With its ghost towns and gunmen tackling a vast wilderness, the Svalbard archipelago could almost be mistaken for the Wild West.
But a tiny Arctic police force on these islands halfway between Norway and the North Pole keeps outlaws — and polar bear jammers — at bay.
Its 12 officers whiz around on snowmobiles, helicopters, or in boats to keep the peace among the roughly 3,000 hardy souls tough enough to endure the endless winter nights.
“Obviously most of the cases are quite trivial,” Police Commissioner Stein Olav Bredli told AFP from his office in the capital, Longyearbyen, with its stunning fjord view outside.
But Svalbard’s penal code has its own local quirks, like disturbing a polar bear or boats breaking sea ice. The law frowns on both, with a 1,500 euro ($1,587) fine for bear molestation.
Bredli’s bread and butter is petty theft, snowmobile accidents, the occasional drug offense among locals, and anti-drinking campaigns.
In fact, shoe theft is said to have been the most common crime — either intentionally or accidentally after one too many drinks — because everyone takes off their shoes when going indoors, even a public building.
The crime section of the local newspaper Svalbardposten is – like almost everything here, the northernmost in the world – pretty thin.
“A few after-pub brawls” is about as much as editor Borre Haugli could hope for.
And yet Svalbard’s residents are armed to the teeth. When exiting urban areas in the event of a close encounter with a polar bear, carrying a rifle is mandatory.
Six people have been killed by bears since 1971.
– Freeze, it’s a raid –
In his two years as newspaper editor, Haugli can only remember one car theft. “It was probably drunk people who saw a car with the keys in it after a party,” he said.
Locals usually leave their homes and cars unlocked.
It helps when you need to outrun a polar bear quickly – and it’s also a sign of the confidence you need to survive in such a hostile environment.
Besides, where can a thief run with only 40 kilometers of roads and the only connection to the outside world – beyond a very long boat ride – the small airport on the outskirts of Longyearbyen?
But none of that stopped a Russian from pulling off the world’s northernmost bank robbery.
Maksim Popov made off with 70,000 kroner ($7,125) in 2018 after robbing the island’s only bank with a gun before being quickly arrested.
He was sentenced to more than a year in prison on the mainland. The bank has now closed.
– Empty Prison Cell –
Police Chief Bredli says he always locks his front door. “Occupational hazard,” he said.
But until he gave AFP a tour of his station, Bredli said he never saw his single prison cell.
Obviously it is rarely used.
“That would require a police officer to guard it permanently,” says Bredli, and that’s a luxury his small unit can’t afford.
Aside from the 130 complaints they investigate each year, Bredli officers spend most of their time on 24-hour search and rescue standby.
With two helicopters at their disposal, they do everything from helping boats in distress to finding tourists lost in the mountains.
“Imagine if a cruise ship is sinking, it’s not easy to evacuate 1,000 passengers,” said Bredli.
“It’s one thing to get the passengers ashore in what are certainly difficult weather conditions.” But police would also have to “ensure they are safe from the polar bear threat.”
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