OSLO – When a man dressed in a police uniform began slaughtering young people at a Norwegian summer camp last week, one of the first to be killed was a real police officer named Trond Berntsen, who for years had worked in security at the camp. Whether Officer Berntsen tried to stop the gunman is still being debated. But facing a man carrying multiple guns and ample ammunition, there was little he could do. Like most other police officers here, he had no weapon.
By law, Norwegian police officers must have authorization from their chief to gain access to a firearm, but they have rarely needed to ask, until recently. Violent crime has been steadily increasing, jolting a society used to leaving doors unlocked and children to play without fear. Coupled with growing criticism over the police’s slow response time to the attacks and confusion about the death toll, which was lowered Monday to 76 from 93, there are growing questions about whether the police are equipped to deal with the challenges.
“Criminals are now carrying weapons, so some people now think that police officers should have weapons as well,” said Gry Jorunn Holmen, a spokeswoman for the Norwegian police union. Though she said it was too early to make any assessments, Ms. Holmen said the union had formed a commission to explore the issue. For the police, she said, “it’s getting tougher.”
It took police SWAT units more than an hour to reach the camp, on Utoya Island, after reports of the shooting came in. Officers had to drive to the shore across from the site of the shooting attack, and use boats to get to the island. A police helicopter was unable to get off the ground; news crews that reached the island by air could only watch as the gunman continued the massacre.
Anne Holt, Norway’s former justice minister, told the BBC: “That makes him a person that killed one person every minute. If the police had actually been there just
a half an hour earlier, then 30 young lives would have been saved.”
Officer Berntsen, 51, who was the stepbrother of Norway’s crown princess, was remembered in a service on Monday. It was among the first of dozens of memorial services and funerals expected in the coming days after the rampage. The man identified by the police as the suspect, Anders Behring Breivik, most likely shot more rounds in the hourlong rampage than most Norwegian officers typically fire in a career.
Norway is internationally renowned for its low rates of violent crime, a fact that is a point of pride for many Norwegians. Murders, when they do occur, are front-page news here. In 2009, the last date for which official statistics were available, there were 29 murders in this country of 4.6 million. In Oslo, the capital, high-ranking officials rarely even bother with a security detail.
“You can walk around this city and bump into a leading government minister out promenading on the street and strike up a little conversation before you move on,” said Kristian Berg Harpviken, the director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo.
So it has been jarring for many in the wake of the attacks to see heavily armed commandos stationed outside the gingerbread facades of government buildings. The nation is now plainly on edge, and it is clear, experts say, that some things might have to change.
Norway is one of only three Western European countries lacking a fully armed police force. Most police officers in Britain and Iceland do not carry firearms, either. Norway’s neighbor, Sweden, began requiring its officers to carry guns in 1965.