Sharing ideas (left to right) German police Lt. Col. Sebastian Heinen, Nadia Borissova, GILEE’s assistant director, GILEE founding director Robbie Friedmann, Atlanta Police Sgt. Charles Ayeni, and German police Col. Carsten Twelmeier.

The relationship between Germany and the United States is among the best researched, best funded, and best maintained in the transatlantic arena, says German police Lt. Col. Sebastian Heinen.

“Yet, we know very little about law enforcement in each other’s countries. Policing is still like a black box.”

That is starting to change. 

A small delegation of senior police officers from Germany recently visited Atlanta for a week on an exploratory mission organized by the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange, or GILEE, Georgia State University’s award-winning international law enforcement leadership program, which marked its 30th anniversary last year.

The visit happened at a time when police reform is a hot button topic, after several high-profile cases of police misconduct and officer-involved shootings made headlines in the U.S. over the last few years.

Atlanta has also recently drawn international attention after environmentalists and anti-police activists clashed with police over a new 85-acre public safety training center planned for a 300-acre stretch in south Atlanta’s urban woodland, dubbed “Cop City” by the protesters.

The principle of law enforcement exchange programs “is peer-to-peer, on-site training and experiential learning,” said Robert “Robbie” Friedmann, GILEE’s founding director. “Participants can see, sense, smell and immerse themselves” in another law enforcement culture.

The recent visit – funded by The Halle Foundation, an Atlanta-based non-profit that promotes understanding, friendship and knowledge between Germany and the United States – offered plenty of opportunity for such immersion.  

The German police officials attended briefings at the Atlanta Police Department and toured the agency’s 911 Center as well as the SWAT training facility.

Uwe Marquardt, deputy police commissioner and vice president of the German Police University, said that police in the U.S. and Germany seem to face similar challenges but meet them with different strategies and approaches, depending on the legal and constitutional framework.

The German visitors were surprised to learn how hyper-fragmented law enforcement in the United States is, with approximately 800,000 officers working in 18,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. 

In Germany, 310,000 officers serve in 18 different police forces, 16 operating under the jurisdiction of each of the federated states, and two federal police agencies. And among European police forces, Germany is one of the more decentralized.

Embracing Innovation

The German police officials were intrigued by the extensive use of technology in the U.S. It reflects another core difference in how German and American police are organized, said Mr. Heinen, who oversees basic and advanced training for special forces in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia.

While German policing is built on a system of solid and heavily formalized quality standards and management, he found U.S. law enforcement to be highly innovative, flexible and competitive — one advantage of its decentralized nature.

“That’s not to say one system is better than the other,” he said, but understanding the differences could help identify areas of cooperation.

German police officials were particularly impressed with the Drone as Responder (DFR) Program implemented by the Brookhaven Police Department, which has positioned itself as a technology incubator for law enforcement in the Southeast. In 2021, the metro Atlanta agency was one of the first in the country to launch a program deploying drones to the scenes of selected 911 calls. The drone transmits live footage to responding officers on the ground, allowing them to view hazards and develop sound strategies and tactics before rushing into a potentially dangerous situation. By having a real-time eye in the sky, drones also help determine when 911 calls do not need an officer on the scene. In 2022, Brookhaven’s drones responded to 519 calls for service.

Three factors weigh heavily on the initiative’s success, says Police Lt. Abrem Ayana, who oversees Brookhaven’s drone program: “Motivation within the police department, innovation from the private industry and the regulatory landscape that the government puts in place.”

Brookhaven was also the first agency in Georgia that started live-streaming emergency calls to officers in the field last year.

German Police Col. Carsten Twelmeier, who runs the office for international cooperation at the German Police University, said “the willingness to try out new technologies, to accept failure and then reassess” is a major strength in American law enforcement culture.

However, Mr. Twelmeier and his colleagues agreed that it would be difficult for German police to use drones for regular emergency calls, not just special operations, or to livestream 911 calls to patrol officers, as the legal framework in Germany considers “data protection almost a constitutional right.”

Maintaining the Force

Recruitment and retention of officers is another field where German police officials observed fundamental differences. While the German economy struggles with an aging population and shrinking workforce, policing is still a relatively attractive career in Germany, said Mr. Twelmeier. 

“Becoming a police officer in Germany means, by and large, that you are employed for life. Also, the pay is good, as are the health insurance and the pension.”

Bringing back retired officers, offering sign-up bonuses, take-home cars and other incentives for new hires, and being flexible with overtime “would be unthinkable in Germany,” said Mr. Twelmeier, mainly due to strict labor laws and the status of police officers as civil servants. It is also uncommon to find German officers working off-duty and extra jobs in policing.

One of the areas where the U.S. can strive to learn from Germany is “the high level of education as part of police training,” said Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum, who traveled to Israel with the GILEE program.

Basic training for police officers in Germany takes three years and ends with a bachelor’s degree. To move into leadership ranks, German police officers must complete a two-year master’s program at the German Police University.

“Ideally, law enforcement officers should receive the same educational training as an attorney or an airline pilot,” Mr. Schierbaum said. Police, after all, are key to ensuring that all citizens have the same protection of the law, he adds.

Still, Mr. Marquardt, with the German Police University, said he admired how dedicated police officers in the U.S. are to their job, especially given the circumstances that are tougher than in Germany – “higher prevalence of gun violence and overall threat level, longer working hours, lesser pay.”

In Atlanta alone, the number of homicides caused by gun violence – Atlanta police reported 170 in 2022 – is more than three times the overall number of gunshot deaths in all of Germany during the same year, which was 53, according to the Federal Criminal Police Office.

Sharing Ideas for the Future

Going forward, police officials from both countries plan to focus on selected research projects and officer and student exchanges between the German Police University, Georgia State University, the Atlanta Police Department, and institutions like the Command College. The Command College, in association with Columbus State University, offers a master’s program and serves as a “graduate school” for public safety.

Police leaders from Germany and Atlanta also want to tap into their newly established relationship to share experiences and exchange tactical expertise for short-term challenges. One recent example are the protests  against the planned police training center in Atlanta.

In Germany, earlier this year, police evicted radical climate activists who barricaded themselves in tree houses near a tiny hamlet in western Germany that was about to make way for a coal mine. German police have also been dealing with the so-called klimakleber, or “climate-gluers,” a movement of disruptive environmentalists who are super-gluing themselves to buildings, walls and streets.

“It would certainly make sense to exchange some best-practice models in this area,” said Mr. Heinen.

Another potential area of cooperation will come in 2026 when the FIFA soccer world cup comes to the U.S., and Atlanta will be a host city. The tournament is expected to draw thousands of so-called “hooligans,” violent sports fans mainly from Europe, to the country. Unlike German police with highly-trained riot units, most law enforcement agencies in the U.S. don’t have the resources, training and equipment to match European countries’ massive crowd-control operations.

“I think it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that there will be some joint training programs,” said GILEE’s Mr. Friedmann.

He also hopes that “the Germany exchange will be modeled after the successful programs that we already have” with other countries, like Israel, the United Kingdom, the Bahamas, and Hungary.

The German delegation was the continuation of GILEE’s new Germany pilot program. Last year, a group of police leaders from metro Atlanta were hosted by the German Police University in Münster in northwestern Germany for a week of lectures, discussions and field trips.

Mr. Schierbaum said international programs such as GILEE “allow us to look at other democratic nations and their law enforcement agencies for ideas around elevating the trust and effectiveness in our profession.” 

In the case of Germany and Georgia, after two immersion tours through each other’s world of law enforcement, what’s going on in the black box of policing has become a little more understandable.