Helsinki has on many occasions demonstrated an impressive ability to organise big international events well. Whether they be summit meetings or sports events, one of the numerous prerequisites for success is good security. That this has to be arranged without unduly disrupting the everyday lives of city residents is a guiding principle for the Helsinki police. When a street has to be closed to other traffic to let a line of big black limos glide through, it is done at the very last minute and for as little time as possible.
Compared with many other European countries, Finland is quite a safe place. Yet there are relatively fewer police than elsewhere: one officer for every 773 people (compared with one for every 372 in the UK, 281 in Germany and 191 in Italy). Another indication of safety is that children can go to and from school without an escort. Mothers out shopping often leave their babies asleep in their prams outside stores.
Helsinki's police chief Paavo Koskela gives the city's remoteness some of the credit for the high level of safety: "Everything new that is invented in the world of crime takes some time to come here from the West, and that allows us to prepare for it. Various extreme groups find it very difficult to infiltrate, because the city is small and everything new is quickly noticed. It is of course true that open borders create opportunities for criminals, but cooperation between police forces in Europe is effective and shared information networks make it easier for us to keep in contact with each other."
Not even after he reflects on the question for a while can the police chief think of a place where it would be unsafe for the ordinary tourist to go during ordinary hours, but adds. "Of course people should be careful and keep an eye on their property, lock their cars and doors. There are, unfortunately, professional pickpockets in the city nowadays."
Polls have shown that people in Finland trust the police and appreciate their work. Koskela has praise for the cooperation that takes place between the public and the police and comments that until quite recently relations between the police and the criminal community have followed clear ground rules as well. "If we are to succeed in our work, we need the support of the public. That presupposes that we are fair, professional and service-minded," he says. He cites the example of homicides, virtually all of which are solved in Finland, largely thanks to the valuable help that members of the public give the police.
One of the ways in which cooperation with the public takes place is a neighbourhood policing system, which has proved an effective means of crime prevention. Finland has been a world leader in developing this kind of policing. Helsinki is divided into 37 areas, each of which has an officer with specific responsibility for maintaining contact with residents.
The neighbourhood system has inspired residents to think what they can do to increase security and thereby improve their quality of life. Their cooperation enables the police to focus their attention on problems brought to their notice. The Internet site maintained by the force is another important channel for cooperation between neighbourhood police and citizens.
"Safety is one of the most central factors in a pleasant living environment and we in the police attach great importance to it. When an area is safe, this is reflected in many things: people are happy to come to live and visit there, hotels are full and trade flourishes," Koskela points out.