Staffing shortages in rural police departments in Iceland mean that police often turn to members of the public to assist with law enforcement work and to help in the community. This was among the findings of a recent study conducted by sociologists at the University of Akureyri, RÚV reports.
The article, “Jacks (and Jills) of all trades: the gentle art of policing rural Iceland,” was authored by sociologists Guðmundur Oddson, Andrew Paul Hill, and Thoroddur Bjarnason. The article summarizes the authors’ interviews with twenty-three rural police officers. According to the abstract, the authors found that rural police officers’ daily work life is characterized by “understaffing, overwork, an extensive range of tasks with little to no backup, and a blurring of work-life boundaries.” Based on these interviews, they conclude that “rural police officers must master the art of soft policing, which requires superior communication skills centred on extensive dialogue, negotiation, de-escalation, and minimal use of force to build trust and consensus.”
“The main theme was overload,” remarked Guðmundur, who noted that Iceland employs the second fewest number of police officers per capita in Europe. Due to a lack of human resources and the long distance that would often be required to travel for backup or additional assistance, rural police officers often have to seek assistance from the immediate community. “Asking those present to help direct traffic in the event of a car accident, for example,” he explained. In Iceland, rural police often turn to local Search & Rescue squads for assistance as well.
According to Guðmundur, these findings indicate a clear need for more police officers. In an interview he and coauthor Andrew Paul Hill gave about their findings in October 2021, Hill also highlighted the various differences between rural and urban policing that became evident during the course of their study. “Aside from being under-resourced, rural officers are often deeply embedded in their communities, which presents challenges as well as opportunities,” he said. “Given this, prospective police students must be educated and trained for both rural and urban police work, but, as we all know, most of the police teaching material and methods are based on the latter.”
Hill added that officers new to the profession often lack the professional mentorship that they need to be successful: “Our study also raises the issue of whether students and/or new police officers are prepared enough for rural police work given that the Icelandic police has become more centralized with the merging of police districts and declining staffing levels since 2007, which means that fewer police officers are located in rural and remote areas. This also means that there are fewer potential tutors with extensive rural policing experience for prospective police officers and new officers. Another way to address this issue could be to require prospective and/or new police officers to train and work in both rural and urban areas to better prepare them for the realities of rural policing.”