Swedish Cops on Vacation Just Opened a Debate About Deadly Use of Force

With the recent public outcry after a rash of fatal police shootings, it makes me think how we can improve as a country. Questions like why police in the United States kill citizens at over 70 times the rate of other first world countries is a question for another (much longer) day. The question for today is what can we learn from non-deadly Swedish police tactics?

Four Swedish officers on vacation in New York answered the call of duty last week when they broke up a fight between two homeless men aboard a Manhattan subway train. You can take a look at the video above. The foreign patrolmen were on their way to see Les Misérables when the operator of their uptown 6 train asked over the intercom: “Are there any police officers on the train?”

“We thought maybe someone needed help,” said Samuel Kvarzell, 25, a rookie with the Stockholm Police Department. The officers made their way to the front of the train where they saw a homeless man beating another man senseless. The officers separated the two men, and two subdued the aggressor while the other two shielded the victim.

This story offers us a useful lens by which to view foreign police tactics. Using this story to blanket the entire criminal justice system in the United States however would be somewhat foolish.

Swedish police officers try and understand the situation after break up a fight on the subway in NYC. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Swedish police officers try to understand the situation after breaking up a fight on the subway in NYC. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Police have an extremely hard job in this country—nobody is denying that. We task them with the hardest problems and having to deal with the most difficult people in every situation. The transformation of our criminal justice system into something better is something that requires citizens as much as the police. Non-violent protests calling for justice are things that epitomize what it means to be an American. It’s something the police should respect, just as law abiding citizens should respect and understand the tough job police have day in, day out.

Some technical caveats about the situation was that there were four police officers and only two suspects. It was aboard a crowded train and there were no weapons or potential threat of a weapon immediately present. In some ways, it was an ideal situation. These occurrences happen every day all over the United States where officers subdue suspects without the use of deadly force, or off duty officers save lives.

Officers walk a "beat" during a time when policing  wasn't done from a car. (Image: West Midlands Police via Compfight cc)

Officers walk a ‘beat’ during a time when policing wasn’t done from a car. (Image: West Midlands Police via Compfight cc)

This article isn’t meant to be critical of all police in the United States; it’s meant to look at how other countries (with much lower rates of deadly shootings) regularly deal with tough situations. Statistically speaking, Swedish police hardly use their guns at all. From 1985-2002, Swedish police used their guns about 35 times a year.

Deadly force shooting comparisons between the countries are ridiculously scary. In 18 years up to 2013, Swedish police reported killing 18 people. Compared to the United States, in just 2013 alone police killed 461 people. That’s only from the departments that report their statistics to the FBI. Many believe the actual number is much higher.

Of course this article oversimplifies an extremely complex problem. For instance, the United States homocide rate is among the highest in the industrialized world. Then again, I’m not sure if that justifies or explains anything really.

Also of note is that in the United States, black men are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than whites, a problem that doesn’t seem to statistically exist in Sweden. The US has a gun for almost every citizen and ranks as No.1 on per capita gun ownership, with 88.1 guns per 100 citizens, while Sweden is number nine globally with a rate of 31.6 guns per 100 people.

How gun ownership corresponds to use of deadly force by police is up for debate.

An officer chats with a citizen in a non crime related way. (Image: West Midlands Police via Compfight cc)

An officer chats with a citizen in a non-crime related way. (Image: West Midlands Police via Compfight cc)

As the The Washington Times points out: “But even if there may be fewer rogue cops who abuse their authority and use force outside the bounds of department rules, it’s also true that, as a matter of policy, police use more force today than they have in the past… Use-of-force training today puts less emphasis on conflict resolution and deescalation, if they are addressed at all. The problem isn’t cops breaking the rules—the rules themselves are the problem.”

Swedish police, and really the entire criminal justice system in Sweden, are quite different. While the United States has tried to get back to some sort of model of community policing, Sweden has been living it for decades now. A presentation of their tactics shows that Swedish police believe that: “Sometimes, very simple measures will yield good results.”

This article is by no means meant to be considered a policy paper nor a political one. What I wanted to do with this piece was to take a simple news incident that was widely covered and go a bit deeper into some of the real and concrete national problems we face, and shed some light on a few angels.

This isn't a debate between police and the public it is a debate between how to make our copuntry better. Like Vietnam protestors so famously said over 4 decades ago "we aren't against the soldiers we're against the war." (Image: hyperomer via Compfight cc)

This isn’t a debate between police and the public, it is a debate about how to make our country better. Like Vietnam protestors so famously said over 4 decades ago: “We aren’t against the soldiers; we’re against the war.”
(Image: hyperomer via Compfight cc)

It isn’t an easy thing to do, and I welcome a debate and criticism of this piece, it is exactly what we need. The key is that as journalists or writers, we don’t become afraid to address these issues because they are hard. Exactly because they are hard we have the duty to address them.

From a national standpoint, it’s about being humble enough to admit that the numbers of police using deadly force is startling, and as the recent incident across our nation highlight, we need a national discussion. Though if we take a close-minded approach, we may not be able to break out of the box (we have been in for so long). Looking to other countries for guidance on our policies doesn’t make us weak, it makes us strong.

There is clearly no silver bullet and no solution to take, as every country and every populace is different. Though what looking elsewhere shows is that we have the desire and willingness to improve. Something so essential as what Thomas Jefferson wrote so many years ago:

A nation as a society forms a moral person, and every member of it is personally responsible for his society.

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