STOCKHOLM — Bullet holes in a bin and a metal sign suggest a brutal violence carelessly wrought.
At the spot where the 12-year-old was shot dead in a southern Stockholm suburb last week, the parking lot of a roadside restaurant, family and local residents had placed candles, flowers and soft toys. Cards, notes and messages written on cobblestones in marker pen told of the community’s grief.
“We miss you and we are never going to forget you,” one note read. “I will never forget the things we did together, I hope your soul becomes something beautiful,” said another. The tragic incident — in which the girl was apparently the accidental victim in a clash between rival gangs — shocked the capital and reignited a fierce debate over the Social Democrat-led minority coalition’s record on serious criminality.
Home Affairs Minister Mikael Damberg promised more support for police, but the problem for him and his boss, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, is that the Social Democrats have been in power for six years. As Löfven reaches the halfway point in his second term in office, voters and political opponents are questioning whether he can deliver on long-standing promises to crack down on shootings.
“Time after time the promises have been repeated. The problem will be dealt with. We are on the right path. Everything will be fine,” Johan Forssell, a lawmaker with the opposition Moderate Party, wrote in an editorial last week. “But despite all the inquiries and the press conferences, the number of shootings keeps rising.”
The latest police data shows that in the Swedish capital, government commitments have not yet turned into progress on the ground when it comes to shootings.
In the first six months of 2020, there were 61 shootings, which resulted in eight deaths and 27 injuries. In the same period last year, the figures were 40 shootings, 10 deaths and 14 injuries.
“Sweden has seen an increasing level of lethal force in conflicts between criminals since 2012 and it has risen to the level we see today,” said Stefan Hector, a police chief based in Stockholm.
“Today, the level is quite stable, but regardless of whether it is stable or not, as a society, we cannot accept the use of firearms and explosives as weapons within these conflicts, we are concerned and we are focusing our work and our resources on these phenomena,” he added.
Taking a stand
Police have said they believe the girl was hit by stray bullets fired from a white Audi station wagon driven by criminals who were targeting a rival group. No arrests have been made and police have asked for help finding the occupants of the car, which may have been stolen. A vehicle matching its description was found burnt out in northern Stockholm a couple of days after the shooting.
The shooting comes amid heightened and long-running concern about violent crime in the capital.
Earlier this year in the northern suburb of Hässelby, residents held a march after a series of incidents including the stabbing of a teenager on his way to hockey training and the attempted robbing of a café by a man with an ax.
Around 600 people walked from the gym where the teenager’s hockey team is based, pausing outside the café which was targeted, and then gathering in a local park to hear speeches by local civic and political leaders.
“We have to take a stand, we have to put our foot down now,” march organizer Michael Klomark said after the rally. “When we send our kids to hockey training, or whatever, we don’t want to have to worry that they won’t get there safely.”
The importance of law and order as an issue has fallen well behind health care in importance for voters during the coronavirus crisis but has regularly been one of the top three questions over recent years, surveys by pollster Novus show. Meanwhile, an annual survey by the Stockholm County Administrative Board showed the share of residents who feel unsafe in their city has ticked higher over the past eight years.
Shots in the night
For Löfven, the pressure is rising 0n him and his ministers to turn things around.
Since 2015, his speeches have regularly dwelled on the government’s resolve to reduce shootings in Sweden.
“Terrified families are woken by the sound of gunfire in the middle of the night,” he told a crowd at a Stockholm park in the summer that year. “Weapons must go from Sweden’s streets — nothing else is good enough.”
However, voters remain skeptical of his ability to deliver, rating the opposition Moderates and far-right Sweden Democrats as more credible on law and order.
Two years out from the next scheduled election, the Social Democrats remain the most popular party, but slipped in a recent poll by 1.2 percentage points to 27.3 percent support.
Three years ago, the government set a target of adding 10,000 police jobs by 2024, which would represent a big jump for an institution with around 30,000 staff currently. There are signs it is struggling to deliver on that promise: In an editorial earlier this year, leading figures in police training said many spaces on their courses were yet to be filled.
“One of the biggest challenges of our time is to equip and expand the police service so we can deal with these criminals who are plaguing society,” Home Affairs Minister Damberg said in the wake of the shooting of the 12-year-old girl.
Police chief Hector said increased police numbers would underpin long-term efforts to reduce serious crime and build on recent short-term surges in police efforts in specific cities, which have targeted the most active criminal networks in those cities.
Hector said that by jailing criminals and diverting others away from crime the police service would play its role, but that a wider societal effort would ultimately be needed.
“It is crucial to the Swedish police that other parts of society play their part in reducing the influx of young men into criminality, and there I mean efforts within schools, with labor market regulations, the circumstances people are living under, and by that creating a belief in the future,” he said. “When the police are involved, it is often too late.”
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