What's Wrong with Police in Iceland?

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In Iceland, police are mourning the unprecedented shooting death of a suspect. In the United States, police are scandalized by the unfamiliar spectacle of an officer using non-lethal means to subdue and arrest an emotionally unstable man who appeared to be armed. Icelandic police are stunned and grieving because officers took a human life. Some American cops are alarmed by the “recklessness” displayed by an officer who spared the life of a Mundane.

The fatal police shooting of a 59-year-old Icelandic man on December 2 was the first to take place in that country since it achieved independence in 1944.

Iceland is not inhospitable to privately owner firearms: it is ranked 15th in the world in terms of per-capita gun ownership. Its police typically don’t carry weapons – and its population, which is blessed to live in a country where violent crime is all but non-existent, quite sensibly prefers this arrangement.

Following an “officer-involved shooting” in the United States, the department will place the shooter on paid vacation and erect an information barricade to prevent public disclosure of critical facts. It will also quietly leak whatever damaging information about the victim it can find in order to reinforce the presumption that any use of lethal force by police is justified. 

The shooter, who is clothed in “qualified immunity,” will be given a generous interval to confer with police union attorneys in order to devise a suitable story before speaking with investigators. In some cities – Dallas, for example – a cop who fatally shoots a citizen won’t have to worry about being questioned until three days after the incident, and he can use that time to review video records of the event.

Owing to their lack of prior experience with officer-involved shootings, police in Iceland (who are certainly capable of brutal behavior on occasion) are ignorant of this ritual.

Rather than execrating the dead man and extolling the valor of the officers who shot him, the police treated the incident as a tragedy. Police chief Haraldur Johannessen told reporters that he and his department “regret this incident and would like to extend [our] condolences to the family of the man.” Some of the officers involved in the shooting have sought grief counseling to deal with the burden of taking an irreplaceable human life.

Icelandic police saw nothing heroic about the shooting, even in circumstances in which they considered that action to be justified and necessary. American police, by way of contrast, are taught that risking their lives in order to avoid killing a Mundane is stupidly irresponsible, rather than heroic.

Charles Remsberg, a columnist for PoliceOne.com news who focuses on the all-important issue of “officer safety,” has described a recent incident in what he describes as “a Western city of roughly 50,000 population” in which a training officer and a recent recruit confronted a suicidal man during a domestic disturbance. When the man approached the officers carrying a shotgun and a handgun, they took up defensive positions behind the doors of their car and ordered him to stop. After he came within a few feet of the car, the training officer doused him with pepper spray and took him into custody without additional injury.

“Neither of the offender’s weapons, as it turns out, was loaded,” observes Remsberg. “Later it was determined that he apparently had intended to `teach his battered girlfriend a lesson for calling the police’ by provoking a suicide-by-cop.’”

Many of this officer’s comrades on the police force were impressed with this genuinely heroic act, and urged that he be nominated for a medal of valor. The police chief moved quickly to contain this outbreak of decency.

“When that proposal came to my desk, I thought, `That’s crazy! It’d be a dangerous precedent to set,’” the chief told Remsberg. “Instead, I advocated that he be disciplined, sent to mandatory training, and removed from the [field training] program. I was adamant that my officers not be afraid – or hesitant – to shoot when the situation warrants, as it, by my analysis, did in this situation.”

Whenever a police officer kills somebody, the public is sternly commanded not to “second-guess” the decision to use lethal force. In this case, however, the chief himself not only engaged in second-guessing, he was prepared to inflict damage on his officer’s career because he refrained from killing somebody. This was because “he failed to send the proper message that this administration wants officers to act decisively, with deadly force, in appropriate circumstances, and they will be backed up when they do.”

When he was a young officer, the chief recalled to Rembserg, “my partner and I often told each other, `I sure hope I’m not the first officer to shoot somebody around this place.’” Mind you, this was not because he and his partner had any moral inhibitions about killing Mundanes, but rather because they were concerned about the potential impact on their own careers: “We had no confidence that the administration would treat us in a just manner after the shooting. When I became an administrator myself, I didn’t want my department to perpetuate that kind of thinking.”

This is why the chief was upset over what he described as the “`appalling’ amount of support” among his subordinates for the officer who had neglected an opportunity to kill somebody. In order to neutralize the subversive influence of a cop who acted like a peace officer, the chief intended to impose exemplary administrative punishment – until his disciplinary proposal was vetoed by the city’s public safety director.

In order to avoid similar scandals in the future, the chief suggests that greater care must be taken to destroy any residual inhibitions on the part of police. To “educate” the public, he continues, “We have to be willing to critique non-shootings as well as shootings.” From that perspective, restraint on the part of police is a danger to public safety – not that we have much cause for concern on that account.

This is a country where police are trained to overcome their reluctance to shoot pregnant women, small children, and the elderly, and where cops who gun down children carrying toy guns needn’t concern themselves about criminal charges or administrative punishment.

This is a society in which an unarmed man who causes a public disturbance can be charged with assault because the police who arrested him panicked and shot several innocent bystanders.

The standard of “valor” to which American police officers aspire is embodied by Henrico County Police Officer Brian Anderson, upon whom was conferred the Silver Valor Award for shooting an unarmed man holding a cellphone.

Police in Iceland are still somewhat burdened with civilized scruples, which is why their conduct would be incomprehensible to those who belong to America’s exalted fraternity of state-consecrated violence.

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