President Obama recently paid a visit to Stockholm. As you can imagine, his visit was a bit different from what your city trip, or mine, might be: he is protected by extensive security measures and an army of security officers, both American and Swedish. The woman I’m interviewing was in charge of the Swedish side of the security operation: Lena, head of Stockholm’s police transport department. ‘I had to coordinate two thousand police officers. It was very stressful, but it all went well. He was only here in Sweden for 24 hours.’
What do the transport police do besides keeping the subway safe?
‘Mostly providing crowd control during football and ice hockey games, wherever there are large numbers of people. In Sweden, we have different teams who work during riots or have ordinary, uniformed jobs. Most of us have had special training; in Stockholm we have about 800 police officers who were trained for these mobile units.’
When asked what she does to manage stress, Lena says she cycles a lot. It turns out she was an avid sportswoman before joining the police, with a career as a professional swimmer. ‘When you’re a police officer, you have to differentiate between police work and your own time. I like to go home after work and have some time for myself.’
How do people react when they realize you’re an officer?
‘The force works hard on its communication; we also talk to the public a lot. So I reckon most people like the police, although we do see that immigrants are sometimes afraid of us.’
In the Netherlands, that’s a bit of a problem: some Moroccan youngsters, for example, don’t have a lot of respect for the police.
‘It’s the same here.’
What can you do about that?
‘I think we have to treat everyone equally. Because if we want them to fit into society, we cannot act differently towards these groups. Otherwise, we might be called racists.’
You’ve had riots in Stockholm two years ago, in the Rinkeby suburb. How did you handle that?
‘We handle problems in a specific way. We cooperate with schools and all the people who live in such an area. They intervene and try to calm down the youngsters who are out on the streets. But during real riots, you have to try different methods. If you use violence, you might be giving them what they want; some of them just want to fight.’
So they’re young and looking to challenge the authorities?
‘Exactly. It’s the same everywhere. So you have to think twice about how to handle it.’
What if they provoke you?
‘Well, you have to take a step back sometimes. We’ve tried it before and it worked.’
So everything’s okay there nowadays?
‘It’s calm. We’ve put officers there who work daily. During the day, they work with the people in the community and at night, they patrol the area. I think we talk more with people in Sweden, compared to other countries. We have a “talk first” approach.’
She pauses for a moment, clearly remembering the riots.
Have you seen how the police functions in other European countries as well?
‘Yeah, I think the police forces in the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway are similar to the Swedish police. We have worked with a mobile concept and it’s almost the same in those places. We observe one another and learn from that. So I think we work alike. I don’t think it’s the same in Finland, because they’re so close to Russia and have a different history, but it’s definitely the same in Norway and Denmark.’
Are there many rules from Brussels the police has to follow?
‘No, we have our own Swedish rules. I don’t think we are much influenced by the EU, but in my opinion, it is good to be a member. I think we have to cooperate in Europe and that it’s good to be a part of it.’
Your Norwegian neighbours aren’t a part of the EU. Does that affect how Norway and Sweden work together?
‘Not how the police works, at least. I don’t think about it that much, that Norway’s outside the EU. It’s not really different; we speak almost the same language. Norwegian is very similar to Swedish. We understand each other.’
Did you vote during the European Parliament elections in May?
‘Yeah. But I think Europe is rather far away and people don’t know what it stands for, so I suspect people only vote because they believe they should. Although I don’t think they know exactly what they’re voting for. They vote in a way similar to the national elections; they choose the same parties.’
I agree with her: most people don’t seem to be very interested in Europe. I wonder out loud whether the EU does enough to promote itself. Lena thinks for a moment, then comes up with a possible reason. ‘I think that there’s too much bureaucracy. The EU wants everything to be the same across the whole of Europe, but sometimes there have to be differences between the countries.’
Do you like those differences?
‘Sometimes, yeah. Some things should be similar, because that’s part of the EU-membership. But there are also times when you have to say: “this is Swedish, this is Spanish”.’