What Can the United States Learn From Nordic Policing?

A different model for law enforcement

Swedish police van
Would something that works for the Nordic countries work in the United States?
Calle Eklund/Creative Commons

We’re living in a potentially transformative time for policing in the United States. Recently, calls for police departments to be defunded have found a receptive audience, and the idea of reallocating money previously budgeted for police and putting it toward other services instead has gained momentum. The Minneapolis city council recently announced its intention to disband its police department and shift towards a new model of public safety.

A new essay by Ryan Cooper at The Week explores the approach that the Nordic countries — Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland — take to law enforcement. Cooper notes from the outset that the welfare state in place in these nations contributes substantially to their low crime rate.

“Both material deprivation and especially inequality have long been known as contributing factors in crime,” Cooper writes — and it’s not hard to make a connection between that and the calls for increased spending on social services that many advocates of police abolition have made.

Cooper also notes that in Nordic countries, police have a more precise focus.”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,” he writes.

That said, the prison system in Nordic countries is also far less overtly punitive than in the United States, with shorter sentences and more comfortable prisons:

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.

The Nordic model offers plenty to admire on both an idealistic and a pragmatic level, and Cooper makes an excellent case for why it could work in the United States, noting that the highly-touted reforms to Camden’s police department fall along these lines. It’s a very convincing argument.

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