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Comment: Crime and Punishment in Denmark

In a society built on trust, law enforcement is rather passive, and punishment is considered a bit primitive

A couple of years ago, my daughter 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, and we ended up with a Richard Nixon type situation, in which the lies were far worse than the original crime. When we finally unravelled 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.

The Danish parents around me were horrified.

The idea of punishment – in Danish eyes, is good old-fashioned and maybe a bit criminal in itself. From the Danish point of view, 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. (They nab a lot of well-meaning tourists this way, leaving them with a 750 kroner bill as a souvenir.)

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.

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 eight or nine 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.

Danish society is not set up to expect criminal behaviour, 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 naïveté, I said, ”Why not look at the video, find out who it is, and arrest that person?”

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

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

Criminal gangs 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 fancy neighbourhoods, filled with designer furniture and knick-knacks that are easy to resell.

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. Since there have been some recent crimes in which gilded or copper decorations have been stolen off gravestones, gravestone insurance is probably on the way.

That said, 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.

This featured comment is an excerpt from Kay Xander Mellish’s new book: How to Live in Denmark: A humorous guide for foreigners and their Danish friends. It’s available on Amazon, for the low-low price of USD 8.88 = DKK 50 (plus value added taxes if purchased in Denmark). You can also buy the book on And on iTunes store.

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