The road to police reform in Norway

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Former Admiral Arne Røksund’s report into the Norwegian Police Force’s response to the country’s worst ever terrorist atrocity is continuing to create shockwaves. He tells us why, despite resistance, change is inevitable.

“The golden rule is to establish a common understanding of the problem, and get people to understand we cannot continue as before.”

The Government district of Oslo witnessed one of Norway’s darkest days on 22 July 2011. A car bomb killed eight and left dozens critically injured, and 69 young people were shot and killed at Utøya Island.

Questions surrounding the effectiveness of the police response soon ricocheted across the country.

Under the microscope

Tasked to investigate how to develop the police force for the future was Arne Røksund, a former Admiral in his country’s Navy. A wide-ranging review, examining not only the police response but the organization as a whole, concluded that Norway’s police force urgently requires radical and sweeping reforms.

The review found that:

  • The framework in which the police operate is not satisfactory
  • There is an unclear chain of command
  • There needs to be robust local police forces that are able to take more complicated cases

“In Norway, we have 27 regional police districts, which is far too many.” They are not able to learn from each other and operate largely in silos without nearly enough integration, says Røksund.

“Of our 354 police stations, 40% have five or less officers, and only 23% have 20 or more employees,” he points out. In addition, they have a lot of work that is not strictly police business.

The proposals included:

  • Merging police stations
  • Reducing the number of police districts to improve specialized units by creating critical mass in competencies and capacity
  • Letting the police focus on their prime responsibility rather than tasks such as issuing passports and dealing with lost and found items

Lessons from the military

Norway’s police system has proved resistant to reform over a number of years — unlike the country’s military. “In the armed forces, every four years we took stock of where we were and implanted a new set of reforms to address the changing realities,” recalls Røksund.

The 22 July attacks had a similar effect on the police, underlining the need for sweeping changes. “Unfortunately, nearly three years on, what I find most surprising is that people are still saying we should keep the status quo,” observes Røksund. “This is because the reforms that we have proposed impact local communities.”

Norway’s localized system is hardly the most conducive to reform. For example, for a merger of police stations to go through, there needs to be unanimous support from the local authorities.

Winning over the skeptics

Røksund was determined to construct a thorough case for change. He says it is crucial to fully involve all the stakeholders in any change process.

He also says it was hugely beneficial to have high-profile leaders such as the National Police Commissioner and the head of the country’s Special Branch on the review team. This has enabled greater ownership. 

Moving forward

Although no police stations have yet closed, nor districts merged, Røksund remains optimistic that change is unavoidable. This confidence also stems from his experiences of heading change programs at the Ministry of Defence, where he worked for seven years.

“Although I have been surprised by the level of local opposition, the golden rule is to establish a common understanding of the problem, and get people to understand we cannot continue as before. You need really smart people to work the problem and then you need to have good communication skills to present the proposals and be a convincing advocate.”

Read our article: Out of the ashes