Preventive policing aims to prevent crimes by anticipating them.

Prevention improves safety in Helsinki

Preventive police work anticipates and intervenes with potential crimes before they have been committed. Seamless cooperation between different actors prevents serious crimes, solves problems in restless areas and allows young people to find help which prevents future crime. The solid aim of the police is to include rather than exclude.

"In accordance with the Police Act, one of the duties of the police is to prevent crime. The idea has been that police presence on the streets would be enough and that a person plotting a crime would change their mind on seeing a police officer. But that's not how this works," notes Superintendent Jari Taponen, the head of the Preventive Policing Unit at the Helsinki Police Department.

The unit was established in 2012, and its focus was determined based on team discussions on what is lacking in policing, the topical issues in society and the services needed by the city's residents.

"Increasing safety and reducing crime and disruption were chosen as the objectives. We want to increase trust in the police and aim to ensure that we include, not exclude," Taponen tells.

To achieve its objectives, the unit was structured around three groups of which one focuses on communities facing a risk of segregation; one tackles regional problems, and one concentrates on anchor work to reach young people showing signs of antisocial behaviour.

"The divisions between the groups are naturally not strict; we work together, and many cases involve all three groups," Taponen notes.

Superintendent Jari Taponen heads the Preventive Policing Unit.
Superintendent Jari Taponen heads the Preventive Policing Unit at the Helsinki Police Department

Police as problem solvers

Whilst traditional police work starts when a crime has already been committed, the aim of the preventive work is to anticipate the risk of growing disparity. Thus, the police assess how people's situations could be improved even before a crime has been committed. Through preventive work, the police often meet different minorities such as political extremists, language and culture groups and members of organised crime. The people the police meet may be potential victims or possible perpetrators.

"These groups may have limited trust in the police, or they may think that the services offered by the police do not concern them. Often when a member of a minority group contacts the police, the person in question is an influential individual in the community. However, it is important for us to hear from the less powerful members of the community and make their voices heard," Jari Taponen describes the groups his unit encounters.

"A lot of the time, we move away from the traditional police role of a supervisor to a problem solver," Taponen sums up.

This is what is done with, for example, demonstrations, which everyone has the right to participate in in Finland and which the police protect as part of their work.

"I could use as an example the two long-term demonstrations organised by the main railway station in Helsinki with one group protesting against the negative decisions of the Finnish Immigration Service and the other against immigration. We established a line of communication with both groups and were present to solve any problems. This reduced the threat of violence in a very central location of the city," Taponen tells.

Connection and cooperation

One part of preventive police work is to establish a line of communication with different groups, such as the anarchists or the extreme right.

"Initially, we had the idea here at the police that creating a connection could be difficult and that the groups would not be interested in cooperating with us, but it turned out that the opposite was true. These groups also need protection, and when we know the names and faces, it is easier to reduce the use of violence to solve problems. In a way, we solve certain problems for them, thus, ensuring there is no need to resort to violence," Taponen describes the unit's activities.

"We have been measuring the violence linked to extreme ideologies since 2017, and it has significantly reduced in that time.”

The group working with people at a risk of social segregation also surveys individuals that show cause for concern and assesses their situation. Help is also provided by the Helsinki Safe City Network with its just over 30 managerial-level members from different branches. The members include civil servants, representatives of organisations and other specialists from, for example, health and social services. According to Taponen, no unit can solve big issues on its own – broad expertise is always needed.

"Although everyone does their part, the cooperation between sectors is essential. As an example, we started to investigate together the situation of the families in the al-Hol camp when there was nothing more than a hunch of their potential repatriation. The network carries out careful planning work, creates risk assessments and customises solutions.

Local and individual encounters at the heart of activities

The Preventive Unit's group investigating regional problems operates very locally. Its area of operation includes, for example, shopping centres and train and metro stations. However, the group does not really police these areas; instead, it aims to solve the root causes of problems.

"Often these situations come up via the emergency response centre, which receives calls regarding, for example, a certain area. Instead of just sending a police patrol there to respond to the call and solve the situation, we start determining the wider issue to ensure that there will be no need for further calls," Superintendent Taponen summarises.

"In these situations, the significance of networks is highlighted. We may discuss the issues with the parents or schools of the young people or contact the right organisations or the social services."

According to Taponen, the reduction in the number of crimes also emphasises certain groups' share of the problems. But, for example, the share of the crimes committed by immigrant youths has gone down whilst the number of young people in this group has increased. Taponen is keen to bring up facts because one of the aims of preventive work is to prevent antagonism.

The third of the groups in Taponen's unit focuses on creating safety long into the future. Often those young people participating in the anchor work come via other groups carrying out preventive work or on the request of schools or concerned family members. The police as well as social workers and a psychiatric nurse are all available at the anchor’s shared space. When a young person commits crimes, the aim is to involve the entire family to solve the situation. Often the cooperation attends to family-wide problems.

"For example, we had thousands of customer contacts last year, and of them, 350 were selected for multidisciplinary assessment. After the follow-up period, crime among them had reduced by 67 %," Taponen tells visibly pleased.

"It is important that young people are referred for further help in the same place to ensure that they are not left to manage their issues on their own. This has far-reaching consequences for the future of the city. Once again, our aim as the police is to include, not exclude. I believe that that will allow us to create long-term security.

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