What America can learn from Nordic police

You don't have to beat protesters senseless to prevent murders

A police officer threatening a protester.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

What is to be done about American police? As reporters document continual law enforcement atrocities in response to peaceful protests against police brutality, suddenly the question of how to reform these institutions has gotten close attention. Longstanding calls to at least partly defund the police are being taken more and more seriously, even as some liberals denounce the idea as unrealistic or too radical.

The Nordic countries, as usual, have an instructive example for America. These nations have both enormously smaller police departments and prison systems than the United States, and much less violent crime, especially murders. Emulating their basic approach could allow American cities to cleanse themselves of police abuse and still enjoy lower crime.

A recent study from the University of Helsinki examined the Nordic record on homicide. On the one hand, these countries have some of the lowest murder rates in the world, ranging from about 0.5 per 100,000 people in Norway to about 1.6 in Finland. On the other, Nordic clearance rates (the number of murders that result in an arrest) were as follows: In Iceland, 100 percent; in Finland, 99 percent; in Norway and Denmark, 97 percent; and in Sweden, 83 percent. In the U.S., by contrast, the murder rate is about 5.0 per 100,000, and the most recent clearance rate data in 2018 was a meager 62 percent — which is actually an increase from the prior couple years. These countries also have many fewer police relative to their population than the U.S., and vastly fewer people in prison.

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What gives? Undoubtedly one major factor is the generous Nordic welfare state, which both provides material security to almost everyone in Nordic society, and keeps down inequality. Both material deprivation and especially inequality have long been known as contributing factors in crime — it should not be surprising that there is a strong relationship between inequality and violent crime across countries.

On the other hand, the extraordinary Nordic success at solving crime must also play a part. Since Nordic police are not busy hassling desperate poor people or suppressing protests of their own abuse, they can focus all their effort on catching offenders, which they do very well. Because virtually all serious crime is in fact punished, there is much less of it — in keeping with research (and common sense) suggesting that criminal impunity is another driver of crime.

Importantly, Nordic sentences are rather light by American standards. Average non-life sentences for murder range from a bit under 10 years in Finland to almost 14 years in Norway. Convicts are usually eligible for parole after they have served two-thirds of that time, or half in some circumstances in Finland. Those with life sentences are eligible for parole after 12 years in Denmark and Finland; Norway has no life sentence and those with the maximum 21-year sentence (which can be increased indefinitely in 5-year increments) are eligible for parole after 14 years. By contrast, the average American murder sentence was 40 years as of 2016, and that year murder convicts had served an average of 15 years before being released.

More important still, most Nordic prisons are incomprehensibly luxurious by American standards — more akin to a decently-appointed hotel, with all manner of education, worker training, and entertainment facilities, rather than the Stalinist concrete cage of the typical American prison. Rather than brutally vindictive punishment, the main point is rehabilitation — trying the utmost to make sure convicts are not turned into hardened criminals in prisons, and that they get every chance to land on their feet when they are let out. Sure enough, the rate of released Nordic prisoners arrested for another crime within two years in 2005 ranged from 20 percent in Norway to 43 percent in Sweden, as compared to about 60 percent of American parolees over the same period.

In other words, in terms of controlling crime, America's gigantic mass incarceration complex stuffed full of people serving decades-long sentences is completely pointless.

Bringing this all together: the horrendous inequality and lousy public services of American society produces mass despair and severe social dysfunction. As we have seen over the past week, the primary task of American police and prison systems are suppressing and warehousing the resulting disorder, not solving crimes, and thus cops are feared and hated in many communities. Spending on criminal punishment increased by 40 percent between 1993 and 2012, half coming from local government, and police departments consume a big fraction of city budgets — up to 40 percent in some places.

The Nordic example shows that should these priorities be reversed, crime would in all likelihood go down, and go some distance towards calming protests against police brutality. A much more generous welfare state and better public services would require much more taxation, but it could also be partly funded by cutting the amount spent on police and (especially) prisons that are plainly failing abysmally to control crime anyways. The remaining money for police would be directed towards a radically re-configured way of doing business, focused on solving crimes and rehabilitation instead of vindictive retribution and political repression (which would still be fairly costly, to be fair). Camden, New Jersey did something like this on a modest scale several years ago and crime indeed fell.

When one makes arguments like this, a common counter-argument is that the Nordic welfare states and low crime rates are because the countries are small and homogeneous. It is true that these are tiny nations, but they are considerably less white than they were decades ago (particularly Sweden), and their systems have not collapsed. It is probably true that the toxic political legacy of racism and slavery are why America has not built a decent welfare state yet, but should we be able to do so, it should function in a similar fashion as it does elsewhere.

The point about size also cuts in the opposite way these arguments assume. It is easier, not harder, to build a comprehensive welfare state in a big, powerful country. The Nordics have far less ability to chase down tax cheats or prevent capital flight than the U.S., and are also much more exposed to international trade. America, with its enormous diplomatic and economic leverage, and huge internal market, has unparalleled power to tap the resources of its wealthy citizens and corporations.

Now, the U.S. does have a truly absurd number of guns in private hands, and that will likely keep our violent crime much higher than the Nordics, or other peer nations. We probably would not be able to get all the way down to Norway's microscopic murder rate, but we might get halfway there — though it's worth noting that in the 1940s Finland's murder rate was nearly as high as the American one is today, and has since been cut by about two-thirds.

All this might sound relatively moderate compared to activist demands that the police be abolished altogether. But it should be emphasized that adopting a Nordic style of policing would require profoundly aggressive reform. At a minimum, it should start by disbanding all the big urban police departments and rebuilding them from scratch, to root out an entrenched culture of violent, lawless impunity. (This actually was the strategy in Camden.)

A documentary series from a few years ago took an American police captain and an American prison superintendent around Nordic facilities, and in both cases they were utterly gobsmacked at the kindly decency they saw all around them. Nordic police departments and prisons are so radically different from American ones that they basically are not the same kind of institutions. Adopting the Nordic police model would be tantamount to abolishing the American criminal justice system as it currently exists — which is why it should happen immediately.

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