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This is the English version of the op-ed I wrote in Danish (above) for Politiken Byrum.
In April 2020, the Danish police suddenly decided to close various public spaces in Copenhagen and Denmark and they did so with their usual muscular modus operandi. They showed yet again that they are intent on deciding their own role — and cross societal and professional lines while doing so. In particular, the harbour area of Islands Brygge was suddenly closed to the public after many people were gathered there in mostly small groups that didn’t break any corona crisis laws.
Opinions are divided about the police’s move here in Copenhagen. When you work with urban planning, however, the police’s solo course in closing off public space is a wild and unfortunate deja vu. In bizarre contrast to many European countries, the Danish police have the power to freely cross professional lines with sharpened elbows — without consequence.
Regarding urban planning and traffic, the police can simply veto projects. The list of urban planning projects that have been stopped dead in their tracks by random desk cops in Copenhagen is as long as a vintage longjohn cargo bike. It’s worth mentioning that the Copenhagen police are far more unwilling to approve projects than other regions. I don’t have the space to describe them all here, but here’s a quick selection that desk cops have vetoed:
- Car-free Nørrebrogade. The plan for the street was no access for cars but the police lay down a veto and we ended up with no through traffic for cars.
- Lower speed limits. Over 150 cities in Europe have 30 km/h as their standard speed. The Danish police continue to steal lunches in the schoolyard and refuse to play.
- Right turn on red for cyclists. Especially the Copenhagen Police have dug in their heels on this point. After success in French cities, the idea came to Copenhagen, but the police wouldn’t allow it. Interestingly, there was pushback against their pushback in the previous government so the national Ministry of Transport allowed testing of this solution on national roads in Copenhagen in order to get it started.
- The Nye Teater in Vesterbro. The City of Copenhagen wants to make the street under the theatre car-free and allow cyclists to ride in both directions in an important link for the Østerbro-Amager route.
- Nordre Frihavnsgade. In a crazy coincidence, my own proposal — together with Ole Kassow from Cycling Without Age — was killed by a desk cop yesterday (link in Danish). Turning Nordre Frihavnsgade into a bicycle street (cykelgade). Here’s the original proposal in English.
I could go on.
“Oh sure”, you’re thinking. “They probably have their reasons”. The problem is that they don’t. The police are not obliged to say WHY they slap down a veto and I know from experience that they don’t have a clue about it. They just say no.
As traffic researcher Harry Lahrmann from Aalborg University says in this article in Copenhagen Post in 2012, “The police do not have to approve of any changes [and] do not have to give any reasons.”
“It’s strange that you have elected politicians who don’t have the power to make traffic plans they want to make. Over the past 20 or 30 years, I have been saying that we should remove some of the decision-making from the police. It’s problematic that the council has the responsibility for how the city works, but does not have all the tools it needs.”
The Head of the city’s Bicycle Secretariat back then, Pia Preibisch Behrens, agreed that the police have too much power. “We have previously recommended to the Ministry of Justice that it changes the law to make the police a consulted party instead of a party that has to consent [to the changes]. We think we are able to assess, on our own, what the different impacts would be of making the infrastructure changes we want in Copenhagen.”
The police’s unprofessional interference in urban planning is well-known among my colleagues. I have debated at a conference with a vehemently anti-bike officer. When I asked what they have learned on study trips to, for example, the Netherlands and what their Dutch colleagues have told them, he admitted that they don’t spend time or money on such things. Then again, this guy called cyclists “the cuckoo birds of traffic”.
I took matters into my own hands on a work trip to Amsterdam where I met a high-ranking police officer in connection with a project I was doing in the city. I explained to him what the situation was like in Denmark and he looked rather stunned. “I’m a policeman. I’m not an urban planner. I trust my colleagues when I’m at meetings about traffic and planning”, he said with a laugh.
Nope. He’s not an urban planner and doesn’t have a veto in the professional business of others. Funnily, the Dutchman was far more well-versed than the Danish police. “Because I listen when I’m at a meeting”, he told me. Yeah, the Danish police aren’t urban planners or engineers either, but they don’t bother reading up on it. You get as much out of talking to a Danish cop about urban planning — or pandemics, for that matter — as you do talking to a random Dane about curling — at least before the country won its only Winter Olympic medal — silver — in Nagano in 1996.
Just as the police aren’t urban planners, nor are they doctors or nurses. They were handed the powers through emergency lawmaking in connection with the corona virus crisis — or lobbied hard to get them. And now, suddenly, they act. I have thought a lot about why.
The police are standing at our borders, checking documents with all the seriousness they can muster, but otherwise their daily work features less action than normal. The corona crisis is a tame affair, with empty streets and closed shops and it has a humanitarian focus. In order to make sure we don’t forget them, the police thrust out their chests and try desperately to find a role that suits their own perception of themselves. Military forces that have been handed an undemocratic amount of power don’t fancy the idea of being forgotten by the population or by politicians.
Or maybe it’s just ACAB: All Cops Are… Bored. Who knows.
Vice-Inspector Jesper Bangsgaard has said that with the area closures, “it’s up to each officer’s discretion whether a citizen has violated the ban”. Hmm. So they step freely over their professional boundary and simply make judgment calls. You can make your own judgment call here by looking at these photos. It’s fun and easy!
For me it’s not about whether an area should be closed or not but rather who the messenger is. I place my trust in (quite a few) elected officials in the city and national government, as well as doctors and nurses. They put effort into understanding whatever situation they’re in and have respect for other professions.
If they find more than ten people gathered together in public space during the corona crisis — yes! — we have a law forbidding that so give them a fine and do what the elected officials have decided is a good idea. Period.
In Denmark we have enshrined in the constitution a tripartite division of power. The legislative, the executive and the judicial (the courts). It’s obvious that we also have a fourth: the irritating. We have a blind trust in the police and let them exploit their carte blanche time and time again. We need to change this in a hurry.
Hilariously, the police have now contacted the Ministry of Justice to get some clarity about the rules — the rules that they freestyled themselves, after several ridiculous slip ups in the closed Islands Brygge area. Two men were fined for waiting for a harbour bus and a mother was fined for playing with her kid at a playground. Then there’s the guy who was standing in his own home and dragged out by a rookie cop. Awkward.
The police should do what they’re told. Not much else. We need safer streets, lower speed limits and municipalities with the freedom and power to improve life for our citizens.