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Monday, February 26, 2024

Police chief quits, ‘lacked support’

State Police Director Øystein Mæland has become the first casualty of this week’s scathingly critical report on how Norwegian police failed to efficiently respond to last year’s terrorist attacks in Norway. Mæland announced his resignation just as leaders of Norway’s political parties were launching a debate of their own over the report on Thursday night.

Øystein Mæland resigned his position as head of Norway’s state police on Thursday, saying he lacked enough clear support from the government that hired him just last year. PHOTO: Justisdepartementet

Mæland’s resignation came just hours after police officers themselves had said they fully supported both him and his response to the report, which blasted police for poor communications and leadership. Many lives could have been saved, according to the independent report, if police had done a better job of stopping the terrorist who carried out a massacre on the island of Utøya after first bombing government headquarters in Oslo.

Mæland stated in a press release that he hadn’t received enough assurances from the nation’s top political leadership, not least from Justice Minister Grete Faremo, that they had enough confidence in him to improve police operations. Faremo had stated earlier on Thursday that she was inhabil,´ incapable (because of conflicts of interest) of making decisions on how individuals had performed or not performed during and after last year’s attacks. That meant she wouldn’t fire Mæland, but wouldn’t publicly endorse him either.

“The confidence of the Justice Minister is critical as to whether I can continue in my job,” Mæland wrote in his statement Thursday night. “When the minster and other politicians haven’t been able to clarify that without ambiguity, it’s impossible for me to go forward with this job. I have therefore decided to resign from my position.”

Øystein Mæland was an unconventional police chief. Now he’s resigned, after just a year in the job, because of criticism over how police operated during last summer’s terrorist attacks. PHOTO: Justisdepartementet

He had only held his post for a short time when the attacks occurred on July 22 last year. Few had held him responsible or called for his resignation, since he was so new in the job. He took the fall anyway, and seemed to take politicians by surprise in doing so. Others noted, however, that Mæland had to be held responsible for how police reacted in the months following the attacks to initial criticism of their response to them. They basically closed ranks and made only a few and belated apologies for failing to arrive quickly at the massacre scene, with Mæland himself claiming consistently that they’d acted as quickly as possible. The commission investigating their response determined that simply wasn’t true.

Norway’s party leaders learned of Mæland’s resignation while they were taking part in a live debate aired nationwide by Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) from the southern coastal city of Arendal, where they’re meeting this week for several days of long-planned public debate and gatherings. The release of the July 22 Commission’s report on Monday added a dramatic dimension to their discussions of current issues.

None had spoken directly with Mæland about his resignation, most said they respected his decision and Faremo herself declined to comment on Mæland’s assertion that she hadn’t shown him enough confidence for him to continue. She continued to assert that she was unable to evaluate the jobs individuals had done, while still digesting the alarming contents of the 500-page report itself.

Mæland, appointed to his post in May 2011 by Faremo’s precedessor as justice minster, Knut Storberget, had been an unconventional choice as state police director since he had no direct experience as a police officer. He’s educated as a doctor specializing in psychiatry, but has long been politically active in the Labour Party. He’s a personal friend of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, had served earlier as a state secretary in the Justice Ministry, also under Faremo during her stint in an earlier government, and has been a paid political adviser to several Labour Party ministers including Stoltenberg’s father Thorvald when he was foreign minister. Mæland is also an avowed pacifist who refused to perform military service and was assigned to civilian service instead. He’s married to a male psychotherapist, and the gay couple’s decision to have a child with the help of a surrogate mother in the US sparked headlines because surrogacy is illegal in Norway.

Stoltenberg had also declared himself incapable of evaluating Mæland’s performance because of their close personal relationship. Some commentators said Mæland’s resignation will now make it easier for Stoltenberg’s government to move forward with police reforms, with a shake-up at the top.

It led to immediate speculation that other heads will roll as well in the aftermath of the July 22 Commission’s report on police ineptitude. Jens Stoltenberg himself repeated Thursday night, though, that he has no intention of resigning himself over the police scandal, opting instead to move forward with work to improve police leadership and operations.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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