Norwegian police under scrutiny after terror attacks

Oslo police today defended their hour-long response time to the shooting spree on Utoya island, part of the twin terrorist attacks that killed at least 76 people and shocked Norway.

Britta Pedersen/DPA/Newscom
A picture dated July 22, shows a police officer guarding a street in the city centre of Oslo, Norway. At least 92 people were killed in two attacks: a bomb in the city of Oslo and by a gunman in a massacre on the holiday island Utoya, on July 23.

Norway’s terrorist attacks have placed Oslo's police force and its tactics under the microscope, and today officials defended their reaction time to the shooting spree on the island of Utoya, saying the circumstances of Friday’s assaults presented a genuine challenge to the authorities.

It took police more than an hour to reach the island after the first emergency call, alerting authorities that the accused shooter, Anders Behring Breivik, was firing on people at a youth camp organized by the ruling Labor party. By the time he was apprehended, at least 68 people were dead. Mr. Breivik is also charged with detonating a bomb outside the Norwegian prime minister's office hours before the shooting spree. At least eight people were killed in the explosion.

The police response to Utoya has drawn sharp criticism from some victims' family members and has many calling for Norwegian police to be better equipped to handle terrorist attacks, even though the country is considered one of the safest in the world. This is a nation where police are mostly unarmed, politicians rarely need security, and violent crime is uncommon.

But the shocking attacks, which Mr. Breivik has admitted to carrying out, could compel law enforcement here to begin reevaluating whether it's prepared enough for the worst-case scenarios.

Norway’s Justice Minister Knut Storberget, however, has called the police’s handling of the situation “excellent."

One of the key issues that limited police response time to Utoya was lack of fast transportation. Oslo police have only one helicopter, and the crew that operates it was on vacation at the time of the attack. Police underscored, however, the helicopter is used for observation or search missions and is unsuitable for the task that was at hand.

“I don’t think this could have gone faster. I can’t see how that could be possible within this distance and under this condition,” said Johan Fredricksen, chief of staff for Oslo police. “We will always try to be better but I can’t see how we could have done this faster.”

Police, dealing with the massive car bomb explosion in the capital, drove 24 miles to the island and commandeered recreational boats to cross the lake, with one overloaded boat taking on water, forcing it to return to shore. Once they arrived on the island at 6:25 p.m., police said they arrested Breivik, who had ammunition left over for his pistol and automatic rifle, within two minutes.

Thirty officers are still on the island collecting evidence. Barricades around the blast site in downtown Oslo will remain up for another two weeks, said Mr. Fredricksen, though he said there is no longer a need for heightened security in the capital.

Breivik remains confined in isolated custody today and will do so for the next eight weeks as police continue their investigation. He faces terrorism charges and up to 21 years in prison if convicted, although the prison term could be extended if he's still considered a threat.

A sense of normalcy is beginning to return to Oslo as passersby continue to leave roses and candles at impromptu memorials throughout the city. At a memorial service outside City Hall on Monday night, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg praised the country for its unity in the face of tragedy.

“Norway will pass the test. Evil can kill individuals, but it can never defeat a whole people,” he said.

Oslo police also will begin posting on its website the names of the confirmed 76 dead starting tonight, Oslo’s deputy police chief Sveinung Sponheim said. Norwegian media have already identified several of the victims from Utoya, who range in age from 14 to 51 years old.

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