The number 5 doesn’t take long to arrive in Rosengård from Malmö’s central station.
The bus itself is clean and the passengers carry themselves with the same quiet civility I’ve seen everywhere else in the city. Video screens display the upcoming stops and journey times on the right and live news on the left. The lead story is still a school shooting in the United States, which happened the day before.
While Sweden’s most recent school killing was committed by a right-wing extremist armed with a bladed weapon, the incident at North Park Elementary School in San Bernardino involved a 53-year-old Riverside man who went to his estranged wife’s special education classroom and opened fire with a gun. In an apparent act of domestic violence, he fatally shot her and struck two students before killing himself. One of the students, an 8-year-old boy named Jonathan Martinez, died after being rushed to the hospital.
Having spoken to leading criminologist Manne Gerrel, I’ve decided to leave the safety of public transport at Ramels Väg, reportedly the roughest place Rosengård has to offer. The bus stop is directly outside the entrance to the infamous estate of Herrgården, announced by a valkommen sign which shows a clear map of the area.
Herrgården’s population, according to figures, is 96% non-native – with almost seventy-percent of those immigrant residents being born abroad and the remaining thirty percent being born to parents of non-Swedish ethnic origins. Of the diverse nationalities, which include Iraqi, Lebanese, Afghan, Yugoslav, and Somalian, it’s estimated that only 15% of the estate’s residents are employed. Almost half of the population is 18 years old or younger, setting the area firmly in a default risk zone in terms of the likelihood of serious violent crime occurring.
The first thing to strike me is the presence of recycling bins everywhere, around which people are toing and froing almost constantly. The municipal agencies, the council, are also busy cutting the grass of the extensive green areas, and there is next to no litter. Aside from one piece of graffiti which declares ‘Fuck SD’, the right-wing Sweden Democrats party, the rest is an elaborate riot of colourful urban art, often declaring love for Herrgården, Rosengård, and Malmö. Swedish flags fly on the balconies of the tower blocks and none of the windows are smashed or boarded up.
While the estate is well kept, it does feel a little sterile compared to
the historic centre, but these are utilitarian projects built as part
of an ambitious social programme to construct one million affordable
homes and they’ve stood up to time’s test well. The buildings aren’t
dilapidated and the grounds aren’t unkempt. Children’s play areas are
every few hundred metres and they are full of happy kids and chatting
parents. Older people walk the streets without apparent fear and bicycle
traffic is nearly constant as people go about their daily lives on the
The schools fascinate me. There’s clearly a real social difference between here and the UK – a positive one – because the playgrounds aren’t surrounded by ten-foot fencing. Even the nursery fences are low enough to lean over, indicating their purpose is simply to keep toddlers in. I keenly peruse the carparks, looking for burned out vehicles. There are none. Not even scorch marks on the tarmac. Idly, I Google Buckinghamshire Fire Service and find three reports of burned out cars and one arson on a caravan in the space of three days.
I try to speak to a few of the locals in passing, not far from a plot where the public ground has been dug over by residents to form allotments, but unsurprisingly they speak little or no English on top of their own languages and Swedish. Two very young girls, no older than nine, do however run up to me and ask what I’m doing and why I’m filming. They giggle, exercising their school English in this unexpected way, and then skip off holding hands. There is no adult with them yet they are safe to roam the estate freely – something which I would never consider with my own children, even in rural England.
“It’s apparent to me we face much bigger problems back in the UK, from the security of our children in school to their safety out of it”
The one indication of any problems in Herrgården is a recent and heavily decorated memorial to a young man, Ahmed, who appears to have lost his life in 2017. There are flowers, letters, trainers, and an almost overwhelming assortment of carefully arranged candles.
I investigate the story behind the memorial, using the dates and words in the notes left to weather in laminated cases, and discover the young man was Ahmed Abdulaziz, shot dead around the 31st of March 2017 having been witness to an earlier shooting in January. Seven gang members were arrested. This forms part of the exceptional, organised criminal spree both Manne and Nils Karlsson, Malmö’s deputy mayor, discussed with me.
Interestingly, as the arrests of specific gang members in Malmö quelled the relatively limited violence, London’s figures showed a 42% rise in gun crime and an increase of 24% in the number of knife crime offences over the last twelve months.
It’s apparent to me we face much bigger problems back in the UK, from the security of our children in school to their safety out of it and during their young adulthood. Our council estates are, by direct comparison, much more squalid and less well cared for and on top of the air being cleaner in Sweden – over 40 million of us are exposed to illegal levels of air pollution in the UK, it now transpires – we recycle significantly less and have a more noticeable litter problem in general than even in one of the ‘roughest’ estates in Sweden.
Undisturbed, aside from the two little girls, I make my way across one of the bridges and deeper into the estates, turning left and heading past a social welfare centre – something like a SureStart but much larger – and past a busy medical clinic where older Swedish women stand chatting. The bike racks outside are full and only a couple are locked in place.
A longer bridge leads across to a large mall but a police station catches my eye, nestling below the towers of the next sprawling garden estate. Of course, if I just walked into a police station in England and asked for comment on something contentious I’d be laughed out of the door (or directed to a press officer countless miles away).
As it turns out, Sweden is different from the UK in almost every way.
Rosengård police station’s reception is clean, white, and the walls are adorned with a combination of information posters and community art. The receptionist cheerfully greets my tentative approach with the now familiar “Hej!”
I don’t have an appointment and feel it’s unlikely I’ll manage to speak to anyone at all, especially not to get a comment on Donald Trump’s ‘last night in Sweden’ remark, the controversial topic of crime and immigration, or the Stockholm terror attack only days before. I’m still ashamed that I can’t communicate in Swedish while the receptionist listens carefully and tells me in English she will make some calls and see who is available if anyone.
I take a seat, reading the domestic violence posters and information leaflets on Rosengård’s community patrol volunteers, and wait five minutes before a heavy metal door opens and grey-haired man in the dark blue Polisen uniform steps out and greets me with a firm handshake and “Hi!” in English.
He introduces himself simply as Erik and says he has five minutes, calling me through to the police station proper and leading me to a conference room. As he offers me a seat around a large table I notice the two lines and the crown on his epaulettes. I’m about to find out how lucky I’ve been, popping in on the off chance.
“there are no ‘no go zones’ in Sweden.”
Erik Jansåker has been the area Chief Superintendent for five years. Back in the 1980s, he worked with young criminals to address re-offending and over the years his work became increasingly important. Addressing youth crime is now a central focus of Sweden’s policing strategy.
Rosengård’s policing area is outside of Malmö’s central enforcement district and forms one of three areas under Erik’s command. Of the city’s five divisions, Erik is in charge of the most deprived. As we begin chatting, a second officer is beckoned into the room by Jansåker.
Zoran Markovic, the head of community policy and officer in charge of South Malmö joins us at the conference table and we begin an incredibly frank and open discussion.
“Rosengård is one of fourteen districts across the whole of Sweden designated as having special problems,” Jansåker tells me. “We do have problems, there have been fourteen murders in the last year,” he says, “but there are no ‘no go zones’ in Sweden. Citizens and the police can go everywhere they like.”
Zoran repeats the point. “We have no ‘no go zones’. Problems come and go with gangs in different ways but right now it’s calm,” he says. “Gun violence is between organised criminal networks. We have a list of 200 well-known criminals and 1,800 others who are twenty-two or younger. Many are under 18 so we’re working with social services too as it isn’t always a police issue alone.”
Erik points out the complexities of working beyond policing alone. “It’s long term work and each agency has their own legal framework. Prevention is a journey of years and it’s only the last year or two it’s become a formal role.” Markovic is the first person to formally hold this new position.
“Prevention is a journey of years”
“Crime, on the whole, is showing a decline,” Jansåker says. “And the figures here are interpreted knowing that our crime recording is different to other places”. I know from my own research, and from speaking to Manne Gerrel, that the Swedish crime recording practice is in many ways superior to other countries, though this can make the figures seem higher in a direct comparison.
Markovic highlights one area where they still have a lot of work to do. “In gang violence, there is much less will to report offences, or even act as witnesses in police investigations.” But he highlights the diverse range of methods being deployed to capture more reports of crime across the country. “We have our offices like this one open all the time, we have telephone and internet reporting, you can approach the police openly.”
The continued presence of an open police station is noteworthy when comparing Sweden to the UK, where austerity has left police forces with little option but to cut back on civilian staff, freeze officer recruitment, and close vast numbers of police stations. Sweden, conversely, appears to recognise the importance of giving more access to the police.
I don’t pull the punch, but realise that asking the two senior officers directly about the link between crime and immigration might bring my unannounced visit to an end. They don’t bat an eyelid and don’t hesitate in answering, with Jansåker quipping about difficult questions being his pay grade rather than Markovic’s.
“It’s a difficult question,” Erik muses, resting his glasses on the table while he works the Swedish to English translations through in his head. “Last year we had lots of immigrations, high numbers of immigrants coming to live in different parts of Malmö. Of course, there are some problems which come with this but we cannot say crime has gone up because of it. We simply can’t.”
“we cannot say crime has gone up because of it. We simply can’t.”
Zoran is especially passionate on this topic. He grew up in Rosengård. “It’s the area and the system together which create problems, not the people. Schools, employment, money. You can get stuck. It’s the environment which has the greatest effect on people’s lives.”
The police, the Stadhuset, and the criminology experts are all in agreement. Socio-economic factors are the biggest driver of societal problems, including crime. I ask Markovic what could make it better. “Better homes, better jobs. Education.”
“It’s the same answer in all of Europe,” Jansåker adds.
This is deeply philosophical, positive policing driven by a real passion for reducing problems across society, rather than just reacting and enforcing the law.
Turning to the terrorist incident in Stockholm, I want to know if this will drive a change in the police approach to community policing or their presence. In particular, I’m thinking about the Metropolitan Police Service introducing their black-clad, anti-terror teams on the streets of London and the heavily polarised public reaction. I’m also conscious the Stockholm attack will be raw for both of them.
Erik surprises me again with his candour. “It’s early but it’s been discussed nationally and locally. There are some more officers on high visibility patrols of course, but there’s no change in our approach.”
Zoran is also very proud of the way the Polisen responded in the aftermath of the attack, and how the public reacted to the efforts of officers. “We handled it very well in Stockholm. I’m proud of the positive comments on our handling of such a difficult incident.”
“Citizens and the police can go everywhere they like”
We chat for a few more minutes and as we are exchanging email addresses it occurs to me they haven’t asked for my credentials at any point, nor approached my questions in a stand-offish fashion. It’s clear to me that policing in Sweden really is transparent and open to all: Markovic is a Rosengård success story, and Jansåker a talented and progressive commander who saw the potential in tackling issues broader than the law a long time before it was a formal part of the job.
Leaving, I feel reassured Malmö is in safe hands – and I’ve seen no overt signs of fear and loathing in Rosengård – but I still want to double check…