Call to arms sets off police debate

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Norway remains one of the few countries in the world where police are unarmed except in special situations. That may change, following an historic vote among leaders of the national police union to demand that they be allowed to carry weapons at all times.

Until yesterday, a majority of police in Norway wanted to maintain a “civil” image and didn’t want to always be armed. Now they’ve changed their minds.  PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Calls have been going out for years to routinely and consistently arm Norway’s state police, not least after last year’s terrorist attacks. The weapons issue, however, has been a matter of internal debate among police officers themselves for decades, with even the high-profile leader of the police union (Politiets Fellesforbund) opposing the proposal. Arne Johannesen was among those fearing that arming police would lead to more dangerous situations, more shooting, more injuries and more deaths.

Johannesen lost, though, after two days of debate at the union’s national convention in Molde this week. Representatives for members of the union voted 71 to 53 on Thursday in favour of demanding the right to bear arms. That sends the issue over to state politicians for final approval or rejection.

Johannesen quickly switched sides, went back up to the podium at the convention and said he would of course honour the majority’s decision on the weapons issue. “This weapons debate has gone on within the Norwegian police since the 1920s,” Johannesen said. “Now it’s my job to follow up the decision.”

Police debate leads to political debate
The Progress Party, Norway’s most conservative political party, is the only one supporting the police demand so far. The Justice Ministry is responsible for the state police force in Norway and now must take a position itself, under the leadership of Justice Minister Grete Faremo of the Labour Party. Both Labour and Norway’s other major political party, the Conservatives, appear non-committal on the weapons issue following Thursday’s reversal of earlier police attitudes, but both say they will listen to the wishes of the police majority.

Jan Bøhler, deputy leader of the justice committee in the Norwegian Parliament for Labour, told newspaper Aftenposten that Labour has historically opposed a “general arming” of the police but supports “simpler and faster access to weapons when police need it.”

Weapon practices currently vary among police districts in Norway, and many police officers also have been calling for streamlined, consistent rules. In some areas, police have weapons locked in their vehicles and can quickly get permission to use them if needed. In others, police called out to crime scenes must drive first to the station to obtain weapons, which delays police response.

‘Sad’ development
Many politicians and a professor at Norway’s state police academy said they thought it was “sad” that a majority within the police now think they need ready and consistent access to arms. Professor Johannes Knutson told newspaper Dagsavisen that he has researched the weapons issue for 10 years and found that carrying arms results in them being used more often. He claimed that in Sweden, for example, where police now carry guns in holsters, they get involved in shooting episodes around 30 times a year. In Norway, the number of shooting episodes averages just three.

Few deny, though, that crime in Norway has been rising, that violence is more common and that police face far more serious confrontations than they did in earlier years. The terrorist attacks of July 22 last year also resulted in massive attention to slow emergency response and pressing needs to better prepare and equip police.

Public reaction seemed mixed, according to some random interviews conducted by local media. “Why should it be different here (in Norway) than in other countries (where most police are armed)?” asked 67-year-old Marit Engh. She told newspaper Aftenposten that she doesn’t think Norwegian police would abuse the extra power weapons would give them. Kjetil Lier Svendsen, age 25, agreed, saying the police should have the possibility to use weapons if necessary.

Bjørn Halvorsen, age 65, and Hanna Lodberg-Holm, age 22, had different opinions. “I think the police can d their job with the power they already have,” Halvorsen told Aftenposten. Added Lodberg-Holm: “I can understand the need (for weapons), but I think it will mean more use of weapons, that it will lead to escalation.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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