Gun Prevalence among the Public

(Small Arms Survey, 2017; US Congressional Research Service, 2017)



England & Wales

More guns than people:

It is estimated that there are 120.5 civilian firearms (legal and illegal) per 100 people in the US in 2017

This means that with a population of 326 million (2017), there were 393 million guns

Far fewer civilian firearms:

It is estimated that there are 4.6 civilian firearms (legal and illegal) per 100 people in England and Wales in 2017

This means that with a population of 58.7 million (2017), there were 2.7 million guns


Differences in Fatal Police Shootings

(Inquest, 2019; policeconduct.gov; ncjrs.gov; Washingtonpost.com; BMJ.com/newsroom)



England & Wales

1,004 fatal police shootings of civilians in 2019.

235 of the 1,004 shootings were Black civilians, roughly 23% of all fatal police shootings in that year (14% -16% of the national population). This means roughly 32 Black civilians are fatally shot per million.

3 fatal police shootings of civilians in 2019

The race/ethnicity of the 3 civilians is not disclosed due to the small number.


Between 2015 and May 2020, there were 5,367 fatal police shootings, 4,653 of these had recorded race/ethnicity information (Washington Post). On average, there were 2.28 White people fatally shot by police for every million of the population (2,373 in total), there were 5.96 Black civilians fatally shot by police for every million of the population (1,256 in total). Black people are 2.5 times more likely to be fatally shot, Native Americans are 3 times more likely, and Latinx people are 1.5 times more likely than White peers (Lett, Ngozi Asabor, Corbin & Boatright, 2020).  

Between 2004/5 and 2018/19, on average, there were 0.5 White people shot dead by police for every million of the population (26 in total), compared to 3.3 Black people shot dead by police for every million (7). ‘Black people are more than six times as likely to die from police shootings’ (inyourarea.co.uk, 2020; citing Inquest, 2019; gov.uk; policeconduct.gov)


Differences in Police Officers’ Deaths in the Line of Duty

(Livingston, 2015; AOAV.org, 2020)



England & Wales

2,445 Police officers killed in the line of duty between 2000 and 2014.

The average number of police officers in a given year between 2000 and 2014 ranged from 630,000 and 675,000 (nlemf.org).

25 Police officers killed in the line of duty between 2000 and 2014.

The average number police officers across England and Wales in a given year between 2000 and 2014 ranged from 123,000 to 140,000 (UK Home Office, Police Workforce, England and Wales, 2019).


Despite the salient differences in the contexts in which policing occurs between the US and England and Wales, there are some striking similarities in Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) disproportionality in terms of arrests, surveillance, use of force, and incarceration throughout the criminal justice systems:


Similarities in BAME Disproportionality in the Criminal Justice System

(The Sentencing Project, 2018; Lammy Review, 2017; Prison Policy Initiative, 2019;;Pierson et al, 2020;; Gov.uk, 2019; London.gov.uk, 2020)



England & Wales

Black and Latinx drivers were stopped and searched roughly two times more than White drivers (from analysis of data from 100 million traffic stops across US police forces)

 From April 2018 to March 2019, there were 38 stop and searches for every 1,000 Black people compared to 4 stop and searches for every 1,000 White people in England and Wales


Black Americans are 5.9 times more likely to be arrested and incarcerated compared to White Americans

Black people were over 3 times as likely to be arrested as White people – there were 32 arrests for every 1,000 Black people, and 10 arrests for every 1,000 White people

Black and Latinx Americans make up 39% of the US population, but represent 59% of those in US prisons

BAME communities make up 14% of the UK population, but represent 25% of those in prisons



AOAV (2021) Action on Armed Violence/AOAV. Available at: https://aoav.org.uk/ (Accessed: 11 February 2021).


BMJ (2020) ‘Fatal police shootings of unarmed Black people in US more than 3 times as high as in Whites’. [online] Available at: https://www.bmj.com/company/newsroom/fatal-police-shootings-of-unarmed-black-people-in-us-more-than-3-times-as-high-as-in-whites/ (Accessed: 11 February 2021).


Britannica (2019) ‘Police: the development of professional policing in England’, Encyclopædia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/police/The-development-of-professional-policing-in-England (Accessed: 11 February 2021).


Evans, P. (2007) ‘Policing in the UK and USA: A brief comparison’, Economic Affairs, 27(4), pp. 44–55.


Gov.uk (2019) ‘Stop and search’. Available at: https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/crime-justice-and-the-law/policing/stop-and-search/latest (Accessed 11 February 2021).


Gov.uk (2019) ‘Police workforce: England and Wales’. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-workforce-england-and-wales-31-march-2019 (Accessed 11 February 2021).


Inquest (2019) ‘INQUEST response to deaths in police custody statistics’. Available at: https://www.inquest.org.uk/iopc-stats-2019 (Accessed 11 February 2021).


Lammy, D. (2017) The Lammy Review: An Independent Review into the Treatment of, and Outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System. London: Lammy Review.


Lett, E., Ngozi Asabor, E., Corbin, T. and Boatwright, D. (2020) ‘Racial inequity in fatal US police shootings, 2015-2020’, Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 0, pp. 1–4.


Livingston, J. (2015) ‘Cops: Killing and Being Killed’, Pacific Standard. Available at: https://psmag.com/news/cops-killing-and-being-killed (Accessed: 11 February 2021).

London City Hall (2020) Mayor’s Action Plan focuses on disproportionality of police powers. Available at: https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/stop-and-search-to-be-better-scrutinised (Accessed 11 February 2021).

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (2020) 65 Law Enforcement Line-of-Duty Deaths in First Half of 2020 - National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Available at: https://nleomf.org/newsroom/news-releases/65-law-enforcement-line-of-duty-deaths-in-first-half-of-2020 (Accessed: 11 February 2021).


Pierson, E., Simoiu, C., Overgoor, J., Corbett-Davies, S., Jenson, D., Shoemaker, A., Ramachandran, V., Barghouty, P., Phillips, C., Shroff, R. and Goel, S. (2020) ‘A large-scale analysis of racial disparities in police stops across the United States’ Nature: Human Behaviour, 4, pp. 736–745.


Policeconduct.gov.uk (2020) StackPath. Available at: https://www.policeconduct.gov.uk (Accessed: 11 February 2021).


Potter, G. (2018) The history of policing in the United States. Available at: https://plsonline.eku.edu/sites/plsonline.eku.edu/files/the-history-of-policing-in-us.pdf (Accessed: 15 December 2020).


Prison Policy Initiative (2019) Crime and Crime Rates. Available at: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/research/crime_and_crime_rates/ (Accessed: 12 February 2021).


The Sentencing Project (2018) Publications/The Sentencing Project. Available at: https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications (Accessed: 11 February 2021).


Serhan, Y. (2020) ‘What the World Could Teach America about Policing’, The Atlantic, 10 June. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/06/america-police-violence-germany-georgia-britain/612820/ (Accessed: 10 December 2020).


United States Congressional Research Service (2017) Public Trust and Law Enforcement: A Discussion for Policymakers. Available at: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43904.pdf (Accessed 11 February 2021).


Walker, N. (1996) ‘Defining core police tasks: The neglect of the symbolic dimension?’, Policing and Society, 6(1), pp. 53–71.


The Washington Post (2020) ‘Every fatal police shooting since 2015’, The Washington Post, 22 January. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/ (Accessed 11 February 2021).


Become an OU student



Ratings & Comments

Share this free course

Copyright information

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?