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Helsinki Police logged movements of Roma people

The city's Deputy Chief of Police denies profiling but admits 'mistakes' were made.

Helsingin poliisilaitoksen apulaispoliisipäällikkö Heikki Kopperoinen
Deputy Police Chief of the Helsinki Police Department, Heikki Kopperoinen Image: Helsingin poliisilaitos

The Helsinki Police Department has been systematically engaging in activities that suggest ethnic profiling, according to information received by Yle.

Over the course of several years, the police department kept a record of the movements of the Finnish Roma community in the Helsinki metropolitan area, taking note of vehicles owned by Roma people and the social circles in which they moved.

Log entries also included other information, such as knives or other weapons found in a person's possession.

The log came about as a result of internal guidelines issued by the Helsinki Police Department in 2013. The guidelines instructed police on patrol to engage in low-threshold intervention if they detected any violations or observed any matters of interest.

According to information received by Yle, the interpretation of said guidelines in the field meant that Roma people were being detained without legal grounds and their personal information collected.

The information gathered was recorded in a so-called police log, a free-form logbook. About a thousand observations were recorded over four years until the log was retired in the summer of 2017.

The National Police Board has recently launched an investigation into the actions of the Helsinki Police Department.

Police: Log meant to help solve shootings

Deputy Police Chief of the Helsinki Police Department, Heikki Kopperoinen, says that the log was related to shootings that took place in Helsinki at the time.

According to Kopperoinen, the police investigated several shooting incidents in Helsinki between 2013 and 2017. These events, he said, also put bystanders at risk.

Kopperoinen said the police investigations revealed that a regrettable proportion of these incidents seemed to involve Roma.

"The shootings had to be addressed somehow. The matter was monitored and efforts were made to ensure that neither a bystander nor a perpetrator would end up taking a bullet to their neck," said Kopperoinen.

Did the log only contain information regarding the Roma community?

"It mainly contained information about the Roma community and vehicles in their possession," said Kopperoinen.

Police denies ethnic profiling

Kopperoinen denies that this was ethnic profiling of the Finnish Roma community.

Ethnic profiling means that a person is targeted by the police because of his or her ethnic background or skin color. Such activities are discriminatory and prohibited under the Equality Act.

Has Helsinki police detained people solely because they were of Roma origin and not because there is something else, like a specific vehicle, for example, associating them with a crime?

"By no means do I consider this activity to be ethnic profiling. Of course, I can say that the police department has really come a long way in these matters in recent years. We may have made mistakes along the way, but a lot has moved forward and been corrected."

Kopperoinen says that in recent years, police officers working in the field have received training in matters related to immigrants and equality.

Were there excessive interpretations of the code, in the field?

"I would venture to say there might have been. I wouldn’t be surprised by that," said Kopperoinen.

"We have to remember that this has not been a search for people of a [particular] ethnic origin. The purpose of these actions was to stop the shootings, so that no one would lose their life or become injured," said Kopperoinen.

Police no longer follow same procedure

According to Kopperoinen, the use of the logbook was discussed by department heads when he took over as deputy police chief in the summer of 2017. They decided to retire the logbook. The shooting incidents had also ceased, added Kopperoinen.

"It was decided that the kind of activity that could be misinterpreted should be retired. It was stopped and attempts to move forward have been made."

Would it still be possible for police to record the movements of an individual ethnic group?

"The world has changed a lot in a short time. We would no longer proceed in this manner. If we were faced with the same situation again we would look at it through the lens of today and think about what it looked like to the outside world."

Has the world really changed so significantly in just four years?

"Yes. The change has been incredibly rapid, especially in the metropolitan area. Social media and the civic discourse have changed a lot since these guidelines were issued in 2013. The police must also evolve and understand how work is done without the presumption of discrimination," said Kopperoinen.

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