Published in the 2015 January-March issue of Iceland Review & Atlantica – IR 01.15. Words by Zoë Robert, Photos from the Reykjavík Metropolitan Police on Instagram.
The Reykjavík Metropolitan police have managed to build up a large online following through their innovative and humorous approach to social media.
Former Reykjavík Chief of police Stefán Eiríksson, under whom the project began, attributed its success to, among other things, the fact that police in Iceland are unarmed and have a good relationship with the public.
In October, news broke that all this was about to change: that cops in Iceland would start carrying guns. Although, the suggestion that a policy change was on the horizon was staunchly denied by the police, the issue brought up some pertinent questions about the future of law enforcement in Iceland and what sort of society Icelanders envision and strive for.
The police’s image was put to the test with some wondering how they could manage to juggle playing both the friendly cop most Icelanders have come to know in recent years and the cop tough on preventing crime—now armed with a semi-automatic weapon.
A Farewell to Arms?
In October it was reported that roughly 250 Heckler & Koch Mp5 9mm submachine guns, with a rate of fire of 700 to 900 rounds per minute, had been acquired from the Norwegian military. Around 150 of the guns were said to be on their way to the National Commissioner of the Icelandic police, and the remaining 100 intended for the Icelandic Coast Guard for use aboard its ships and for spare parts.
Snorri Magnússon, chair of the police Federation of Iceland, explained that the police force has had guns for many years—although general police officers don’t carry them, only have access to them—but needed to renew its stock of weapons.
Former police officer and current Mp for the Independence party Vilhjálmur Árnason was among those who came to the police’s defense, arguing that the Mp5 has only the same capabilities as the Glock pistol, which the police are already equipped with, unless you change the settings, which he said the police would never do. He described the Mp5 as “a safer weapon, with a special aiming device.”
The issue dominated headlines in Iceland for weeks and was also covered by the Norwegian press.Apart from whether the guns marked a major policy change in the arming of police officers in Iceland, there was much confusion about whether the guns were a gift from the Norwegian state, as officials in Iceland had claimed, or whether they had been purchased, and if so why parliamentarians and the police knew nothing about it.
From the beginning, the Norwegians insisted that the guns were not a gift—even though in 2011 Norway sent 50 submachine guns to Iceland without a request for payment—stating that a bill was on its way. If it turned out they were not a gift, they would be returned, director of the Icelandic Coast Guard Georg Lárusson responded.
According to Halla Bergþóra Björnsdóttir, head of the Icelandic Association of Police and police commissioner in Akranes, West Iceland, the decision as to whether police in different regions of Iceland would have access to the guns, and whether they would be kept at the local police station or in police cars, would be at the discretion of the police commissioners of each region. In an interview with RÚV in October, she however pointed out that the association had not yet debated the issue and that therefore a decision on the matter had yet to be made.
Snorri emphasized that there has been no fundamental change in the police’s policy on carrying weapons, contrary to suggestions by newspaper DV, which broke the original story. Because Iceland neither has a military nor national guard—it does how- ever have an elite SWAT team trained in armed combat—it’s important for the country to possess the equipment necessary to respond to potential threats, he argued.
The idea didn’t sit well with much of the public and the matter led to a major backlash. Around 9,000 people ‘liked’ a Facebook page ‘Return the Guns' set up in protest over the issue and it was among those highlighted at a series of anti-government protests in November.
In the end, and after it became clear that Iceland would indeed have to pay for them, the guns were returned, but that didn’t put an end to the discussion.
Jón Bjartmarz, chief superintendent at the National Commissioner of the Icelandic police, told national broadcaster RÚV that it was important for the police to have weapons because of a heightened terrorism threat in Europe, including from IS. Although he could not say whether IS had followers in Iceland, he stated, “it would be completely irresponsible not to be prepared for something like that.”
He also said that although the guns were being returned, that did not change the fact that the police need weapons and that the demand for them had increased in recent times. He also pointed to a 2012 survey conducted by the Icelandic association of police which found that 83.5 percent of its members felt that guns should be kept in police cars.
Despite a perceived increased demand for firearms, Iceland has topped the Global peace Index for the past seven years and has one of the world’s lowest violent crime rates, yet one of the highest rates of gun ownership, mostly for the purpose of hunting and practicing sport.
It’s worth noting that only one person has died as a result of a police shooting in Iceland’s history. The incident occurred in a rare armed operation and shootout in 2013, carried out by the SWAT team.
Reykjavík Police Go Viral
The news that general police officers would potentially be arming themselves came as a bit of a shock to Icelanders, especially given that the Reykjavík Metropolitan police have in recent years carved out a reputation for being the good guys. This is in part due to their efforts at digital policing. In late 2010, the police started using social media and have since built up an online social media presence that has garnered international attention through their innovative initiative.
According to the officer in charge of social media, Þórir Ingvarsson, they were the first police force in Iceland and one of the first in the world to start using Facebook. With 67,000 followers in a country of 320,000, it’s one of the largest Facebook followings per capita in the world.
For their efforts, the police have received a number of awards, including the Social Media Award of Excellence at a large agency at the 2013 ConnectedCops awards, an international competition on social media use. On winning, Stefán explained that, “it has been crucial to realize that social media is not a one-way street but a town square, where the police and the people they serve can converse and work together.”
Þórir attributes the success of the project to several things including that Iceland has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world and over 222,000 regis- tered Facebook accounts. another factor, he said, was that the Icelandic police “have always been an unarmed police force, one of the very few in the world, living in a small society; having a good relationship with the public being of utmost importance.”
There are approximately 600 police officers in Iceland, 300 of whom work in the capital area, which has a population of around 220,000. Officers working in the field are encouraged to post on topics related to their daily work, especially the brighter sides of police work as well as make announcements (they even announce which streets they will be monitoring for speeding).
According to a statement published in relation with the ConnectedCops award, the Reykjavík Metropolitan police “is finding that social media is both a cost-effective way of community policing but is also turning out to be one of the key points into building trust between the police and the public.”
Keeping Up Appearences
Apart from Facebook, the Reykjavík police also use Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest and Flickr. Their Instagram account has gone viral and they now have 115,000 followers from Russia to Chile and Malaysia to Australia, thanks to their humorous status updates and cute and cuddly images featuring police officers eating candy floss and ice-cream, skateboarding, working out and playing with kittens.
The police now have a total reach of about 200,000 people, roughly the same number of people in their jurisdiction, and around 49 percent of people contacting the police now do so directly via Facebook.
In July, Þórir said that the police were receiving around 300 Facebook messages per month with tip-offs about crimes and also questions. Social media, he said, had allowed them to reach many more people than ever before.
In a TEDx Talk Þórir gave in July, he explained why he felt people wanted to be friends with the police on Facebook. “I think most people realize that policing is not just the police’s job. It is a matter for us all ... We like to keep our communities safe and that’s why people love having the police there, being able to have that conversation in real time with the police ... But I also think it has to do with the manner that we’re sending out our messages and using humor has always been a strong part in how we get our messages across,” he said.
Þórir also explained that social media had helped the police attempt to bridge the gap between acting tough and building up a good rapport with the public. “We want to be able to talk to the police, we want the police to be there, we want to be able to communicate with the police, but we also want the police to be tough on crime, and especially on other people’s crimes ... but it’s sometimes a little bit hard getting all of these things to work together to create an environment where people are actually happy with the police and that’s where I think social media fits in.”
Police officer Birgir Örn Guðjónsson, known colloquially as ‘Biggi lögga’ (‘Biggi the cop’) for his humorous YouTube videos, weighed in on the gun issue via his personal Facebook page. He explained that the idea that police in Iceland would start carrying guns had never been discussed. He criticized the nature of the debate but added that “the world is shrinking and our little country is part of it, whether we like it or not.” He emphasized that he and his colleagues sometimes work in very difficult situations and occasionally deal with people who bear weapons. He stressed, however, that “no one amongst us wants to use a fire- arm against another person.”
When asked about the gun affair, Þórir says he hasn’t noticed any changes in the public’s communication with the police but emphasizes that there have been no policy changes, general police officers would not start carrying guns and that they still have “a very close relationship with the public.”
Now that the guns are out of the way—at least for now—the police can return to building their image as a neighborhood friend to the public.
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