Police Stalking in Norway: “Step by Step Pursuit”

by Reidar Visser

[This article is also available in Norwegian/norsk tekst her: https://policestalking.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/politistalking-i-norge-fotfolging/]

Unlike the Netherlands, Norway has not officially formalised police stalking as a method. Nonetheless, through the use of language, creative officials have been successful in finding terms that sound sufficiently palatable to the general public to make police stalking a widespread but so far under-reported practice.

The most common Norwegian term for police stalking is fotfølging. This is almost synonymous with “tailing” in English but it literally means “step by step pursuit”, which is not an altogether unfair description of how some of these stalking operations work in practice. It should be noted that in Norwegian media, this term has sometimes also been loosely applied to a different form of policing that strictly speaking isn’t stalking: The so-called Very Important Criminal (VIC) scheme in Oslo dating back to around 2005, which was not really about stalking but rather a sort of fast-tracking of repeat offenders. These were not necessarily subjected to more undercover surveillance than anyone else, but when they did get caught an effort was made to produce a judgment as early as possible.

It is the second and more widespread use of fotfølging – stalking of individuals who may never be prosecuted – that should give cause for concern. This is so because unlike the fast tracking scheme, this kind of police stalking does the opposite of implementing rule of law principles – it violates and undermines them instead. The term largely replaces the cruder and less technological variant of undercover work previously described as “disturbance activities” or urovirksomhet. Prior to 2005, this had been mostly focused on the drugs scene in the big cities.

Police stalking and Norwegian law

Unlike the situation in the Netherlands, Norway does not have a specific legally defined limit on how much (or little) undercover activity the police can do, or how long it can go on. However, In 2004, a group of government-appointed legal experts concluded that as the very minimum, undercover police activity should relate to a punishable offence (NOU 6 2004). Accordingly, then, conspicuous surveillance for the sake of conspicuousness alone does not seem permissible. The same report also indicated that the intensity of the undercover activity should be proportionate to the seriousness of the suspected crime and indicated that excessive undercover activity could be challenged under article 8 of the European convention on human rights. Also, more invasive forms of undercover activity (hidden video surveillance, the use of beacon or tracking devices etc.) are regulated in considerable detail, with requirements that the application of such methods must increase the likelihood of solving a serious crime or prevent a serious crime from taking place.

Moreover, although the Norwegian penal code is extremely general and vague with respect to stalking-like situations, there is a very specific paragraph on psychological torture committed by civil servants in article 117a which stipulates a maximum penalty of 15 years’ imprisonment for a public servant inflicting “serious… psychological pain…with the intention of punishing, threaten or force someone”. Reflecting the seriousness of potential abuse of state power, this is in fact one of the gravest crimes defined under the Norwegian penal code, with a 15 years maximum prison sentence.

Fragmentary evidence from known cases of police stalking suggests Norwegian police are going much further than the rough parameters outlined in the report on police methods in 2004. By way of example, in 2008, football hooligans from Bergen complained they were being literally tailed by police on a daily basis from the second they left home and until they returned (BT, 8 May 2008). This happened even as the hooligans were not under investigation for a specific crime; their belonging to a group of hooligans with a bad reputation was sufficient for the police to stalk them for long periods. Similar operations have been seen against Pakistani gangs and bikers in Oslo. In 2008 it was reported that the Oslo police stalked Pakistani gangs so intensely that they began holding meetings in the forest instead – whereupon the police demanded funding for vehicles capable of tracking them there as well (Aftenposten, 21 December 2008).

As in the case of the Netherlands, perhaps the language of the police themselves may be even more revealing as to what is really going on in these operations. When the “gang project” of the Oslo police was initiated in 2006, the police themselves openly admitted fear that their methods would be seen as overly aggressive and that harassment lawsuits would ensue. Another police source indicated that the stalking methods were sufficiently aggressive that they would not employ them to “harass (herse med) tired drug addicts” (Aftenposten 10 June 2009).

The language of the Norwegian police is particularly central to understanding the aims of their stalking operations. Eirik Jensen of the organised crime unit in Oslo has repeatedly declared the desire to marginalise gang members to the point where they are considered as “afflicted with lepers” (Aftenposten, 10 May 2007 ). The targets in these operations are often minorities and the police emphasises their minority status in language, using terms such as “one per cent MC circles”. Also, operations with a stalking element frequently have codenames that are vindictive in character, as for example the “Nemesis” operation in Brazil against Norwegian exiles (including gang members) as well as “operation homeless” – a scheme supposedly targeting the customer of prostitutes and pimps but in reality hitting the prostitutes hardest and forcing many of them out of their homes.

A look at the leadership of units of the Norwegian police involved in stalking

The largely undercover organised crime unit in Oslo is probably the most frequent Norwegian user of police stalking methods. In terms of personnel, this unit of the Oslo police seems to function as a magnet on Norwegian police officers and police lawyers who offer unusual interpretations of laws in force and often seek to push the boundaries. One example is Tom Østreng, who came to the unit after having served as police chief in one of Oslo’s suburbs. His previous career received much media attention due to a series of remarkable decisions on fighter dogs. His aim was apparently to destroy as many specimens as possible, although the rules at the time were unclear, as he himself admitted. In this situation of legal haze Østreng declared that the police had the “authority to use discretion” in selecting which dogs should live and which should die, and this was apparently done on the basis of the characteristics of their owners (crudely defined as criminals versus good citizens, see Aftenposten Aften, 13 November 2002). In another incident, Østreng’s men effectively sealed off entire neighbourhoods in an Oslo suburb without any specific suspicion directed against anyone – much to the inconvenience of local residents, and with the sole intention of showing off (Lokalavisen Stovner, 17 November 2003).

Both examples illustrate problems with concepts like equality before the law and the presumption of innocence among people who are now leading officers in the organised crime unit in Oslo. Another prominent organised crime unit officer, Harald Bøhler, has played a central role in the anti-prostitution project of the Oslo police in recent years. So far, the project has been characterised by complaints about aggressive methods, a mixed record of actually being able to reduce sex trade, and some rather blunt prosecution failures. In one attempted pilot case, Bøhler innovatively tried to define porn magazines with sex advertisements as “online brothels” and therefore generically liable to prosecution as pimps. The attempt was firmly struck down by the Norwegian supreme court (VG, 28 October 2011). Another such interesting case involved the telecommunications giant Telenor, where Bøhler referred not to the law but to “societal responsibility” as a reason why Telenor should block access to a foreign-based website which is involved in Norwegian prostitution. Bøhler’s argument was apparently based on the reasoning that every single case of prostitution might theoretically reflect or somehow be related to the far more serious crime of human trafficking (VG 19 June 2011). As for police methods, one eyebrow-raising technique used by Bøhler is to confiscate the cell phones of prostitutes and then use them in sting operations with potential customers (VG, 16 September 2009). He has also been at the forefront complaining about restrictions on eavesdropping regulations regarding private cars.

The bigger point in this series of remarkable anti-prostitution actions is that  it could well be argued that some of the reported behaviour of the organised crime unit and its anti-prostitution squad is so aggressive towards the prostitutes and house owners (who have been “encouraged” to terminate the tenancies of prostitutes) that it could be prosecuted as psychological threats under article 117a of the Norwegian penal code (for a description of typical police behaviour see “Lovendring redder ingen”, Aftenposten, 20 November 2008). Those very same points could in fact be made for many of the other organised crime unit operations as well, but the anti-prostitution project is best known since the Oslo police brags about their efforts at international conferences.

Many of the same tendencies can be glanced from police lawyers affiliated with the organised crime unit. A relatively recent member of the unit, Jorid Kile Berg, debuted as an official of the prosecution in 1999 with extensive accusations of paedophilia on the Philippines against a Norwegian school teacher that were so weak that even former police officers criticised them (Dagbladet, 23 February 1999).  In that case, Kile Berg wanted to get the suspect behind bars for 4 weeks but the court snubbed her with one week only and a subsequent release. Nonetheless, the damage to the social reputation of the teacher based on the arbitrary arrest had already been done. Much later, Kile Berg was successful in prosecuting to conviction a notorious paedophile known as the Pocket Man, although during the course of the process there were loud complaints from the family of the accused that they too had been targeted by the police. There was also media criticism of the extensive attempts by Kile Berg to highlight previous wrongdoing by the man which was no longer directly relevant because the judicial time limit for prosecuting those offenses had expired long ago.

Finally, special mention should be made of the previous head of a specialised undercover unit within the organised crime section, Eirik Jensen. Jensen is rarely specific about what exactly the police are up to during stalking operations, but he uses terms like ”pressure” and “stress” almost all the time. A previous official of a unit dealing with motorcycle clubs, he is believed to have been a leading force in devising the undercover work of the organised crime unit from 2005 until today. One report relating to this unit describes a strategy of arresting family members for the primary aim of terrifying them into believing association with criminals is a “risk sport” (Aftenposten, 10 May 2007). Jensen is currently special adviser to the head of the organised crime unit, Einar Aas. Aas has given a few media interviews which stand out chiefly for the fact that he uses regular judicial references sparingly and instead seems to prefer naval warfare ones (Motgift, no. 3, 2010).

Together, these examples show how leading officials at the organised crime unit in Oslo are in the habit of being extremely selective and arbitrary in their choice of targets, and then pursue them relentlessly, often to the point where it seems legal standards come under threat. Not that the organised crime unit is alone among the Norwegian police in setting basic judicial principles to one side, though. The outgoing chief of police in Oslo, Anstein Gjengedal, once declared his desire to see every member of Pakistani gangs behind bars, apparently quite regardless of their actual involvement in specific crimes. Round’em up! For their part, nifty police lawyers in Trondheim at one point proposed to share information about prostitute clients with employers (Adresseavisen, 3 December 2009), whereas Atle Roll Mathiesen, previously head of the organised crime section of the prestigious Kripos (Norway’s national and centralised criminal investigative unit) has reportedly joined colleagues in the Oslo police in publicly calling for exclusion measures directed against bikers.

The Norwegian political establishment favours police stalking

At times, the Norwegian judiciary has done a good job of reining in some of the excesses of the Oslo organised crime unit, with dismissals of several cases. On the other hand, though, Norwegian bureaucrats and politicians appear less capable of putting up resistance. Quite the opposite, in fact. Too often, the judicial committee of the Norwegian parliament – dominated by the strong personality of Jan Bøhler of the Labour party – yields to proposals from Harald Bøhler and others in the organised crime unity demanding wider police authorities or procedures  (see for example VG, 31 May 2012). For his part, the previous minister of justice, Knut Storberget, failed to provide a clear and negative answer when Trondheim police floated the idea of sharing information about offenders against the anti-prostitution law with employers (Stortinget, document 15:143 2009–10).  It was actually an opposition politician from the far-right FrP that had to travel to Brazil to try to clean up after Operation Nemesis, which had apparently involved illegal information sharing between the Oslo police and their Brazilian counterparts (Dagbladet, 2 June 2010).

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Norwegian police directorate – created in 2001 and until March 2011 under the leadership of former police chief of Oslo, Ingelin Killengreen – rarely acts as an effective check on the ambitions of the police.  Quite the contrary, in its commentary on questions such as the right of  bikers to wear MC emblems at bars and restaurants (which the police tried to ban), the directorate comes across as surprisingly ignorant of the conflict between the police’s ideas and basic European human rights principles  (see in particular letter from the police directorate to the police in Haugesund dated 5 January 2012). Conversely, the opponents of the directorate – in this case the motorcycle club Hells Angels – are often those who set out reasonable interpretations in these matters. Regarding the MC emblems, Hells Angels argued for a principled interpretation of constitutional and European human rights jurisprudence on non-discrimination, and eventually hired a widely respected Norwegian lawyer who concluded he agreed with them (just as the Swedish supreme court had previously also argued for non-discrimination). But then again, Killengreen, the director of the police, has personally suggested that the police should cooperate with insurance companies, municipalities and even restaurants to combat MC gangs, apparently disregarding entirely the right of bikers to enjoy the same privacy and perfect equality before the law as other citizens (Politiets fellesforbund, 8 February 2011).

It may be tempting to ascribe the evolvement of authoritarian policing styles in Norway to the post-911 years from 2001 onwards, but in fact it goes further back – at least to the 1980s when Willy Haugli was police chief in Oslo. However, it was only during his media-savvy and politically well-connected successor in the 1990s, Ingelin Killengreen, that large-scale human rights transgressions by the Norwegian police seemed to acquire a degree of acceptability in political circles. Perhaps the best example is the infamous China state visit in 1996, when Killengreen basically applied Chinese rules to public demonstrations in Oslo for a day. The fact that Killengreen managed to keep her position after that blunder amounted to a considerable defeat for human rights proponents in Norway. Another noteworthy pre-2001 development was the expansion of police powers to include more secret undercover methods when Odd Einar Dørum was minister of justice in 1999. Representing Venstre, the most purely liberal party in Norwegian politics, Dørum and his support for more police powers is perhaps the best example that it is not only the dominant Labour party that gets involved in symbiotic relationships with leaders of the police in Norway. In an angry but prophetic editorial dated 4 May 1999, Dagbladet savaged the remarkable cave-in by Venstre to a big brother type society.

Whereas the post-2001 climate saw expansion of police powers worldwide, in Norway it was not really until around 2005 that the character of Oslo policing methods changed in a big way. In this period, the partnership of Killengreen at the police directorate and Eirik Jensen in the newly constituted organised crime unit of the Oslo police seemed to play a dynamo role. A further step towards ever more totalitarian forms of policing came with a lethal shooting episode in 2006 where gang members briefly fought an armed battle in the middle of one of Oslo’s most celebrated promenades, Aker Brygge. Subsequent to this incident (and the shock it evidently produced in the political class), Oslo police were increasingly given a free hand to deal with the gangs as they saw fit. What they asked for in terms of resources they generally got. By 2007, Jensen could count on unlimited parliamentary and financial support, and few questions were being asked with reference to his gang-busting activities (Aftenposten, 26 May 2007).

In this way, there is a very direct link from the yellow pro-Tibet t-shirt wearers who were rounded up by Oslo police in 1996 during the attempted China demonstrations to the debate about the right to wear motorcycle gang emblems in recent years. How utterly ahistorical that a country where Nazism was defeated during the Second World War by people wearing caps and clips in their jackets as symbols of resistance should allow crude attacks on these softest forms of free expression only a half century later!

Perhaps more fundamentally, it is impossible to decouple the worrying trend of widespread police stalking from other trends indicating systemic problems in the Norwegian judicial system. Above all, the overuse of pre-trial detention – criticised repeatedly by the UN and Amnesty – stands out. For its position as a leading country in the world of democracies, Norway has a surprisingly bad record of putting people behind bars for no good reason. Hopefully, greater awareness about police stalking can help put on the agenda these more deep-rooted systemic problems in the Norwegian judicial system when it comes to dealing with the presumption of innocence, which after all is considered one of the most important pillars of modern Western judicial philosophy.