July 27, 2011 / 3:16 PM / 9 years ago

Analysis: Culture shields sluggish Norway police from critics

OSLO/LONDON (Reuters) - In many countries there would be a public outcry if police had allowed a gunman to slaughter scores of people for an hour before being stopped, but Norwegian police have mostly escaped censure, at least for now.

Acting Police Chief Sveinung Sponheim (L) and Police Chief of Staff Johan Fredriksen address a news conference at the police headquarters in Oslo July 26, 2011. Norway's justice minister on Tuesday hailed "fantastic" police work after Anders Behring Breivik killed at least 76 people, setting aside criticisms that police had reacted too slowly to a shooting massacre. REUTERS/Erlend Aas/Scanpix

Norway’s historically favorable view of its police force, its relatively non-punitive culture and its tendency to close ranks in times of crisis could help explain why.

Experts also say that even countries experienced in dealing with violence, let alone normally peaceful Norway, would have struggled with a bomb attack and mass shooting such as those conducted by far-right zealot Anders Behring Breivik Friday.

A SWAT team took more than an hour to reach Utoeya island, some 45 km (28 miles) from Oslo, where Breivik coolly gunned down members of the ruling Labor Party youth wing.

Civilians had already gone to help in rescue efforts, coming under fire themselves. Even the media beat police to the scene.

Breivik killed a total of at least 76 people.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg Wednesday promised a security review. “(Police) organization and capacity will be part of an evaluation,” he told a news conference.

Perhaps Norwegians will become more critical once the initial shock passes.

Even in Britain, there was a time lapse before emergency, transport and security services came under fire for their handling of suicide bombings that killed 52 people in London on July 7, 2005 and for earlier intelligence lapses.

“I’m struck with how light the questioning of the (Norwegian) police is at the moment,” said John Gearson, terrorism and defense expert at the Department of War Studies at London’s King’s College.

“To date, public criticism of the police has been more muted than one would have expected in other European countries .... There doesn’t seem to be the same blame culture emerging yet in Norway that perhaps we have here,” he added.

Comments on online forums were stronger, with non-Norwegians expressing “deep shock” at the slow police reaction, another poster suggesting Norway’s police should be “ashamed.”

Not only did police not have a suitable helicopter to use to reach Utoeya quickly, the boat they had been given began to sink under the weight of the SWAT team members and their equipment.

Reuters cameramen filming Breivik’s farm Monday saw that police had left letters unopened in his mailbox.


Justice Minister Knut Storberget Tuesday hailed the police’s performance as “fantastic” while police Chief of Staff Johan Fredriksen said: “You can’t expect a better response.”

Bernt Aardal, political scientist at Norway’s Institute for Social Research, said there was little history of criticizing the police, unlike in other nations where police have been under scrutiny for using excessive force, for example.

“The police are generally well-liked and not associated with violent, extreme reactions, or been under attack previously. The basic attitude toward the police has always been very favorable and positive in Norway,” he said.

That could change after the promised official review of the police’s actions, but there has been scant criticism for now.

With a population of only five million, Norwegians have tended to come together at times of tragedy, Aardal said.

“The general reaction has been that .... this is an attack on all of us. That’s the typical reaction of a small, sparsely populated country, that you have to band together.”

Moreover, while many abroad might expect heads to roll, Norwegians usually take a less punitive approach — Breivik himself faces an initial sentence of 21 years, a relatively light punishment compared to that in many other countries.

“The belief in punitive reactions .... is much stronger in Britain and the United States than in Norway,” Aardal said.

Gearson said it would have been difficult for any country to handle a near-concurrent bomb attack and mass shooting.

“The scale of the attacks was beyond the normal capacity of almost any even Western country to deal with very quickly,” he said, citing the problems in handling the 2005 London bombings.

“We have to be cautious before we start criticizing the Norwegians for how they dealt with it .... Every country, regrettably, needs its own incidents to develop its capability.”

Additional reporting by Victoria Klesty and Wojciech Moskwa: Editing by Alistair Lyon

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