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“Diversity is not our priority,” say police

On a bleak November day up to 1,000 police officers from all over Finland converged on Helsinki’s Senate Square to protest rolling resource cuts that have eaten into the ranks of officers. However, the uniform face of Finnish law enforcement was in stark contrast to the increasingly diverse communities they are required to serve.

Poliiseja osoittamassa mieltä Senaatintorilla.
Image: Manouk Barnas

Immigration in Finland is on the rise, but the number of policemen with an immigrant background has not grown to reflect the country’s changing demographics, particularly in large urban centres. According to Police Chief Inspector Juha Hakola of the Helsinki Police Department “diversity within law enforcement is certainly important, but currently a lack of resources and funding is our number one priority.”

The Finnish Police Federation (SPJL) says that by its count the police-to-citizen ratio is one of the lowest among all European states. In early 2013, the number of police departments decreased from 24 to 11, leaving a police-to-citizen ratio of 1 to 733. The overall under-resourcing of the force is also visible in an under-representation of non-Finns among the ranks of the police.

“We have a serious lack of police officers, there are so few of us. Lack of money could be a great cause of this, which also leads to a lack of diversity in my opinion. Our priority is not to gain in diversity, but to gain in numbers in general,” stated one of the protesting officers.

According to the Council of Europe, the composition of police forces should normally be representative of the communities they serve. Thus, a focus on diversification in recruitment helps establish a more trusting climate between the police and different population groups.

Officials estimate that there are currently 10 immigrant-background police officers in Helsinki, less than five in Espoo, and in Vantaa, a suburb with the highest proportion of non-Finns, there are  none at all. Senior police officers have acknowledged that culture and diversity are important, but speculated that the strict Finnish-language requirements could be deterring immigrants from applying to enter the Police University College. They also point out that the lack of internal resources shifts the priority away from diversity.

Joining the demonstration, Sergeant Jani Aunio emphasized that police officers with an immigrant background are more than welcome, but only if they pass exactly the same tests as native Finns. Police officer Maria Vaatti agreed.

“I absolutely think that diversity is a good thing. We should represent the whole country and its diversity. We police officers are focused on our own problems, like getting more resources and manpower. We do not think about diversity often enough, and probably do not even realize how important it could be,” Vaatti said.

A need for clear ground rules

Police also point out that the weak representation of immigrant groups in the force also feeds into a lack of cultural understanding between police and migrant groups. Helsinki police spokesman Juha Hakola explained that it is important to add cultural colour to the Finnish police department, since many generations of immigrants have settled in Finland.

Poliiseja osoittamassa mieltä Senaatintorilla.
Law enforcement officers were protesting the struggle to police their communities with dwindling resources. Image: Manouk Barnas

Expanding the composition of law enforcement would also require the police service to examine its own views on diversity and multiculturalism. Greater inclusiveness would require clear guidelines for managing religious and cultural differences in the workplace. Recent media reports about a Sikh bus driver winning the right to wear his traditional turban at work and a female store clerk fired for wearing a head scarf indicate that employers in Finland are still struggling to establish clear ground rules for these cases.

However Hakola was confident that the police could navigate the cultural minefield.

 “We will find a middle ground in order to incorporate all the different groups of the community,” he emphasized.

Sergeant Aunio agreed, but with one qualification. Uniformed groups are required to maintain neutrality, he observed.

“Everyone can be who they want to be, but we have to have a neutral appearance. Openly showing your religion might cause conflict on the street, so therefore openly showing your religion is not allowed. This does not mean we are in conflict with other cultures, on the contrary”.

As law enforcement officers struggle to police their communities with dwindling resources, they are understandably more concerned with sheer numbers than with what those officers look and sound like. But there is also a growing understanding that increasing diversity offers access to a broad range of skills and services, and is ultimately essential for serving different groups in increasingly multicultural communities.


Reporting by Manouk Barnas, Konstatia Elago, and Audrius Gedmintas

This article is one of a series produced by a multinational group of students participating in the Foreign Reporting module at the Swedish School of Social Science, University of Helsinki, a programme associated with the Inclusive Journalism Initiative (IJI) mobility project sponsored in part by the European Commission.

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