17 December 2018

Six people have been fatally shot in Sweden by police officers in 2018. Could these deaths have been avoided? A new report highlights major structural deficiencies in the police that lead to mistakes and the use of excessive force.

Stockholm, Sweden - May 29, 2012: Ambulances and police cars gathering. Just after some emergency or accident happened in central Stockholm. Police line, tape, do not cross Photo credit olaser“The use of excessive or prohibited violence by the police is not a large problem. There are many fine police officers and police reactions during most incidents are satisfactory. This report does not focus on such reactions, but rather on dealing with the problem of the police use of excessive force that does, despite everything, exist. Further, we see an increasing trend”, says Stefan Holgersson, docent at LiU and professor of police science at the Norwegian Police University College in Oslo.
He also works half-time as an active police officer.

The police brand: higher priority than improving procedures

Stefan Holgersson, 2018. Docent vid LiU och professor i polisvetenskap vid Polishögskolan i OsloStefan Holgersson. Private photoPolice are called on to use violence in certain situations. This is not questioned in the report.
“Instead, I think of my report as an accident investigation of the cases in which something has gone wrong with policing.”
Stefan Holgersson mentions as an example the fatal shooting of a young man with Down’s syndrome in Stockholm in the summer of 2018.
“Even a single incident in which mistakes are made by the police is one incident too many. By systematically examining what went wrong, it should be possible to improve procedures and training, to ensure that it can’t happen again.”
But this is not being done, claims Stefan Holgersson.
“The police management is instead of investing huge resources into PR, to protect and improve the police brand. In this way it is covering up structural problems in the police organisation.”

Major structural deficiencies

Stefan Holgersson highlights in the report several structural deficiencies that require action. Training in conflict management and the use of force is one such deficiency, and applies both to the basic education and further education. For example, a police student carries out on average one low-light shooting during the complete programme, even though most shooting incidents take place in poor lighting conditions, according to the report.
The study also emphasises major deficiencies in practising communication skills to use in the conflict situations that police face. It also points to a lack of critical reflection within the police, an inability to learn from internal and external criticism, and deficiencies in the recruitment of police, which puts more weight on quantity than quality.

Building confidence and trust

The report also questions the idea that “tough tactics” are the correct way of dealing with criminality, such as the large increase of shootings among criminal gangs.
Stefan Holgersson believes that it is better to use “smart tactics” than tough tactics. Acting in a tough way that has not been sufficiently thought through increases the risk of polarisation, where the confidence and trust of the general population in the police and other societal institutions may be damaged.
“Tough tactics sometimes affect the wrong people. While it’s without doubt true that the police can deal with aspects of the problem by acting positively and focussing on certain individuals, taking a tough approach also risks having an effect that is opposite of that desired. If the responses are experienced as unjust, the police may come to be considered as an enemy by young people, who initially did not have this image of them. In the long term, this creates greater problems for society. It is instead wiser to use methods that are built on relationships and to carry out reliable investigations”, says Stefan Holgersson.

Not obvious that more resources are the solution

One conclusion that Stefan Holgersson draws in the report is that the requests of the police for more resources can be questioned.
“I think it’s more important to question how the police use resources today. Why do they have, for example, nearly 200 employees in the communication department? Why doesn’t the police management take responsibility for sorting out the problems and deficiencies that exist?”
Stefan Holgersson points out that policing is a difficult profession. Many police officers do a fantastic job.
“But this is not due to the management and organisation that exists, rather despite it.

Translation: George Farrants

The report (in Swedish) “Sätta hårt mot hårt” – en studie av polisens användning av våld och förmåga att hantera konflikter has been published by CARER (Center for Advanced Research in Emergency Response), LiU. It is part of an ongoing three-year research project that examines police action in vulnerable suburbs.

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