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Working on the front line in Stockholm's vulnerable suburbs

Lee Roden
Lee Roden - [email protected]
Working on the front line in Stockholm's vulnerable suburbs
File photo of police officers in Rinkeby, one of Stockholm's vulnerable suburbs. Photo: Vilhelm Stokstad/TT

In 2017 eight new areas were added to a much talked about police list of 'especially vulnerable areas' in Sweden, suburbs with socio-economic problems, where crime sometimes means police and emergency services workers have to specially adapt their methods to get the job done.


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But what is it really like to work on the front line in these areas? And how can the situation there be improved? The Local spoke with police and firefighters in some of Stockholm's most vulnerable suburbs to find out about their first-hand experiences.

Precautions can be necessary

For seven years, Roger Kämpe worked as head of operations in Botkyrka, a municipality in Stockholm county with three areas classified by the police as especially vulnerable: Fittja, Alby, and Hallunda/Norsborg. A month ago he moved to neighbouring Skärholmen, which also has areas classified as vulnerable like Vårberg. The experienced police officer has a deep knowledge of what it means to work in these more challenging environments.

"Above all it means police tactics are carried out in a different way. You can't park your police car just anywhere in the area, for example, because it could end up being damaged," he tells The Local.

"We sometimes need to have more officers attending various types of call-outs than we would in other areas, because there are often a certain amount of other criminals present who sometimes get involved and will try to fight in order to stop the police. That's a big difference when you work in these areas: more police officers are needed to do the same thing compared to a different place that isn't as vulnerable."

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Sweden's vulnerable areas

Roger Kämpe. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

The challenges officers have to deal with in these areas are often linked to the illegal drugs trade, he explains:

"The Swedish police was reorganized around two years ago, and the idea is that you should have local police working on local issues. So an average day for an officer in the field comes from working on local problems that arise. Here in Skärholmen and Botkyrka that's often about creating security, and that's done in various different ways, among other things by intervening in criminal activity. A big source of insecurity in these areas is the narcotics trade."

Building confidence pays off

Along with tackling crimes directly, police also do a lot of long-term work in the neighbourhoods through community building.

"That's about maintaining a high degree of cooperation with external partners, like local businesses, the municipality, schools and so on. That's a large part of the local police task when they're out there working: travelling to the centres, visiting schools."

Having officers who know the local area well and can keep on top of movements made by criminals is key, according to Kämpe, as is establishing a good relationship with the local population.

"It's very important to create confidence in the police because we need the locals to help as witnesses for example, and report crimes. It's rare for the police to go through an investigation without getting help from somewhere else – so confidence among the local population, that we're doing our best and they can trust us, is very important."

It isn't always easy however:

"In especially vulnerable areas like northern Botkyrka there's a quite low tendency to report crimes there, there's a tendency for a parallel society to exist, with a sort of sense of its own form of justice".

"Improving that is often about cooperation. It's also about how the police carry out investigations in the field: you have to be very precise, but also go on the offensive. You have to intervene in things that are wrong, but in a proper, respectful way."

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Fittja is one of the especially vulnerable areas on the police list. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

Amir Zujovic knows better than most what it means to work in these especially vulnerable areas. His entire career as a police officer has been in places like Rinkeby and Tensta, some of Stockholm's most troubled suburbs where problems have even escalated as far as rioting in the past. He's determined to make a difference.

"We have seen that in our areas it's tough to have a business: it's not very easy because criminals perhaps want to come into your shops to sell drugs. So we try to support them, ask if we can do something for them, and also flush out the criminals from the main shopping centre so they disappear from the town centre, so that it can be easier to run a business," he tells The Local.

"We've noticed that when we're there, the criminals don't want to be, they don't want to be standing around, so we try to be present and visible in the centre, but it also depends on what has happened. We sometimes need to be seen somewhere else because something has happened, or it can perhaps be just to create security and be visible. Sometimes we work in plain clothes too, where we try to catch and arrest drug dealers for example."

Similar to Botkyrka and Skärholmen, a vital part of everyday work for the beat cops in areas like Rinkeby is to stay on top of developments among the residents:

"The most important thing is to have a long-term plan, which involves both speaking with normal people and business owners, but also keeping on top of the criminals, learn about them: what are they called? Where do they hang around? What are the hot spots? Where is the problem just now? You adapt to that."

He is also keen to point out the importance of building relationships with locals, and acting in a way that helps to encourage confidence in law enforcement.

"There's an American police officer who said once that you have to win the hearts and the minds of the people, and that's something we think about a lot. That has been communicated to us well by our bosses: 99 percent of the people there like us. The people who don't like us are the criminals."

"It's also particularly important in these areas that if we arrest someone or are carrying out an arrest, we stay there and explain what has happened. Otherwise the story ends up being the one told by the criminals to the population. It's not what has happened, it's what they want people to believe," he continues.

READ ALSO: The Local speaks to residents and business owners in Rinkeby

Amir Zujovic. Photo: Private

No 'no-go zones' for police and firefighters

What both officers make clear is that the police think it's particularly important to be in close contact with residents in these neighbourhoods. That's in significant contrast to a term that is increasingly being used to describe the suburbs in some media outlets – 'no-go zones'.

That phrase is one that people in the emergency services take issue with: they regularly put themselves in the middle of the problem zone, sometimes in delicate and dangerous situations. The very opposite of 'not going' there.

"There's no such thing as a 'no-go zone' in Sweden. I understand that there could be in other parts of the world, but if something like that existed in Sweden it would be a big failure for society and the police. According to my definition of it, that doesn't exist here," Kämpe insists.

"There are areas in Sweden, these especially vulnerable areas, which are definitely subject to a greater degree of insecurity and crime, which means that some average people would experience them as being intimidating during certain times of the day. Because in some parts there's drug dealing, aggressive behaviour from certain individuals, but it's far from what I would define as a no-go zone."

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Housing in Fittja. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

Emil Westerdahl is another person in the emergency services who doesn't like that term. The unit head at Kista fire station, covering vulnerable areas like Rinkeby, Tensta and Husby, couldn't be any clearer when asked what he thinks about the phrase.

"There are no 'no-go zones' for us. We act exactly the same whether there's a fire in Östermalm or Tensta. The alarm goes, we get out there. Sometimes we encounter a situation where we have to be more cautious, and then we have to act based on that. But there are no 'no-go zones'. We go everywhere, whenever we need to, all the time."

The vast majority of the time his job varies little from a logistical perspective whether he is called out in Rinkeby or somewhere else in Stockholm, he says.

"In principle it's not any different. In socio-economically challenged areas we approach work in exactly the same way as we do anywhere else: all fire stations have the same kind of crew. We travel out in the same way, work with the same tactics."

"On certain occasions we may encounter people who have a negative impact on our way of working. Then we have to act in a certain way, but the basic principle is everyone gets the same help," he continues.

"It could be that we can't drive straight in, in certain cases. So maybe we have to wait until we've spoken with the police and know how things look to make a judgement. But again, the principle is we get to the people who need help," he concludes.

Getting to people early

That's not to whitewash reality: these suburbs do have problems, otherwise they would not be on the police list of vulnerable areas, and there have been documented cases of stone-throwing towards emergency services for example which have made it more difficult to execute their work. The firefighter emphasizes however that most call-outs are not impacted in that way.

"It happens, yes, but it happens rarely. The vast majority understand our aim, understand that we don't make any judgements about people, we're not after anyone, we just want to help everyone. Our job is to help regardless of your background, where you come from or what you have done. Even if you've committed a crime, you'll still get help from us. We help people – regardless."

"Often the stone-throwing is directed towards the police, and we get caught up in it. There's a misunderstanding – we get caught up in a situation not targeted towards us. It's very rare that it's directed towards us."

A Stockholm fire brigade fire engine. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

Skärholmen police head Kämpe says it is generally youngsters who engage in acts like throwing stones at emergency services without thinking of the consequences. The way to tackle it is to have a conversation with them as early as possible.

"There's no logical explanation, young boys above all do things at a certain age which can't be explained with logic. If you don't really understand the consequences, and serious damage it can cause – like that a police car can't travel onwards for the next call-out because it is damaged, or that a fire engine can't go on and put out a fire, and so on – that thought process about the consequences isn't there."

Firefighters in Rinkeby also explain to kids why it's not a good idea to impede their work, Westerdahl says:

"In Kista fire station we have four people working solely on going out and explaining what we do. Their task is to speak with people, create a good relationship, have a dialogue, and inform them about fire safety. We speak to kids as young as six."

Kämpe explains that for many of these youngsters, social norms others would take for granted are not established – in fact, it's often the opposite.

"In Botkyrka we've worked a lot with different projects in schools to inform kids about the police, fire brigade and emergency services. It's about creating a healthy norm: some parts of these areas have a skewed sense of norms, compared to perhaps where you or I grew up, where the natural thing is that police are considered good people in society, robbers and the like are considered bad."

"But in some of these areas people grow up with those norms turned around: so if you understand that, then you understand how a kid can be so angry towards the police, in their world where they grew up, the police are said to be the bad people. Imagine you hear that your entire life, from friends, from parents. Then you understand why a kind of hatred could be expressed in the form of stone-throwing."

Rinkeby cop Zujovic thinks the media struggle to accurately portray the ever-changing situation in these suburbs, citing the example of reporting on stone-throwing incidents.

"Reality isn't static. Right now we're in a period where not so much stone-throwing has happened and it's calmer, whereas before that it was almost every day. So while I've previously thought the media aren't writing a lot about how difficult it is for ambulances or fire engines being bothered by people, right now the media image is perhaps not accurate because a lot of our colleagues think our working environment has become a bit better," he noted.

"Things need to be reported accurately, but also, the picture changes. It's good that stone-throwing is given attention, because it would have been worse if the media didn't write about it. But you don't want people to be unnecessarily scared – of course not. To be truthful, if I had a kid I wouldn't go to Rinkeby with them, absolutely not, but there are of course good people in that difficult place. And even if it is not so good there, it has been worse."

Change comes at a cost, and greater numbers are needed

So how exactly can the situation be further improved for the everyday people of Rinkeby, Tensta, Fittja and elsewhere? One thing the police are absolutely clear about is that more resources are needed in order to make a long-term impression.

"We need an incredible amount of extra resources. There's so much crime in Rinkeby for example, organized crime, that we need to respond with a lot more uniformed officers being seen out on the streets. We need to be able to give the people who live there a feeling of security, which they get when they see police in uniform. We also need more officers to uncover crimes – there's a lot going on we'll never be made aware of," Zujovic feels.

"It's not about two or three more officers, it's about maybe three or four times as many as there are now. A huge amount more."

Fellow cop Kämpe also thinks far more officers are needed, and though he thinks there's a well-defined strategy for how to make a major difference in these neighbourhoods, the numbers required to pull it off just aren't there.

"In Botkyrka we've almost doubled the number of people employed in the last two years, but to make a real difference there you could double that figure again. Then we could make a substantial difference in a much shorter time. There's a huge need of resources there."

"In order to have a real effect, things need to happen in four branches in a parallel way. The first is security-creating measures, officers in uniform, speaking with people, intervening if they see something wrong. Then there's surveillance, keeping track of serious criminals at intermediate level upwards who are responsible for a lot of the drug and weapons trade. Then once you have that reconnaissance, there needs to be more resources for carrying out investigative work – at present we're balancing a lot. And the fourth part is cooperative. Society has to work united against these things with the same goal," he details.

"These four parts need to work at the same time in order to have an effect. We want police and society to push together for security, that's the goal, not putting people in prison for 10 years. That can only be one part of it. There's a potential for development in that regard as the police understand what needs to happen."

That doesn't mean however that the police, limited by a lack of sufficient resources though they may be, are giving criminals an easy ride at present.

"The police have focused a lot of resources on these particularly vulnerable areas, and that has had an effect. We can see that in the information we get, that the criminals are more limited and it's more difficult for them," Kämpe says.

Alby shopping centre. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

In Rinkeby and other nearby areas for example, turning to alternatives like technology has helped the police cause.

"Putting up CCTV cameras has made a really big difference. The open drug-trade has reduced, and that has meant criminals have switched to sell indoors, and have moved their crime away from the centre. I hope to see more cameras in the future – there should be more of them, because what we see now is crime being moved because of it. I think it has got better for people in the centre, there are fewer criminals hanging around," Zujovic says.

"When I first started working here you could go to the central street in Rinkeby and there were 30, 40 or 50 criminals hanging around in cars, selling drugs. That has reduced a lot, there are signs it's getting better."

Pushing the criminals out

Taking back these communities, pushing criminals out and making town centres places where everyday people can choose to spend their time without concern is key to battling the problem in the long term, he believes:

"If you look at Rinkeby and Tensta there aren't many of the common commercial stores, it's mostly locals running small shops. We had Tele2, it was robbed, and they closed. So people need to be comfortable opening a shop, knowing they won't be bothered by criminals. That's why I think there needs to be more officers – an excessive amount even, so people feel safe."

"There's a domino effect, as if there isn't much to do it becomes easier for the gangs to target the kids in the area."

Kämpe and the police in Botkyrka and Skärholmen actively try to encourage locals to make use of their town centres, making them part of the fight against crime.

"In criminological theory it has been proven empirically that creating activity and occupation helps – taking over the room, in a sense. We try as much as possible to help create that activity. A concrete example can be if there's a lot of drugs being sold outside Alby shopping centre, we'll create something there that encourages shopping in the square, or for people to play basketball there. That's something that makes it much for difficult for the kind of activity we don't want to happen to take place".

Alby centre. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

Firefighter Westerdahl is also keen to point out that there are plenty of people in these suburbs who are keen to try and help, and are often misunderstood.

"In my world, this image of these suburbs as troubled is not the entire truth. There are a lot of people who want to help. Sometimes it feels like there's a misunderstanding because this engagement which can sometimes be seen as intimidating or expressed in a different way is not supposed to be threatening – there's actually a great deal of interest."

Though their jobs are far from easy, the challenge of trying to turn things around in these suburbs is a major source of motivation for the police – as is the positive impact on the lives of people who live there.

"It sounds trivial, but for someone to be able to run a shop without being threatened by gangs – that's what drives me. I want to push out that criminal element. Everyday people are so grateful when we're there, 'can you be here all the time?' they ask. When we're there, people go to the centre, sit in a café, eat, buy things without feeling worried. The special thing for me as an officer is people are happy we're there, that's what makes me want to be a police officer," Zujovic says.

"There's a great deal of good will that's rarely spoke of: a vast majority want the best. You get energy from that," Kämpe states for his part.

"Most people find it very stimulating to work in these places as an officer – it's a bit like a mountain climber who wants to climb the biggest mountain. If you're in the police you want to take on the biggest challenges, and in the local police world it's these especially vulnerable areas," he concludes.

This article is part of The Local's Sweden in Focus series, an in-depth look at what makes this country tick. Read more from the series here.


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