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Thursday, May 23, 2024

State commission blasts Bergen police

A government commission investigating how the Hordaland Police District in Bergen reacted to the death of an eight-year-old girl has strongly criticized both the police and their local chief. “They haven’t understood their own rules,” commission leader Jan Fougner claimed on Thursday, and the police chief in Bergen lost his position a few hours later.

The death of eight-year-old Monika Sviglinskaja was initially ruled a suicide after her body was found in her home at Sund in Sotra, Hordaland County, in November 2011. Evidence at the scene also suggested a murder but the investigation was dropped nine months later when the police issued their suicide conclusion.

The girl’s mother wouldn’t accept it and, through a lawyer, asked state crime unit Kripos to look into the case. Kripos investigator Stig Nilsen criticized the Bergen police for dropping the case and it was reopened last year, ending with the arrest of the mother’s former partner, who had a record of violence. He was charged with the little girl’s murder but contends he’s innocent.

Whistle-blowers defended
Meanwhile, no fewer than four police officers and prosecutors had warned Bergen police leaders of suspected mistakes and deficiencies in the initial police investigation of the murder but were either ignored or even harassed, according to one of them. Among them was Robin Schaefer, who had uncovered evidence of a sloppy investigation, and prosecutors Liv Giertsen and Line Skjengen, who also contended that the botched murder investigation pointed up other serious problems within the Hordaland Police District.  Per Terje Engedal, an adviser to the district’s personnel division, was also critical of the working climate within the district.

They became known as the “whistle-blowers” within the Bergen police, and they were both defended and supported by the commission on Thursday. Fougner, an attorney at large Oslo law firm Wiersholm who has conducted similar probes for government commissions and companies in the past, said that Schaefer’s warnings in particular “were clearly loyal, professional and reasonable. It was a classic example of how people are supposed to warn about internal matters.”

The commission contends that police leaders violated Norwegian workplace laws for not taking Schaefer’s concerns seriously. Not only did they not follow their own rules for whistle-blowers but they did not protect the whistle-blower afterwards. Incorrect evaluations were made by various individuals, according to their report delivered to the Justice Ministry.

Police chief reassigned
“This created a negative mood that led to Schaefer going from his efforts to alert management to a problem, to him feeling that he was the problem,” Fougner told reporters. “He got no response, he was afraid he’d lose his job, and he fell ill. Despite that, his employer took no contact with him.”

The commission’s report is based on interviews with 29 people involved and witnesses, and consists of 1,500 pages with transcripts of conversations. It will now be sent to the police’s internal affairs division, which in turn will determine the extent of a punitive reaction.

The report directed strong criticism at Geir Gudmundsen, the chief of the Hordaland district who claimed earlier on Thursday that he had no intention of resigning. He was reassigned while the commission’s investigation proceeded, and on Thursday afternoon, the state director of the police, Odd Reidar Humlegård, announced that Gudmundsen would not be returning as police chief.

“A lot went wrong in the Monika case,” Humlegård told reporters. “Schaefer had only good intentions when he pointed out deficiences in the police investigation. There has not been sufficient openness to criticism within the Hordaland Police District.” Humlegård, who already had receved critical reports about the district from its internal affairs division and the government prosecutor, said all three reports “show that we must work more systematically to improve routines and the work environment. It’s not only Hordaland that must learn from this, but the entire state police. This will be given the highest priority, also nationally.” Berglund



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