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Why are we seeing so many critical stories about bad policing?

Police researcher at the University of Southern Denmark, Adam Diderichsen, has agreed to take a more thorough look at the many critical cases against the police at the moment. To seek nuance rather than conflict in a genuine attempt to explain the critical relationship between the public and law enforcement and to understand what really lies at the root of the current debacle.

By Nicolai Lynge Drost, , 12/4/2023

1. Why are we seeing so many critical stories about bad policing?

- There is no clear answer as to why there are so many negative stories about police behaviour right now. It’s probably a combination of several factors that have led to the police being in this situation. Many people are chasing stories, both citizens and the media, so it’s carried on a wave.

- I won’t go into the individual cases that have been highlighted in the media, but I hope that they can be a starting point for a more general and in-depth discussion about what kind of police we want in Denmark and what values we want the police service to be built on.

- I see some worrying trends in the relationship between the police and citizens – they’ve been building up for several years and are culminating now. They need to be taken seriously, because they symbolise some very fundamental problems, as I see it. There is also unease within the police service about the political framework, he explains.

Adam Diderichsen also refers to the Independent Police Complaints Authority, or the DUP in everyday terms, which is experiencing an increasing number of complaints from citizens who feel unfairly treated. We will come back to the DUP.

Instead, let us put the specific cases to one side for a moment and look at the way we manage the police. And the framework within which police officers work.

2. What fundamental problems are there in the police?

- The police service of today is characterised by many initiatives from the police reform back in 2007. The reform was essentially a centralisation of the police service and its tasks, resulting in a clearer line of command and communication across the country. Consequently, the service is less locally anchored and operates in terms of efficiency. With a markedly quantitative management style, which is very much about economic aspects and, in my opinion, lacks some aspects from our democratic foundation and the rule of law.

- There have been similar reforms in the Netherlands, Scotland, Sweden and Norway – where studies have shown that officers lack local knowledge, resulting in greater use of force. No research has been done on this in Denmark, but it is very possible that a study would show similar trends.

3. What role do terrorism and gang conflicts play?

- Since the terrorist attack in 2015, the police have been heavily directed towards security. There is much more training and preparation for serious emergency response tasks such as terrorist attacks and gang conflicts, and it has also changed the way we perceive the police and encounter them on the street. In the big cities, you’ll generally see officers wearing bulletproof vests and carrying heavy weapons.

- Research has shown that police officers (and everybody else) behave more directly in risk zones, and the focus on serious crime sharply raises the officers’ threat level when they are on patrol, so that may be a downside of the political preoccupation with avoiding terrorism and gang warfare.

- They have cut the length of the police training programme and have apparently also relaxed the requirements for admission. Politically, they have been so stupid as to decide that the focus should be more on being able to shoot a terrorist, thereby forgetting to include some of the hugely important skills in the training programme that are a big part of life as a police officer.

- It’s important for a police officer to bring something more to the table, and we’ve been thinking far too much in the short term, in my opinion. So, it isn’t surprising that there’s more distrust between the police and citizens.

4. What does the increasing number of mentally vulnerable people mean in police work?

A growing number of patients with mental health diagnoses in comparison with the number of beds available in psychiatric wards across the country has meant that people who are mentally vulnerable represent an increasingly substantial task for the police. Adam Diderichsen explains that more than 10% of police emergency responses involve citizens with mental health issues.

- Psychiatry is a whole chapter in itself. The police are not professionally equipped to deal with citizens who are mentally vulnerable, and the officers themselves recognise this. The police service acts as a kind of waste bin authority that has to take care of anything that slips through our health or social safety net.

With the police’s lack of skills to manage the dialogue, critical situations have often come to a head. And although in some areas there are attempts to implement schemes where healthcare professionals such as nurses attend an incident, it’s not enough.

5. What can be done to solve some of the problems?

Adam Diderichsen would like to see a collective dialogue and some empirical data on which to base decisions about police work. He highlights the paradoxical fact that in Denmark we do not have a research institution that can qualify good police work and political decisions on an academically sound basis.

- We need to talk about what kind of police service we want. And we need it to be done on the basis of knowledge. It is grotesque to think that DKK 13 billion are spent annually on the police service with no research institution that actually focuses on the police and that can generate evidence and ask critical questions.

- We have no other public authority that is not researched – imagine if there was no research into the organisation and development of healthcare. Or you can compare it to Danish Defence, which has the Defence Academy.

- I would like to see the police being less politically controlled. Because if you look at it objectively, many of the police’s tasks today are defined by whichever arbitrary political winds are blowing at the time, which are primarily motivated by a need to show political vigour.
- Let the people have more influence on the police service, and make it more localised again. That would strengthen the police’s civilian conduct and presence. And it would also provide a greater focus on good police work.

6. Are there problems with the DUP and its investigations?

The Independent Police Complaints Authority (DUP) has received a great deal of criticism about the police service investigating itself. Adam Diderichsen also sees a problem with the DUP, but it is not what most people might think.

- The police themselves will of course say that it’s not the police that are investigating themselves, but an independent authority, and that’s exactly what’s happening. But as I see it, the problem is rather that the DUP’s approach to cases has become too narrow and legally motivated.

- As soon as a complaint is made to the DUP, the case is sealed. It becomes impossible to enter into a dialogue, and I think we’ve really messed up by handling complaints using legal proceedings. Naturally, the indicted police officer wants to avoid the decision going against them, and this reduces their willingness to enter into a dialogue about errors or problems in the way the job was done.

- An evaluation has shown that those who complain to the DUP often want recognition for overly heavy-handed or inadequate treatment by the police. Complaints are not motivated by a desire for revenge against the officer(s) in question, but a desire for the police service to learn from the individual situation for future situations.

- And that’s practically impossible with the current structure. Because in the case management process, evidence must be found that the police have committed an unacceptable or criminal offence. Therefore, it is often a case of allegation against allegation with a lot of refutation, which means that the complaint is not upheld – but on the contrary gets a state-authorised stamp of approval that the complainant’s experience of feeling unfairly treated is erroneous.

- You can find countless examples of bad policing – only it’s within the framework of the law.

Editing was completed: 04.12.2023