Unless you have been living under a rock you realize that tensions between the public and the police are at an all-time low. In addition to dealing with their normal day-to-day duties police now have to deal with protests often attended by thousands of people. Mass demonstrations are among the most difficult situations that the police have to manage. They must balance constitutional liberties with the safety of officers and the public. Crowds are unpredictable and often hostile. Too much force can escalate the situation — but so can too little. This article will not attempt to delve into the causes of those tensions but rather offer a few possible solutions to improve relations and restore trust. If you would like to read more about Kobans and policing in Japan I highly recommend Forces of Order: Policing Modern Japan. It is extremely well-written and researched.
Since the riots in Ferguson, the entire country has begun to examine and question how policing is performed in our country. One suggestion you often hear as a recommendation to improve relations is the term “Community Policing.” But what you don’t tend to hear are any concrete plans or details to implement community policing. It has become a buzzword that seems almost ethereal or mythical. But kobans might be a very cost-effective and practical way to implement effective community policing in the U.S.
Table of Contents
Introducing the Koban
In the U.S., police activity is mostly centered around patrol cars and precincts. You occasionally see officers on bicycles, segways, or on foot, but in most cases, they use squad cars for patrols. In Japan, the center of police activity happens in a very small police station called a koban and on foot. The most notable feature of Kobans is the community policing aspect.
Police boxes are ubiquitous throughout Japan, and practically every populated neighborhood or community has one. There are different versions depending on urban or rural areas, but if you include both types, there are approximately 6,600 kobans in cities and around 9,000 chuzaishos in rural areas. The main difference is just the territory they are supposed to patrol. A koban typically will need to be responsible for an area only around 0.22 square miles, but because Japan is so densely packed that means that might include 8,500 people for that area. In the countryside, a chuzaisho will cover a much larger area of 18 to as much as 25 square miles, but with perhaps a population of only 3,000.
One of the more interesting aspects of kobans is their quirky architectural designs meant to be friendly and inviting to the public. Most that I personally observed while living in Japan were a standard industrial design, but you also see a number of uniquely inspired ones as well. Just like in the U.S., Japanese police patrol their neighborhoods, but they do so primarily on foot or by bicycle. They also have cars, of course, but cars are not used nearly to the extent as here. One reason for that is the use of automated cameras with radar over highways which automatically issue speeding tickets by mail. That frees up a lot of officers that won’t need to deal with speeding violations.
I can already hear you saying “But Japan is densely populated and the population in the U.S. is much more spread out. Kobans wouldn’t work here!” Well, yes and no. Larger cities here certainly have very densely populated areas where Kobans could easily integrate well with the community. American policing also has precincts spread out over cities which are often fairly large-sized buildings that are far apart from each other. SInce Kobans are small and cheap to build you could easily have many kobans in an area where there might be only one large precinct building. having more police spread out in the community means faster response times when they are needed but it also allows police to get to know the people in the area they serve well.
More Friendly Interaction With Police Needed
This point has nothing to do with buildings and everything to do with attitude. In Japan, people don’t fear or hate the police to the extent they do here. No one is afraid to walk up to the police and ask for directions, for example. In fact, the nickname for police often used translates to “kind big brother” (without the connotations from the film of the same name). Japanese police are often even used as arbiters in disputes between neighbors in cases that almost always result in court cases in the U.S. The Japanese police are viewed as impartial and fair. They hand out umbrellas in the rain, give directions, and make a point to meet as many people in their areas as possible. I was on a first-name basis with the officers at my local Koban. They even took me out to dinner on several occasions, quizzing me on American police tactics and laws, but also just being friendly.
The crime rate in Japan is much lower than in the U.S. so very few policemen carry guns. I think this also adds to the ease people in general have with the police. When I first moved to Japan, I was assigned to teach at a pretty rough High School. Nearly all the parents of the students were in the Yakuza (the Japanese mob) and other dubious professions. Nearly every day we would have some police officers pop by and walk around the school campus. One older and very muscled policeman gruffly asked me in his limited English about my favorite Japanese food. I told him, though I can’t remember what I said now. He briskly turned and walked away, and I thought that was a bit odd. The next day he reappeared at lunchtime, a huge smile on his face and bag in hand, with the food I had told him about the day before. Now, I’m not suggesting American cops need to go around buying lunch for teachers or anyone else, but I think that’s a good example of simply connecting with the people in the community.
In Japan at lunch, they also allow recess time for students. After they eat, they all go out into the schoolyard and are given basketballs, badminton rackets, and other equipment to play for around 20 or 25 minutes until the next class began. They still have an entire hour dedicated to P.E. as well, and this time is supplemental to that P.E. class. That same officer joined me outside as we got our butts whooped by some 13-year-old badminton prodigies. Actually, they were probably just mediocre, but after the humiliating loss that thought comforted me. I later got revenge when we switched to tennis. 😎
It’s no wonder why Americans view police with such trepidation — there are so few opportunities to mingle with them as human beings. I am not exactly sure how we can improve that but it is something that needs to happen. American police desperately need to improve their image and that starts with community involvement beyond traffic citations and arrests.
Can Japanese Kobans Be Exported To Other Countries?
When I’ve discussed this idea with Americans before, they usually say that it wouldn’t work here. They rattle off a litany of reasons why. Usually, the biggest reason is the high crime rate here and the large number of guns. But both Brazil and Honduras, which have crime rates much worse than the U.S., have used the Koban model to excellent effect.
Brazil was worried about safety for the visiting tourists during the World Cup and decided to give Kobans a shot. They contacted the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the National Police Agency (NPA) who assisted the Brazilians with setting up Kobans that could work in Brazil. Even after the World Cup was over, the kobans not only remained but were extended all over the country.
The success in Brazil is hard to ignore because like the U.S. it is a large and multiracial country with gangs, guns, and violence aplenty. The main goal of Kobans is to nurture the interactions between police and the local people they serve. 200 police boxes were established in Sao Paulo, which is the largest city with a metropolitan population of 42 million. JICA, quoting the military police there, said the number of murders fell to 10 per 100,000 in 2011, from 35 in 1999, due to the Koban system. Kobans have also successfully been adopted in Singapore, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
Honduras in particular is another example to prove that it can work in a high-crime-rate country. It has the highest murder rate in the world. According to this article by JICA, “In Honduras, 91.6 murders occurred for every 100,000 residents in 2011, a figure more than 260 times higher than Japan’s, 19 times higher than the United States and 4 times higher than Brazil’s the same year. This is by far the highest murder rate in the world, calculated roughly at 19 murders every day.”
They started in Tegucigalpa the capital and largest city. At each Koban they put up bulletin boards at the entrances which included lots of useful information both about security, most wanted posters, but also information about yard sales and other events. This encouraged residents to drop by for casual encounters where a mother even asked for advice about the bad behavior of a teenage son. These casual exchanges began to build trust. In one area, homicides fell from nine cases a year to one.
How Could Kobans be Adapted to the U.S.?
The ideas of community policing date back to the establishment of the London metropolitan police by Sir Robert Peel back in 1829. Peel believed that effective community policing could only be done properly with both the consent and cooperation of the community they served and this began to be called the Peelian model from which Japanese Kobans took their inspiration. Policing by consent is still a core tenet of British policing to this day. Like Japan, the Brits seem to have a much better relationship and respect for their constables than we see in the U.S.
Ironically, after World War II, it was the U.S. occupation forces that also helped develop community policing in Japan because they wanted a decentralized police force. The primary difference in Japan and the U.K. is their community policing is actually more akin to neighborhood policing. Here in the U.S., officers will have to cover a much wider territory and have very little friendly interaction with citizens.
Forty years ago in America, our police also walked their beats more frequently. Antagonism from the 60’s from war protests seemed to change that relationship, but some cities are trying to recapture that close relationship again. Many U.S. cities have even sent officers to Japan to observe. I found this article called U.S. Police Walk A Different Beat in Japan that provides a lot more detail and observations based on those visits. I would be remiss not to point out some things that would not apply here like a largely homogenous population, far denser population density, and other cultural differences. Still, that doesn’t mean there are no lessons we can learn.
(Koban – 交番)
Differences in Police Training
One other big difference is the level of training Japanese police receive versus those in the U.S. Japanese police must complete a rigorous two-year course where they are not only taught self-defense but also things like the tea ceremony, flower arranging, mediation courses. They learn a type of martial arts called Taiho-Jutsu. The U.S. military also uses variations of this in their basic training. The aim is to be able to use non-lethal means to restrain and subdue a criminal. Around 40% of Japanese police also have a four-year college degree as well. After their year at the police academy, they are then given an additional three-month evaluation with hands-on training. If they fail any portion of their evaluation, they’re dismissed. After those three months, an additional six months is tacked on back in the police academy for more advanced course work. The training for American police is much shorter and less rigorous.
One distinct difference is the focus on social skills and moral judgment. Even after graduation, they have continuing education and recertification not only for weapons but for technical, legal, psychological courses as well. Promotions to sergeant and above also require three months or more of additional training.
Using a gun in Japan is almost always a last resort and almost never used even if the criminal brandishes a gun. Even if you are a police officer it carries severe consequences and scrutiny. If it can be determined there was any possibility to make an arrest without using your gun, a policeman can be fired or arrested. I point out these differences because that level of professionalism in Japan would be hard to copy here which has far less stringent requirements. But like the Kobans, I think this might be another area where we could learn a thing or two. Most of the incidents where citizens are killed happen because of poorly trained officers not following protocols. We need to make sure officers are better trained and not quite so trigger-happy.
The Washington Post discovered that “there were no fatal police shootings in Great Britain last year. Not one. In Germany, there have been eight police killings over the past two years. In Canada — a country with its own frontier ethos and no great aversion to firearms — police shootings average about a dozen a year.” Yes, there are far more guns in the U.S. but when well over a thousand Americans are killed by police each year at some point you have to think that number is way too high especially in cases like Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, David Hooks, and so many other innocents. Another big difference is the lack of civil asset forfeiture laws in other countries that can cause mistrust and police for-profit abuses.
This is a very complex subject, and I don’t claim to be an expert at either Japanese or American policing techniques. But nearly all Americans agree that drastic changes are needed to improve relations among citizens with the police. I will include some links with more detailed information below. Hopefully, someone above my pay grade with influence will read this article, and consider adopting or at least studying the possibility of some of the ideas I’ve addressed here.
One of the biggest changes needed by American police in addition to improved community policing is better training on ways to use non-lethal force. Far too often, someone is shot unnecessarily in the U.S. by the police. There are certainly times where it is justified — but also thousands of instances where it is not.
I also realize that most cops are good people doing an extremely difficult and often thankless job for low pay. We must make sure to identify and recognize the hard work done by good cops trying to make a positive change in the communities they serve. Conversely, we must recognize that a small minority of bad cops are giving the rest a bad name. In NYC, for example, 5 percent of arresting officers make 40 percent of all resisting arrest charges. We need to do a better job of firing bad cops just as we need to do a better job of rewarding the good ones with better training and pay.