Supervision is important, individual ethics the is most important

Pekka-Matias Väisänen Published Date 16.3.2022 9.39 Blog

I looked at the 2020 population figures of Finnish municipalities. According to Statistics Finland, at the end of 2020, the population figure of Nivala was 10,500 and that of Hämeenkyrö, 10,344. This means that both are considerably larger by population than an average municipality in Finland, and crimes take place in these localities in the same way as in all other Finnish municipalities. Drunken driving, domestic violence, petty thefts and fraud occur. Every now and then, even serious crimes happen in localities of this size. For example, in Kankaanpää (population 12,758), it is suspected that a terrorist crime connected to extreme right-wing activity was prepared.

In the same year, 2020, the Finnish police employed 10,401 people, of whom 7,505 were police officers. This puts the population figure of the police nicely between Nivala and Hämeenkyrö. In view of that figure, the police is comparable with an above-the-average Finnish municipality. We are one of the largest state authorities – maybe only the Defence Forces employ a somewhat higher number of staff. 

Every police officer is also a citizen. Applicants to the Police University College – or other positions within the police forces – do not come from “a class of particularly upright citizens” but from among ordinary citizens. There are both young high school graduates and slightly older applicants who have opted for a change of career. Of course, the applicants’ backgrounds are examined and the selection process for the Police University College is strict, including psychological tests, but at the end of the day, the applicants are only human – with flaws and defects. In any case, more than from others can be expected from a person wearing a police uniform and having the authority to interfere with the freedom of other citizens, for example. It is not enough to act impeccably at work, because the law requires impeccable behaviour at leisure as well.

And as in Nivala and Hämeenkyrö, misconduct and crime take place within the police. Even though the law requires impeccable behaviour from the police, cases have come to light of police officers having committed even serious crimes, having biased or racist attitudes towards foreigners or other minorities, or having been so curious as to pry into police registers to view other people’s personal data. There are very well known examples of all of these. So, there are flaws and there are defects.

What to do?

About legality control

In concise terms, legality control means monitoring that the authorities comply with the law – so, it is not about monitoring the activities of citizens. Legality control takes place at many levels. The most significant legality control is performed by the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Chancellor of Justice, known as “the supreme overseers of legality”. They oversee all activities of the authorities in Finland and have the constitutional right to obtain all information required for their duty of oversight, including confidential information. In addition to the supreme overseers of legality, the authorities are supervised by several ombudsmen in special sectors. For example, the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman supervises issues related to discrimination and foreigners, whereas the Data Protection Ombudsman supervises the lawful processing of personal data. All bodies mentioned above, and, of course, the Ministry of the Interior, supervise the police as well.

However, current legislation requires internal supervision as well. Not only is the supervision of police operations one of the statutory tasks of the National Police Board, but the Ministry of the Interior has outlined in its guidelines for the oversight of legality that within its entire branch of government, the highest officials of each agency and institution are responsible for the efficient and appropriate organisation of internal oversight of legality. This means that there must be more control than that performed by external overseers of legality. So, the National Police Board is responsible for organising legality control “efficiently and appropriately”, as required by the Ministry. Pursuant to the guidelines, supervision by superiors may be sufficient, but if necessary, the agencies must have a separate internal supervision function. 

The police has not contented with supervision by supervisors only. From the beginning of 2014, every police unit has a separate legal unit that supervises the activities of the officials in the units. In addition, the National Police Board has a separate area of responsibility that performs the same tasks at the national level. At present, the police has about 40 full-time employees in internal legality control. Furthermore, there are separate controller functions, internal audit and risk management.

I dare to claim that among the state authorities, the police is – if not the first – at least among the top in terms of resources allocated to internal supervision. We have wanted to focus on this.

Don’t foul your own nest?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, “self-taught virologists” are prolific, loudly challenging expert opinions in social media about how the pandemic should be managed. On the issue of internal supervision in the police, there are “self-taught” ornitologists as well out there; these people “know” that internal supervision will not interfere with colleagues’ actions, or that “the wrongdoings of our own are covered up”. I’d like to examine this claim a bit, based on last year’s figures.

In 2021, a total of 658 complaints were processed by the legal units of police departments. Of these, 618 were investigated, as some cases were for example outdated or unclear. In 15% of these cases, that is, in about one in seven, inappropriate activities were detected and addressed. In addition to these internal measures, in 4% of the cases, the case was considered to warrant transfer by the police to the Office of the Prosecutor General in order to assess whether a criminal investigation should be initiated in the case. As the police in Finland is not authorised to decide itself to initiate a criminal investigation against the police, the threshold for such transfers is low.

Cases are addressed not only in connection with the processing of complaints, but in other contexts as well. In 2021, police units issued 15 cautions and 25 warnings to personnel. In some cases, these lenient measures were not sufficient, and in three cases, an official was suspended, and seven officials were permanently dismissed. Of course, these sanctions are only the ones recorded in statistics – in practice, superiors steer operations and give critical feedback on a daily basis.

Other forms of supervision was made as well.

The total number of various legality inspections, for example inspections of police prisons, decisions made in pre-trial investigations, investigation periods etc, amounted to more than 100. The appropriate usage of police registers was investigated in 28 log inspections. The most regulated authoritative powers of the police, that is, covert coercive measures and covert intelligence gathering methods were supervised in more than 2,000 cases through internal supervision measures of the police. 

I dare to claim that in comparison of the comprehensiveness of state authorities’ internal supervision and the so-called threshold of addressing errors, our performance was acceptable.  And the figures above only include internal supervision by the police – in addition to these, there are the various investigations and inspections by external supervisors.

However, even this supervision will never be able to eliminate all problems.

Supervision only reveals problems, does not eliminate them

We all know that drunken driving is a crime. We also know that the police monitors this: a report to the emergency response centre of an erratically behaving vehicle will be inspected by a police patrol and the police also conducts traditional spot checks in traffic.  Nevertheless, 20,267 offences of driving when intoxicated were reported to the police in 2020. My question is: why do we still have drunken drivers?

The reason is simply that supervision cannot eliminate these problems. 

Internal legality control of the police can well be compared with the supervision of drunken driving: in that case, a citizen reports the matter to the emergency response centre, and in legality control, a similar report can be a complaint filed by a citizen, for example. The police will follow a drunken driver and investigate a complaint. On the other hand, the purpose of supervision of drunken drivers is to maintain the general risk of being caught, which is why occasional spot checks are performed in certain places and a random number of drivers are breathalysed – while in legality control, legality inspections are performed, involving for example the investigation of protocols of the 20 latest apprehensions. The purpose of both is to perform random checks and maintain the “risk of being caught”.

Regardless, we all know that if you drive on your own a couple of kilometres in a remote place, drunk, and nobody knows what you did, it is quite possible that you will not be stopped by a police patrol. It is impossible to check all drivers. The situation is the same in legality control: for example in 2020, the police received more than half a million reports of offences under the Criminal Code, or these offences became known by the police by other means. It is impossible to supervise all investigations.

A question of ethics, values and leadership

No supervision, internal or external, can eliminate the root causes of problems. Reprimands or other consequences of supervision are of no importance unless corrective measures are taken at the organisational level and in management. However, internal supervision plays a key role in support of leadership. At best, supervision can produce such information about incorrect operating methods, deficiencies or illegalities that is not known to the superiors. But in order for supervision to address problems, they must be reported.

This is why the values of the organisation and the ethics of officials must be focused on. Each and every official in the police administration is obligated to report any illegalities to their superior and this obligation is separately recorded in the guidelines obligating the entire administration. In my experience, officials employed by the police react if they detect something in internal operations that the superiors or commanding officers should address. However, this has not always been the case. 

In practice, in some situations it may be difficult to address a shortcoming due to social reasons, as for example the superior of an official is guilty of unlawful activity, or it seems impossible to report inappropriate activity of one’s closest colleague. For these situations, the police administration is the first state authority to introduce a so-called ethical whistleblowing channel, through which all police employees can – anonymously if they wish – report a shortcoming, misconduct or unlawfulness they have detected. We use all means to ensure that the shortcomings detected will be rapidly reported to the supervisory body and that they can be addressed.

It is clear, however, that various problems will continue to be disclosed through other channels than from inside the organisation or through supervision. The media has and will continue to play a key role in uncovering problems. Even though the challenges in the investigation of human trafficking offences have been known before, and various development measures were already in progress, problems in concrete individual cases became known to both the internal and external supervisor only after the report in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. Whenever such problems are highlighted, the organisation must undertake measures both to investigate and remedy the problem. This is the way we act.

In conclusion

According to Statistics Finland, 654 crimes were reported to the authorities in Nivala in 2020. The corresponding figure for Hämeenkyrö was 1,808. Regrettably, corresponding statistics are not available for the police, but according to the 2020 statistics of the prosecution system, 204 criminal cases involving the police were submitted by the Office of the Prosecutor General to the regional prosecutor. Since not all of these have led to further measures later on, it is probably fair to say that in view of the size of the organisation, the number of criminal cases is relatively low in the police. And as in Nivala and Hämeenkyrö, only a small minority is guilty of misconduct and crime within the police.

However, the system in the society must act in the cases where the requirement of integrity is deviated from. The standards of conduct that apply to the police are stricter than those for other citizens, and integrity in one’s free time is also required, unlike for many other public officials. That is good. 

The purpose of internal legality control of the police is to contribute to ensuring that these high quality requirements are met. We always aim to target the supervision and inspections at issues that we assume to have room for development, or be deficient. We also have a low threshold to react whenever we are informed of detected problems. 

However, legality control measures are not sufficient on their own. Ethically sustainable conduct is based on the individual’s willingness to do the right thing and, on the other hand, to address any problems detected. The requirements to preserve the dignity and respect the rights of all individuals, and to act justly, are included in the ethical oath of the police and the ethical code for the police. By choosing to work in the police administration we all have voluntarily agreed to these. The citizens have the right to expect that we show this clearly in practical terms.

Pekka-Matias Väisänen
Assistant Police Commissioner, Legality Control
National Police Board
Twitter @PMVaisanenPOL

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