“This report shows an alternative perspective to the one that the police give. When the police paint an inaccurate picture, it can lead to politicians making the wrong decision, lacking development, and the public missing out on the police service that they should receive”, says Stefan Holgersson.
Stefan Holgersson is a docent in information systems at Linköping University and professor of policing studies at the police academy in Oslo. He is a police officer and has researched policing for just over 20 years. The new report – “How does the Swedish Police Authority protect and strengthen public perception of its efficacy?” – is written together with Johanna Westman, a police officer with a degree in criminology. The report is a continuation of work begun in 2021 with two other studies by Holgersson: “How do the police handle journalists?” and “How do the police live up to the principle of public access to official records?”
“This new report builds on earlier ones and complements them with new data from statistics and qualitative information from interviews with employees in different parts of the Swedish Police Authority – interviews where we’ve asked how police handle and fend off issues. This report gives a picture of police work very different to the one we find in the media”, says Stefan Holgersson.
The report shows how the Swedish Police Authority handles criticism, with examples taken from nine different areas. The examples range from the police’s work against gang crime and use of violence to their investigative and HR work. According to Stefan Holgersson, the police work systematically to embellish and improve their reputation.
“We could have written a report about just one area – like gang crime, for example. But this way, we can show that there are several structural problems found in different parts of the Authority. The police control the public’s impression of how successful their work is, and portray their efforts in an exaggerated, sometimes completely false way.”
“The fact is that there have never been more police per capita in Sweden than there are today, and the Authority hasn’t been subjected to the kind of scrutiny it should receive.
One example given by the reports’ authors is the “Trojan Shield” operation. The picture of the operation given in the media was that 155 individuals were arrested on 7 June 2021, in connection with a large, international, coordinated effort against organised crime. At the time, the police stated that “almost all” of those arrested had been remanded in custody. When Stefan Holgersson made freedom of information requests to obtain related documents from the Authority, and compiled the statistics, it turned out that just 42 of the individuals arrested had been remanded in custody.
“It’s really not good when misleading, sometimes just completely false information is spread, creating misleading grounds for decisions. The police want to ensure that they’re seen in a good light, and so their reputation has become more important than the content of their work.”
“If the main picture given in public is one of successful ‘hard blows against gang crime’, then it may lead to wrong decisions by politicians in the future.”
Culture of silence
According to the report, there is a culture of silence in the Swedish Police Authority – one which impedes scrutiny.
“This is something which benefits their strategy of presenting themselves in a positive light. You can’t say certain things, you can’t be critical. The public put a lot of faith in the police, so it’s important that the picture they give of themselves is correct. It would be a different matter if there were two or three different police services among which the public could choose. But as it is, the Swedish police are seen as the best police – no matter how good or bad they actually are.”
This study is from the research project “What the authorities want to hide”. The project is financed by the research foundation of Handelsbanken, as well as the research project “Police work in socioeconomically vulnerable areas in Sweden”, which is financed by FORTE. The research project is based at Linköping University.