Stories about life in Denmark

Just buy more insurance: Crime and Punishment in Denmark

I have a daughter, and a couple of years ago, she buried her mobile phone in the sandbox at school.

She buried her mobile phone deep in the sand, too deep to hear it ring, and then she couldn’t find it. She dug and dug, and then she panicked, and she blamed another girl. She said the other girl had buried the phone in the sandbox.

Pretty soon lie piled on top of lie, so we ended up with a Richard Nixon/Bill Clinton type situation, where the lies were far worse than the original crime. When we finally unraveled it all, I had to apologize to the other girl’s mother.

And I punished my daughter, who was old enough to know better. I took her screens away – her online games and her YouTube access – for a month.

I am an adult bully
The Danish parents around me were horrified.

The idea of punishment, in Danish eyes, is old-fashioned and maybe a bit criminal in itself. From the Danish point of view, almost all problems can be solved by talking about them.

The Danish parents believed I should have simply spoken strongly to my daughter, and explained to her that that it’s not OK to get someone else in trouble, while trying to save your own butt, after doing something colossally stupid. The explanation is the remedy.

By adding a penalty, they believe, I was just being an adult bully.

It’s OK to impose fines
This doesn’t mean there are no penalties in Denmark. The Danes are big on fines. You’ll see the controllers prowling the S-trains in Copenhagen, asking to see tickets, and raining down a giant fine on those who don’t have them. Even if you have a ticket, but not precisely the correct ticket, you still get the fine. No questions allowed, no pity.

You can get a fine for bicycling aggressively, and you get an automatic fine for paying a bill even one day late. And because Denmark is a centralized system based around your CPR number, these fines get added to your taxes or taken away from your government benefits, so there’s no avoiding them.

A society built on trust
But larger crimes leave Danes at a loss. This is a society built on trust. You see that trust everywhere – coats left on unguarded coat racks, bikes barely locked, children as young as 8 or 9 taking public transportation alone.

At my post office, people send their expensive packages by putting them into a big open bin. It wouldn’t take a very bright or ambitious criminal to just take a couple of promising-looking packages back out again and be on his way.

Why not look at the video?
Danish society is not set up to expect criminal behavior, or to guard against it. When that trust is broken, Danes aren’t entirely sure what to do.

My daughter’s school is in a suburb of Copenhagen, and nearly every weekend, someone smashes up the local S-train station. They break the elevator, bust up the benches, and cover the walls and windows with graffiti.

There is a working video camera in the station, so in my American naïveté, I said, why not look at the video, find out who it is, and arrest that person or persons?

Oh, it’s not that easy, say the Danes I’ve spoken to. You might have the video, but you might not know who they are. And then you might not be able to track them down. Really, there’s not much that can be done about it.

Pickpockets are loose
Policing in general seems rather passive in Denmark. You’ll rarely see police officers in Copenhagen, which unusual for a big city, but you do hear constant announcements in the trains and train stations that pickpockets are loose.

Criminal gangs, many of which are based in Eastern Europe, have discovered that Denmark is an easy mark. They don’t see a society built on trust and respect – they see a lot of unsecured villas in the fancy neighborhoods, filled with designer housewares that are easy to resell. At one point the police started searching the baggage room of a daily bus service to Romania, and found almost everything that had been stolen in burglaries the day before.

Gangs have also been blamed for stealing the copper cables that power the S-trains, causing hours-long delays for fuming commuters, and even for defacing gravestones with copper flowers or crosses that can be removed and melted down. Twenty percent of the prisoners in Danish jails are now foreigners.

Just buy more insurance
But the Danish response to crime is again, not punishment. The Danish response is to buy more insurance. You can insure just about anything in Denmark – insure your home against theft, or your bike against theft, or your mobile telephone against theft. Gravestone insurance is probably on the way.

Denmark is still a mostly peaceful place, and the people you really have to fear in Denmark are not the criminals. The people you really have to fear are the tax authorities.

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  • Avatar
    Reply Michal October 21, 2013 at 11:27 am

    This reminded me of a situation I have encountered at a S-tog once.

    During ticket control it turned out that an old lady sitting close to me forgot completely where she is going. She had probably advanced dementia and couldn’t remember who she was or what was going on.

    The ticket officer was nice and tried to help her. In that regard he searched her pockets for a cell phone (to horror of other passengers that he touched her). Upon finding one he called her son (that’s what i got from the conversation) and found out that she was supposed to leave the train couple of stops ago. With her sons allowance he called a taxi and put the lady inside it together with her home address and…
    …. a fine. Although she had a valid ticket (periodekort), she missed (forgot?) her stop and went outside her allowed zones.

    It is just shocking that you can be nice enough to help an old lady but rules are still rules and fines are for everyone…

    • Avatar
      Reply Kay Xander Mellish October 21, 2013 at 11:29 am

      Wow, Michal, that’s a great story! I do find that the ticket controllers are well-mannered and well-trained for what must be a miserable job. But yes, they are absolutely inflexible.

      • Avatar
        Reply Samuel January 19, 2014 at 9:23 pm

        Hehehe <3 I love everything I read.

        Just to let you guys know – We are actually flexible, it just goes through our bureaucracy – Which is also why we have such a low rate of non-taxed work(sort arbejde). But back to the point.

        You just have to write DSB explaining your situation. So you take the ticket – Then go to the website and prove you have a 'periode kort'. 🙂

        Which is easily done through our CPR system too. 😀

  • Avatar
    Reply Anders October 21, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    I don’t know where you live, but an unlocked and unattended bike in Copenhagen is more than likely a sign that it’s already been stolen! 😉

  • Avatar
    Reply Datis October 23, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    I really grateful Kay for all your posts. I read almost all articles and got a great image from life in Denmark. I am coming there as an immigrant, of course an well-educated immigrant with PhD and a profitable enterprise in homeland, and get ready to face with a very different lifestyle form mine in Iran. many details are very useful and may be underestimated by readers, but I record the tiny notes in your posts. thanks for your persistent efforts, from 1995 till now 🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply K February 20, 2014 at 12:19 pm

    I got once a fine in Copenhagen when I was going to the airport. I used the klipkort only once, although as I learnt, I was supposed to do it twice.
    The controller gave me a fine and was so sorry about it! He was feeling so uncomfortable and bad and wished me a nice holiday back home. So yes, they are very nice and polite and stick to the rules.
    The funny thing is that on the plane I have met some Dutch student I know who also got a fine on the metro the same day and in the same way as I did.

    However the police is terrible! They do not do anything! When I was living once in suburbs of Copenhagen and my apartment was robbed (I realized that when I came back at 2 AM), the police came after 12 hours, and their office was 8 minutes on bike from my place! The emergency phone number told me I should call this police station next to me after 8 am, but nobody was replying there between 8-9 am… When they finally came the only thing I got was a paper stating there was a robbery that I could give to insurer(I also learnt that one should write down the serial number of notebook so do it now, just in case). And I never heard from them again. No wonder there is so much robbery now if police does not do anything about it.

    • Avatar
      Reply Kay Xander Mellish February 20, 2014 at 12:33 pm

      I agree. There seems to be a lot of crime in Copenhagen right now….many of the stores have posted signs saying ‘Beware of pickpockets.’

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