Growing Violence in Downtown Reykjavík a Cause for Concern

capital area police, police

In an interview with the Kastljós news programme yesterday, an assistant chief superintendent with the capital area police expressed growing concern over increased violence in downtown Reykjavík. The threshold for the use of sharp weapons, he noted, appears to be lower among young men.

Recent incidents of violence

Following recent incidents of violence in downtown Reykjavík, Ásgeir Þór Ásgeirsson, Assistant Chief Superintendent with the Capital Area Police, was interviewed for the news programme Kastljós on RÚV yesterday.

He began by confirming reports that some of the incidents – among them the apprehension and detainment of a man who had discharged a firearm in the Dubliner pub in downtown Reykjavík – were, in some way, related to the knife attack in Bankastræti Club nightclub last year.

When asked if these incidents were the results of a kind of gang war, Ásgeir stated the following: “Some of the cases are in the early stages of the investigation … but there are, as we’ve seen, groups in downtown Reykjavík, and beyond that area, that are fighting.” These groups are rather sizable, according to the police officer.

Ásgeir also stated that most of the individuals involved in the recent violent attacks were young men and that the police were worried about this trend. “Young people, mostly young men, and boys are increasingly fighting in larger groups and the threshold for employing sharp weapons has become quite low.”

“And is this a new trend? Is violence growing more extreme and increasing?” the interviewer inquired.

“Yes, over the past few years, violence has certainly increased,” Ásgeir responded. “It’s grown more extreme. The threshold for employing sharp weapons and even firearms has been lowered. And that’s a cause for concern.”

Altering conceptions of violence

Ásgeir also noted that the concept of “violence” appeared to have shifted among the youth. “We’ve had surveys where respondents are asked if they’ve ever been subject to violence, and the response is ‘No.’ But then there’s a follow-up question where interviewees are asked if they’ve been punched or put in a chokehold, and these same respondents reply ‘Yes.’ So the concept of violence appears to be somewhat distorted among young people.”

In reference to another interview with a law enforcement officer, Ásgeir was asked whether it was true that the atmosphere in downtown Reykjavík had changed. Ásgeir replied that the police have increasingly been forced to dispatch larger units when violent incidents involving sharp weapons are reported. “There has been increased training in order to meet these new circumstances, which began in 2014 or 2015 … but these are tools that we don’t want to use. We want peace in the city. We need to find a solution. And the only way to do that is to work with the youth.”

Ásgeir was also asked about the newly approved regulations authorising police officers to use electroshock weapons, that is, whether such weapons could prove effective in incidence involving sharp weapons. Ásgeir stated that the most extreme weapon in the officer’s belt, aside from the firearm, was the billy club. Which was why electroshock weapons were useful. “Electroshock weapons are classified in the same category as clubs,” Ásgeir noted.

Prison Guards to Receive Stab-Resistant Vests, Possibly Tasers

Jón Gunnarsson Alþingi

The Minister of Justice will answer the call from prison guards regarding increased training and protective equipment, Mbl.is reports. The Director General of Prison and Probation Administration notes a worrying trend of violence and weapons use within Icelandic prisons.

Use of weapons on the rise in prisons

As noted in an article published on Mbl.is yesterday morning, violence and weapons use among Icelandic prisoners have greatly increased over the past years. In light of this trend, prison guards have called for better protective equipment, stab-resistant vests, and, in some instances, access to tasers.

Páll Winkel, Director General of Prison and Probation Administration, told Mbl.is that the prison system was facing a “new reality,” with weapons now being confiscated from cells and common areas on a regular basis.

“This was almost unheard of, a couple of years ago. It’s my responsibility, first and foremost, to ensure the safety of my employees. We’re not enthusiastic about carrying weapons within our prisons, but we obviously need to reassess our protocols. And we may need to reconsider how we interact with certain groups of inmates, i.e. those who create and carry makeshift weapons,” Páll stated, adding that these weapons were improvised from shards of plexiglass, saw-blades, screwdrivers, screws, and nails.

Prison guard speaks out

Speaking to Vísir.is yesterday, prison guard Sigurður Rúnar Hafliðason stated that he’d experienced these trends first-hand: “We’ve got this much tougher, more violent core of prisoners, who are also abusing drugs to a greater extent. And so there’s a big difference in how we’re managing prisoners today, compared to when I was starting.”

As noted by the article, three serious assaults have been perpetrated against prison guards this year. According to Sigurður, the younger generation of prisoners commonly carries knives and post-traumatic stress has increased among prison guards.

Sigurður Rúnar doesn’t necessarily believe that tasers are necessary, arguing that stab-resistant vests and improved training is vital. “We need to improve safety … we need training so that people feel safe while they’re at work.” Mass arrests and budgetary constraints have also put pressure on an already strained system.

Minister of Justice to “answer the call”

In an article published in Morgunblaðið this morning, Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson stated that the safety of prison guards and police officers was “a priority.”

“What’s happening inside prison walls reflects broader trends within our society,” Jón remarked. “I’ve had extensive conversations with the prison authorities, and it’s clear that we must respond on many different levels.”

According to Jón, this response will, among other things, include stab-resistant vests. The Ministry is also considering equipping prison guards with tasers.

“We’ve repeatedly witnessed serious incidents within the country’s prisons. It’s clear that it’s necessary to equip our people in such a way that their safety is ensured at their places of employment. And we do that by providing better protective equipment. Additionally, we need to consider structural organisation; we can’t allow things to develop in such a manner within our prisons.”

Physical altercations involving knives have been in the news lately, with a knife attack at the Bankastræti Club nightclub last weekend and a fifteen-year old boy being stabbed in the Garfarvogur neighbourhood of Reykjavík earlier this week.

Knife Crime Callouts on the Rise in the Capital Area

Over the last few weeks, police have intervened in an increasing number of weapons-related incidents, particularly involving knives, RÚV reports. The weapons have all been confiscated, and police have issued a reminder that the carrying of weapons of any kind is prohibited under the Weapons Act.

The Weapons Act applies equally to smaller knives, like pocket knives, as it does to larger blades. The only exception is if the individual carrying the knife needs it for their work or while out hunting.

According to the police blotter, knife-related conflicts have not only been happening late at night, downtown on the weekends, but also throughout the city and even in private homes in some cases.

Comprehensive statistics not available

Comprehensive statistics on police callouts related to knives are not readily available, Rannveig Þórisdóttir, division manager of the National Police, told RÚV. Preliminary analysis indicates that individuals committing robberies are often armed, although the weapons are not always used in the course of the crime. It appears that the number of armed robberies began to increase after 2016, but this may simply be due to better record-keeping and reporting as of that year.

In 2015 and 2016, there were an average of 15 incidents a month in which a knife was confiscated. From 2017 to 2019, this number steadily rose until it reached an average of 23 knife-related incidents a month. There were spikes within this period, namely in July 2018 and 2019, which both saw 42 knife-related incidents. This number dropped somewhat after the COVID-19 pandemic to 21 knife-related incidents a month.

Extraordinary jump in knife-related incidents in July

The number of knife-related incidents seems to be on the rise again; in July, there were 42—back up to the high of 2018 and 2019. The police emphasize, however, that these latest figures do not reflect the number of callouts in which the person in question was armed, simply those incidents in which a knife was confiscated. They say, however, that the numbers do indicate a surge in weapons-carrying in the capital area.