The Norwegian police has rejected the idea that its response to the Oslo bombing and Utøya shootings could have been any faster under the circumstances, although promises have been made that the force will learn from any mistakes.
Criticism has been forthcoming over recent days regarding why it took the police nearly an hour to reach Utøya island and arrest Anders Behring Breivik after they had first received warning of the incident. Just on Thursday, six anonymous civilians who helped in the volunteer operation to rescue people from Utøya on 22 July came forward to newspaper Aftenposten to ask why officers did not make use of available private boats that could be taken from the Utvika quay to the island, which provided the shortest crossing point.
‘Would have done the same’
It was revealed that the response unit originally planned to go from Utvika (just over 600 meters away from the island), but were redirected to another quay 3 kilometers away by local district police, where they originally tried to make use of a rubber dinghy that eventually had to be abandoned in favour of a privately-owned speed boat. Local police chief Sissel Hammer would only tell newspaper VG that the decision to redirect the response unit was a “tactical” one.
Police had also been criticized for not making use of their one available helicopter, or helicopters under the command of the army. Nonetheless, police director Øystein Mæland told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that it is not enough to simply take the estimated flight time from Oslo to Utøya – eight minutes – into question. “One must also take into consideration the fact that the helicopter must be made ready and that the crew and equipment must be brought on board.” He stated that “the police’s evaluation was that the fastest way to transport the response unit to Utøya was with car and boat,” adding that it would not have been “responsible” to land the helicopter on Utøya and that men would have needed to have been transported by boat in any case.
Oslo police district chief of staff Johan Fredriksen also told Aftenposten that another potentially available helicopter in central Oslo had been “requisitioned” by health authorities, who had it on stand-by in the case of the need to mass evacuate patients from hospitals in the capital. It would therefore not have been available to the police, even if they had known about it. As that helicopter itself was not prepared for such a mission, Fredriksen stated clearly that even if they had to make the decision now, they would “have done the same in any case.”
‘Unique in the world’
Fredriksen further described the fact that a shooting was happening in a place like Utøya as “unique in the world,” and something that other police forces, used to things happening “in the same city,” would also have no experience of at all. He stressed that an armed response unit had been on standby after the Oslo bombing, with its car prepared with equipment. This meant that it could leave immediately for Utøya, whereas choosing to take the helicopter would have required transferring equipment to the aircraft. He added that the police helicopter that was available was also not equipped for an assault mission, and only an aircraft from the armed forces would have been fully tested and ready for such an assignment.
These explanations did not satisfy everyone. A Christian Democratic Party politician, Einar Holstad – who was involved in a 2002 parliamentary motion to buy a police helicopter – commented to newspaper Dagsavisen that it was “tragic” that the police would not admit that it would have made a difference in Utøya. He described the helicopter as being the best equipped of its kind in Europe. He added that the current use of the helicopter appears to breach the parliamentary decision to have a service with 24 hour readiness.
Furthermore, a spokesperson for the armed forces, Eystein Kvarving, told Aftenposten that the use of its helicopters in Afghanistan means that they are less able to assist the police in terms of domestic emergencies. Kvarving would not say that this had affected the operations on 22 July. In the absence of army support, the police have revealed to newspaper Dagens Næringsliv that they have had to make deals with airline companies to have access to their planes in the event of having to move large numbers of personnel.
Internal police debate
Police themselves have also been internally debating the issues raised in the aftermath of the attacks. Some officer have asked for weapon’s training to be increased. Aftenposten reported that police now receive 11 hours introduction to armed police tactics with a 40 hour annual validation programme thereafter. Bjørn Egeli, responsible for police health and safety issues, described the training as “too poor.”
Police director Mæland told NRK that “there are thing here we can learn,” promising an “open” evaluation that would help the force be “better prepared for similar experiences in the future.” Mæland described the idea floated by many that a national police chief should be appointed to control crisis situations as “a poor suggestion,” stating that “the preparedness system in Norway is built on the idea that those that have responsibility and carry out the job day-to-day also have that responsibility when there is an emergency situation.” He also confirmed that the current National Police Directorate already plays a coordinating and central support role, stating it would be “impossible” for a central police chief to “sit in Oslo and consider the details” around an unfamiliar locality.
Victims want answers
Minister of Justice Knut Storberget had said earlier that he was “surprised that a number of so-called experts are so definitively clear in their opinions” on the police response. He later told NTB that he was “humble around questions” regarding the response, especially those regarding the helicopters, stressing that “I have asked many of the questions myself every single hour since the attacks.” He added that the issues around helicopter usage that were most important should be focused on the availability or otherwise of an army helicopter, as the police helicopter was never designed to carry enough people to form a response unit.
Despite the police’s assurances and the setting up by the government of a commission to examine the terror response, a lawyer representing some of the victims and relatives has already begun demanding answers. Mette Yvonne Larsen commented to VG that “it is a failure in the system when a murderer is allowed to carry on so long,” describing the fact that the response unit went to a quay so far from Utøya and used only a rubber dinghy as “incomprehensible.” Other lawyers reportedly agreed, although they stressed that it was difficult to draw conclusions at this point. One of Larsen’s clients had apparently described it as “completely out of the question” that they should wait until the commission reported in order to get answers to their questions.
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