‘Police need help’ in a nervous Oslo

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A recent rash of shootings, robberies and now even another threatening situation in broad daylight have suddenly raised questions about how safe a city Oslo really is. Norway’s new justice minister, poised to spread more police funding outside of Oslo, insists it is, while others claim the capital’s resources for law and order are spread far too thin.

Oslo police were once again called out in force to deal with a threatening situation this week that could have left many dead or injured. They managed to avert that, but it was another example of excessive demands on the local force. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“The police force must be strengthened in Oslo, not the entire country,” editorialized newspaper Aftenposten last week. Norway’s new Labour-Center government “wants a concrete plan” to expand police proximity all over the country, “but that’s not necessarily needed everywhere. Strengthening should come where the problems are biggest.”

That was published even before a man with a history of violence who’d been committed to a psychiatric insitution less than a year ago ran amok with a knife in the city’s Bislett neighbourhood Tuesday morning. Police mounted a major response, but were only able to stop him after shooting and killing him, an extremely rare use of force in Norway.

The frightening incident also raises questions about the quality of mental health care and enforcement of court verdicts meant to protect the public. One psychiatrist who’s often called upon in court cases, Randi Rosenqvist, has long called for much better monitoring of those suffering from psychosis, and thinks Norway needs to commit far more potentially dangerous patients to mandatory care and follow them up much more closely. She has also complained of a “dramatic” decline in psychiatric care in Norway: “You’re under pressure to release people who simply have calmed down.”

On Wednesday, the top regional official for Oslo and its surrounding county of Viken launched a supervisory probe into Tuesday’s drama, and how it could have occurred. The local governor wants to know what kind of psychiatric care the now-dead assailant had received, and why he’d been granted a leave of absence from the psychiatric insitution where he’s been held, before he launched a stabbing spree similar to one he’d carried out just two years ago. “The case has a high priority for us,” claimed the governor’s office.

It’s also been a high priority to delve into the reasons for six serious shootings around Oslo since late summer, one of them fatal. “It’s important to note that Oslo is a safe city,” Justice Minister Emilie Mehl of the Center Party said during a visit last week to one of the police stations near where one of the shootings had occurred. She claimed they were all tied to “conflicts” within well-known criminal circles, but they’ve also left a recent survey showing that fully a third of young residents of eastern and southern Oslo fear being subjected to violence.

Mehl met again this week with the head of Oslo’s city government, Raymond Johansen, who’s been pleading for more state funding for Oslo. Johansen represents the Labour Party, which heads the government coalition in which Mehl serves, leading some to expect he’d be able to get the resources needed both for local police and crime prevention programs. “And it’s important our resource situation becomes stable, since we are the only really big city in Norway with all the challenges that entails,” Johansen told newspaper Dagsavisen.

Justice Minister Emilie Mehl in another recent meeting, with civil defense troops in Oslo. PHOTO: Justis departementet

Even though some extra immediate funding was offered for a new job center at Mortensrud, where the fatal shooting took place last last month, there were no promises of either more money or measures. Mehl was also non-committal, although she acknowledged the severity of Tuesday’s threat: “We have again experienced a serious incident in a public place,” Mehl told news bureau NTB. “This was a frighting experience for the local neighbourhood that also ended in tragedy for the assailant. I’m following the situation closely.”

Mehl and Oslo Police Chief Beate Gangås also met last week to discuss rising crime and violence in Oslo. Oslo police are currently conducting weapons checks on a random basis and have seized around 50 firearms and dozens of knives being illegally carried in the capital. The head of the police officers’ union, Oslo Politiforening, calls the meetings between Mehl and Gangås, and meetings aimed at calming the public, “symbol politics” at a time when crime is reaching new highs.

“What’s happening now is that crime in east Oslo is hitting a new top, the media is writing about it and the politicians (like Mehl) are showing face,” Kristin Aga, leader of the local police union. “Police  leaders have been told to make it look like they’re doing something, but the fact is that the police chief in Oslo has cut staff out on patrol over the past year and among those trying to prevent crime. In the downtown area, they’ve cut 30 jobs on the police patrol.” The hard-hit areas of Stovner, Manglerud, Grønland and Sentrum (downtown) have lost 55 staffers.

Meanwhile, Mehl is working on a plan to set up 20 new police stations elsewhere in Norway. Dagsavisen reported that she wouldn’t say what that might mean for Oslo.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund