Police Commissioner: More can be done to improve relations with minority communities

The latest biennial Police Barometer found a very high degree of public trust in the police - but a much lower perception that Finns and people with foreign backgrounds are treated equally by officers.

File picture of National Police Commissioner Seppo Kolehmainen, Helsinki, 15th July 2020 / Credit: News Now Finland

Finland’s most senior police officer says more can be done to improve relations with minority communities – especially in the area of recruitment – and to bridge the gap between perception and reality of trust in the police.

National Police Commissioner Seppo Kolehmainen made the comments as a new barometer was published which shows that police enjoy a high degree of trust from 91% of people who took part in a biennial survey for the Police University College Polamk, although this figure is down slightly from a high of 95% just two years ago.

Members of the public were particularly satisfied with the way Finnish police officers carried out essential duties like responding to emergency calls, and prevention and investigation of violent crime; and there’s a perception that police are fair and treat people well on the whole.

However one area of the barometer highlighted that just 53% of people thought the police treated Finnish people, and people from other cultural backgrounds, in the same way.

Kolehmainen concedes this is a problem which needs to be addressed, but says it could be an issue about perception rather than reality.

“There could be an explanation for example if they come from countries where the position of the police is not very good. And when they come to Finland it’s not so easy to change the attitude” – Kolehmainen snaps his fingers – “that you can trust police.”

“We have to work for that question inside the police, and also guarantee those foreigners in Finland that you will be treated very equally” he explains.

“It’s not a question of training because we have three years basic level in [Polamk], and I am 100% sure that it’s included in the curriculum how you treat people with foreign backgrounds” Kolehmainen tells News Now Finland.

“But we should concentrate on those which have passed the police academy 20 years ago, 30 years ago, and guarantee that the attitude changes. We are working on it” he says.

File picture showing detail on police uniform / Credit: News Now Finland

Recruiting more police with minority backgrounds

Another area where Commissioner Kolehmainen says that police can be more proactive is recruitment efforts from minority groups, to make police forces more representative of the communities they serve.

“We’ve been working on this question for years” he says, noting that he’d previously worked as the Director of the Police University College where there was an action plan drawn up on recruitment of people with varied backgrounds.

“We are not talking about people with Estonian backgrounds, or UK backgrounds, but those who come from for example the Middle East, Africa. I don’t have the answer for that, but still we try to be more efficient to recruit people from different backgrounds.”

The commissioner outlines how important it is for police work, whether on a criminal investigation or just engaging with members of minority communities, to have officers with a deeper, instinctive, understanding of the cultural situation.

“If you are from those minorities which are on the beat at the moment, it’s a totally different situation, and we come back to trust again. If you are looking for 95% trust instead of 91% trust, then there are some small things which we can do more effectively and one is that we have 7,300 police officers at the moment – but still people from different ethnic backgrounds are the minority, only a few” Kolehmainen admits.

Black Lives Matter rally, Helsinki 3rd June 2020 / Credit: News Now Finland

Black Lives Matter movement changed the public narrative

The global Black Lives Matter movement, sparked earlier this summer in America after a string of deaths of minorities in police custody, has also shaped the narrative around policing in Finland.

Prompted in part by a well-attended Black Lives Matter rally in Helsinki at the beginning of June, Commissioner Kolehmainen sees that there’s now a more active discussion about police work, their role in society, questions about more funding or de-funding, and trust as well.

“I have had lots of feedback that lucky we are Finland because we have so good police. And it’s funny at the demonstration we got 61 complainants about police activities, asking why police were demonstrating.”

“I was frustrated about that. Because police want to be equal and guarantee public order security, and treat everybody the same way. That is equality in Finnish society.”

Some of the complaints were that officers followed marchers from Senate Square on a route through the city; other people complained that police posed with some of those attending the rally, and holding Black Lives Matter signs.

Kolehmainen says when he saw the goodwill towards officers who posed for photographs, he took it as a signal that police are “doing something right.”

The Police Barometer has been tracking public opinion about Finnish Police for more than 20 years. The survey is conducted every two years and this year it was carried out between 4th February and 3rd March. A total of 1,082 people were interviewed for the research which was then analysed by Polamk researchers.