Arctic police make sure far north doesn’t go too Wild West

With its ghost towns and armed men taking on a vast wilderness, one could almost mistake the Svalbard archipelago 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 botherers - at bay.

Its 12 officers dash around on snowmobiles, helicopters or in boats keeping the peace among the 3,000 or so hardy souls tough enough to endure the endless winter nights.

"Obviously most cases are pretty trivial," police chief Stein Olav Bredli told AFP from his office in the main town of Longyearbyen, with its stunning view of the fjord outside.

But Svalbard's penal code has its own local peculiarities like disturbing a polar bear or boats breaking sea ice. The law takes a dim view of both, with a 1,500-euro ($1,587) fine for bear bothering.

Bredli's bread and butter are petty thefts, snowmobile accidents, occasional locals caught with drugs, and anti-drink driving campaigns.

In fact, the most common crime was once said to be shoe stealing -- either intentionally or accidentally after one drink too many -- because everyone removes their shoes when stepping indoors, even into a public building.

The crime section of the local newspaper Svalbardposten like almost everything else here, the northernmost in the world is pretty thin.

"A few brawls after the bars close" is about as much as editor Borre Haugli can hope for.

And yet Svalbard's residents are armed to the teeth. It's mandatory to carry a rifle when leaving urban areas in case of a close encounter with a polar bear. Since 1971, six people have been killed by the bears.

Haugli can only recall a single car theft in his two years as the paper's chief. "It was probably drunk...

Continue reading on: