In preventive policing, it is important for the police to build trust and communication channels.

Human-centredness and networks key to tackling extremism

The police work annually with dozens of people who gravitate towards violent extremism. Seeing people as individuals, broad networks of officials and long-term work have yielded positive results.
"Just a screwdriver is never going to be enough; you need a whole tool kit," remarks Chief Inspector Jarmo Heinonen.

When an ideology is in conflict with the current democratic system and the ideology is promoted through violent means, we are talking about violent extremism. When preventive police work was initiated in 2012, the group focusing on the prevention of violent extremism started immediately to look for radicalised individuals.

"However, we quickly realised that the situation is not bad in Finland and that these groups have a fairly high trust in society and its operators. Thus, nowadays we don't go out in search of them; instead, we work in ways that allow us to create trust and provide answers," tells Chief Inspector Jarmo Heinonen.

"We aim to create a feeling in different communities that help is available and that public services are for everyone."

One group Heinonen works with is religious and cultural minorities. However, according to Heinonen, society secularises individuals and reaching everyone via religious communities is fairly utopian.

"Afterall, you cannot capture all native Finns via the Lutheran Church either," Heinonen explains.
Therefore, in addition to being present in shared spaces, the police take part in different organisations' activities and demonstrations to create contacts and to give a face to the police.

Chief Inspector  Jarmo Heinonen.
Chief Inspector Jarmo Heinonen works in the Preventive Policing unit at the Helsinki Police Department.

Viewpoints and facts needed inside bubbles

Heinonen and his colleagues meet native Finns mainly in connection to extreme ideologies and environmental issues.

"The experience of these parties is often that the establishment do not do enough about the issues important to them. For example, those with a negative opinion of immigration may turn to conspiracy theories and often start doubting the authorities as a result. We need to meet these people and open a communication channel," Heinonen says.

The aim at the police is to cut in before people are left so alone with their thoughts that violence shows up as a way to solve problems.

"We approach them, talk with them and discuss things through. What is often needed inside the bubble is facts and a new outlook. Once a communication channel has been established, any hostilities tend to disappear fairly quickly," Heinonen explains.

It is also important to prevent the spread of some of the craziest theories.
"We meet these people in demonstrations and events. There, we aim to establish interaction, and if we have participated in organising the demonstration from the start with permits and so on, people tend to recognise us and have confidence in us," Heinonen says.

Contact is always voluntary, and according to Heinonen, the police have highly committed officers, who know how to create a connection and participate in conversations. The groups that stand out for the police are the extreme right, nationalistic groups and different language and culture minorities. "Creating contact with the extreme left has been hardest because the group is fragmented, and there are no leaders as such amongst them," Heinonen remarks.

Underlying web of tangles behind extremism

In the case of violent extremism, the underlying problems behind the deeds differ significantly.
"It would be great if we had an inspection line for people to drive through, but unfortunately that is not how it works," Heinonen says.

According to him, substance abuse and mental health problems often lead to crimes and, thus, to sentences, which are unlikely to detangle the problems.

"At the police, we have aimed to increase the selection of service chains available to people. Once again, the networks the police have established with experts in different fields are important. We must remember that people coping with multiple problems cannot be told to just phone this number and find help. These people need support at every stage of the process. We have cooperation groups that know the authorities' operating models and how to reach people and get help for them. It is important to recognise worrying signs and carry out threat assessments."

When the authorities manage to establish a contact with a person before a crime has been committed, it provides a lesson for the future on the kinds of techniques that work and what can and must be done.
"Just a screwdriver is never going to be enough; you need a whole tool kit. That is why it is important for us to cooperate with different parties."

The police also knock on doors

Individual cases can often be attended to between other duties, but thanks to increased cooperation also schools, health care or social services may contact the Preventive Policing Unit.
"And we may come and knock on your door and ask to have chat. This approach is often well received. People's trust in the police as a party that doesn't just give fines has grown a lot," Heinonen says with satisfaction.

However, the actions the police take in different situations vary significantly. Preventive policing in the field of extremism is carried out annually among dozens of people causing concern. Nevertheless, the question is always of individuals.

"Of course, there is a difference if we are faced with an individual in permanent employment living in a home they own or someone who is already socially excluded and needs support to manage their day-to-day life," Heinonen says.

"In such a case, we may be thinking about where to find someone safe to talk to for an ex-ISIS fighter or some other radicalised individual or whether the police or someone else in its network could assume the role of a next of kin, when there is no one else. Sometimes the only way is to reveal a planned crime and put the person in prison and through that in touch with the relevant services."

The preventive work with young people at the fringes of radicalisation has been implemented through peer activities. According to Heinonen, it does not work if the police just visit schools to say that crime is never the answer.

"What has worked for us are the Keijo activities in which ex-offenders spend time with young people who have ended up on the wrong path and chat with them sharing their experiences whilst maybe sitting by a bonfire in a forest. That makes it more credible and raises questions in the right way. When your understanding grows, it is easier to realise that your ideas are not the only right ones."

The article is part of the Nordic Safe Cities alliance's Safe City Tour. Nordic Safe Cities (NSC), established by the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2016, is a non-profit network focusing on safety in the Nordic countries. The NSC activities aim to have a positive impact on safety in cities and to stand against polarisation and violent extremism. Helsinki has participated in the network's activities from the start.

Text: Vilja Roihu / Stooritaivas Oy
Images: Aki Rahikka / Stooritaivas Oy