Thursday, May 07, 2015

Sweden’s Finest – Policing the Police

On April 22, 2015, four Swedish police officers vacationing in New York City broke up a fight on a subway. They were lauded for their humane treatment of the men who were fighting. They asked how they were doing, were they ok. American media took this and ran with it. In the aftermath of death (murder) after death (murder) after death (murder) at the hands of American police officers, people are starting, just starting, to take note. There were cute comments suggesting that maybe the Swedish police should be training American police officers. Because they were so humane. So nice.


Maybe. You are, by all accounts, less likely to die after interactions with a Swedish police officer. But that’s a pretty low bar. Because there are still deep-seated issues with the Swedish police force as the videos below will demonstrate. Just a heads up, some of them are rough to watch. That being said, these four officers dealt with a situation in a way that, yes, they and the people who trained them should be proud of.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. It's been distressing to see Sweden held up as an example in this case because of the actions of four individuals, which ignores any systemic issues that may exist in Swedish policing. Here are three examples of why that is:

On April 30, 2015 (that’s eight days after the incident in New York City), an unmarked police car drove straight into a crowd of students partying at Medborgarplatsen in Stockholm. You can watch that video here. Apparently there was a fight and the police were on their way to save the day. The police officer driving initially claimed that they car couldn’t stop. That claim resulted in four people being taken to the hospital. Now the police are blaming it on human error. Hit the brake and the gas at the same time. I did that once. When I was 15 and had been driving for less than six months.

According to Aftonbladet, there are plans to press charges because of the fight. Of course, that’s where it gets a little awkward. Towe Hägg, from Stockholm Police says that “Men vi har inte hittat någon som är skadad så vi har inga uppgifter på vem som har bråkat.” “But we haven’t found anyone that is hurt so we don’t have any information about who was fighting.” Oh Towe. Towe, Towe, Towe. There are four people that were hurt so badly that they were taken to the hospital. Because a police officer ran into them with a car. Perhaps you should be pressing charges against the driver?

February 6, 2015, two young boys were riding the subway in Malmö without paying. A guard caught them, tackled them to the ground, and slammed the youngest boys head against the floor as he covered the boy’s mouth. It's important to note that this was not the police. However, the Malmö police initially refused to investigate. It took a public outcry and a video being published for the police to do anything.


Two months later, on April 20, 2015, no charges were filed.

There are plenty of examples of overzealous policing. Overzealous is such a handy euphemism for over-militarized police having their way with people. Like the two anti-Nazi protestors I saw felled by a police baton as they turned to run. A baton to the back. But the example that is all too reminiscent of what has happened in the US lately, especially in Ferguson, Missouri, happened a couple of years ago.

May 13, 2013, a man was shot in the face by Swedish police in the Stockholm suburb of Husby. He died on the scene. That was around 8:50 in the evening after police were called to the apartment. The man had been drinking and threatened a guard at a bar with a knife. Then he went home. And that’s when the police showed up. After some negotiations that went nowhere, they stormed the home and killed the man with his wife in the apartment. It’s important to note that the police assumed she was being threatened by the man. She says she wasn’t. His body was taken away in a hearse around 2am. About five hours after he was killed.

Protests followed. Strong ones. Protests that spread to other communities, especially other communities with larger immigrant populations like Husby. Those protests were against the shooting, the killing, the man being left dead for hours in his apartment. They were against the over policing and the situation and the poverty, the segregation, the systemic issues that people lived under every day. And just like the protests in the United States, they were condemned for being violent and destructive. But it was the police who killed a man. The protestors did not kill anyone. They did nothing that could not be repaired. There was an investigation. No crime or misconduct was committed. That was appealed by the widow and her lawyer. There was another investigation. On July 1, 2014, over a year after the shooting, the investigating body decided the police officer had shot a man in the face in self-defense. Case closed.

Let me say this explicitly. Not all Swedish police are like this. Not even all American police. Not even close. #NotAllPolice. Or something like that. Got it. They do a job I do not want to do and make decisions I am not willing to make. That does not mean they are above reprieve or even above questioning. In fact, there's an argument to be made that they are simply a tool in a much larger structural problem. Either way, the Swedish police are not leaving a trail of dead young men and women behind them. Since 2003, Swedish police forces have only killed eight people. And it’s sad to say, but only eight people is a good thing, especially compared to the US. Where hundreds are killed by police every single year.

Again. #NotAllPolice. Still got it. In fact, I've had good interactions with the police here. That’s not the point, though. To blindly accept that the police are always the good guys, always right, that leads to some scary assumptions that ignores any potential systemic issues that should be addressed and solved. That doesn’t mean for a second that every single police officer is going to shoot a 69-year old man in the head and leave his body in the apartment for hours. It doesn’t mean that every single police officer is a racist. Or a sexist. Or a murderer. Or corrupt. Or whatever other adjective you can come up with. It just means that law enforcement is a branch of civil service that, just like all branches, should be watched over by the very people who are being policed. So the policed become the police. If only for a while and if only to improve the system, both the policing system and the larger system in which we all live and die.

Welcome to Sweden. And a low bar of policing.

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