How Police in Iceland Dealt With a Fight I Witnessed

Last week I was in Reykjavic, the capital of Iceland. The scenery and the people are just great, and so is a lot of their culture. People talk about the socialist aspects of Iceland and other Scandinavian countries, but whatever the detriments caused by their relatively big government for their population size, police brutality is not one of them.

Only one person has ever been killed by the police in Iceland, and he was shooting randomly from his apartment. I realize less densely populated areas generally have less crime as well, but even adjusting for population size and crime rates, American police would have been expected to have killed 1,000-3,000 people since the 1960’s; not over 1,000 each year as it currently stands.

The other night I witnessed the Icelandic police officers’ restraint in dealing with drunken idiots. In America, they would have filled up the paddy wagon, or worse. In Reykjavic, they appear to be more interested in diffusing situations, not escalating them.

First, there were multiple officers standing around dealing with some situation, and a very drunk viking was screaming at them in Icelandic. I assume he was saying something negative towards the police. The drunkard’s friends ushered him away, and calmed him down. The police did not even acknowledge him. This is called restraint, and American police should take note. Instead of acting like a rival street-gang and throwing the rude drunkard to the ground or murdering him for being intoxicated in public, they let his friends deal with him. I guess they don’t have as much to prove.

Then, I just so happened to be in the vicinity of a couple guys who started yelling at each other. I didn’t know what they were saying, and at first honestly thought they may have been joking around with each other. But they were not, and one ran over and tackled the other to the ground. Friends stepped in to make sure it didn’t get too bad. There were some punches and kicks, but I don’t think those involved even wanted to really inflict much damage. The fight had mostly been broken up by the time the police van (which had only been a block away) stopped and about eight Icelandic police calmly stepped out.

I think one of those involved in the fight had already departed the area quite quickly, but a few others involved were gently beckoned to the police so they could figure out what happened. After a couple minutes of talking, everyone was sent on their way. No arrests, no brutality, and no one, not even those who had been fighting, were really hurt.

In America, someone would have been arrested, and put through the ringer. In all likelihood they would have been tackled to the ground, leading to worse injuries than were sustained in the actual fight. Then the police would have lectured them about how violence isn’t the answer–unless you are the police. Then it is always the answer.

This is a simple anecdote that doesn’t prove much, it is just what I saw from the police in the safest country on earth, with practically non-existent police brutality. But maybe it shows that America needs to rethink how situations are handled. Are police here to actually keep peace, and diffuse situations as the Icelandic police did? I don’t think so. I think the majority of people who become police in the USA do so for dubious purposes. Instead of setting an example of how to act, they use their position to act however they want. And I think the majority of police departments are more interested in writing traffic tickets in order to increase their budgets.

That being said, the system of public police does not properly place the incentives to behave well, neither in Iceland nor in America. If police were private, then the company they work for would be able to be defunded if the customers went elsewhere. In order to maintain a good image, and protect their profits, companies would fire and even prosecute bad officers. Currently we cannot defund the police no matter how few crimes they solve, or how many innocent people they maim.

The smaller a government gets, the more control the market has, though still indirectly. And that is probably the real reason why the Icelandic police are pretty good, because they still somewhat feel market pressures that a private company would feel. In a country with 300,000 residents, you have more access to the President than Americans have to their representative, where districts include over 700,000 people for the smallest federal office.

And we see the same thing in America. Generally speaking, the worst atrocities committed by police happen in big cities where the people and the voters have essentially no control over their politicians, nor the people they hire, including the police. In small towns, people know the police chief, and can knock on their selectman’s door. The politicians are much more likely to feel the brunt of their bad hiring, or failure to address cases of police brutality.

Even things that are technically illegal victimless crimes in Iceland were not enforced. Apparently it is illegal to carry around a beer, but everyone was doing it, and the police did not hassle people over it; probably because they are their neighbors, friends, and relatives.

This is not a complicated issue. If we want police to behave appropriately, we must place the incentives properly. Private businesses have the incentive to make sure their officers respond with appropriate force, instead of looking for an excuse to escalate situations. Governments–especially big ones–have essentially no reason to enforce high standards among police.

2 thoughts on “How Police in Iceland Dealt With a Fight I Witnessed

  1. Hey bud, seems like you mention that people diffused 2 situations. Are police here to actually keep peace, and diffuse situations as the Icelandic police did? So did the police really do anything then? Besides show some restraint?

    • Actually, good point. It was mostly bystanders and friends that stopped the escalation. But the fight didn’t stop until the police van rolled up, so their presence i suppose did something. So no, the police didn’t do anything really, but that is one step above the American police.

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