An African on the beat in Sweden
- 3 July 2013
- From the section Magazine
The riots in Sweden that broke out in May shocked the world. Sweden was the last place most people expected scenes of this kind. More community police officers are needed, a minister says, officers like Togo-born Rissa Seidou who know the area and its residents.
Rissa Seidou cuts a striking figure in Husby, a suburb of Stockholm. She wears baggy trousers and a navy blue polo shirt, big boots and a pistol on her hip.
Husby is where the riots began, riots that spread first to other Stockholm suburbs and then into the provinces. Cars and buildings burned for several nights and young men pelted the police and firefighters with stones.
The disturbances exposed Sweden's reputation for tolerance and equality to international scrutiny. They also exposed fragile relations between the police and some of the residents of Sweden's more deprived communities, some of whom complained of racism.
"I cannot say there are not racist police officers," says Rissa. "If I say that, I am lying to you."
And did she think, as was widely reported, that police officers had used racial insults during the riots?
"Yeah," she says, "I think it's possible."
Rissa is a neighbourhood police officer, based in Kista, a suburb adjacent to Husby, north of Stockholm city centre. Nearly 85% of Husby's population of 12,000 are either first or second-generation immigrants. Unemployment is high, particularly among men under 25, and educational achievement is low.
The reasons for the riots are disputed. Some people in Husby connect them to an incident a few days earlier in which a police officer had shot an elderly man dead in his flat in Oslogatan. The police said he had been threatening people with a knife.
"The people in Husby thought the police reacted wrong and they did this to punish the police," says one local teenager about the riots.
Another young man points to more general dissatisfaction. "The people are tired," he says. "They are stopped by the police three or four times a day. People who are not from Sweden have a lot of trouble with the police here."
"It's not acceptable to throw stones at the police," says Jamil, a 25-year-old gardener of Iraqi origin, who is smoking and chatting to friends in the central square. "But it is understandable."
Rissa Seidou has been a police officer for eight years. Now in her late thirties, she was born in Togo in West Africa and grew up in France. When she was 20 her parents brought her to Sweden. Sweden had yet to join the European Union and didn't recognise her French education. So she had to go back to high school, into a class of 16-year-olds.
Her father would come down to the school every day to talk to the teachers and to inspect her work.
At the time she thought it was embarrassing, but now she is grateful.
"I thank them every day." she says, "They were so concerned, they were so engaged because they knew it was a new country."
Rissa ended up working as a youth leader. She would sometimes be asked to accompany young people down to the police station for interrogations.
"A lot of young people said the police were unfair, that they were treated very badly by the police. I wanted to be there myself and be a witness and then make my own conclusions," she says.
Her conclusion was that the Swedish police were too nice. "They were not rude at all. They were very, very kind. I found it very strange."
Despite opposition from friends and family, Rissa decided she wanted to join the police.
"My family laughed at me and said it wouldn't be possible, because they'd never seen a police officer with African parents. But I wasn't going to give up."
Rissa says she is the first Swedish police officer with two African parents.
She chooses her words carefully when asked if she has experienced racism from her police colleagues.
"I had a little bit of a tough time at the police training school. And when I left, I think the police, I mean the institution, was not so prepared to receive a woman with an African background. I didn't fit. I was a little bit different.
"There are always some people who don't believe that a foreigner can also be a police officer.
"If I said there was no racism, then, as I said, I'm lying to you. Yes of course it's happened. If it's happened it's because they're not so used to foreigners. Of course some people have said some bad words, but I see it as normal behaviour."
As Rissa walks through Husby she stops frequently to talk to passers-by. She chats to three young girls on their way to an after-school club, a member of the local neighbourhood watch and a young man from Algeria who tells her that the cops in Sweden are nice compared to those in France or Germany. She smiles.
But she also expresses regret: "This is the first time we've been down here since the riots," she says, referring to herself and her colleague who is accompanying her.
Rissa says they are neighbourhood police on paper only, that they are too often called away to other duties.
"I think if they call us neighbourhood police then where should we be? Here, in our area, making contacts with people who are living here," she says, explaining that she will be spending the whole summer in another police district.
"The people here pay their taxes like every other Swede and they need us. We should be building relationships so they know who we are. They recognise me because I'm black, and they know there's only one black woman. But they don't know any of the other police officers."
The Swedish minister for integration, Erik Ullenhag, appears to have got the message. After visiting Husby last week, he said that he thought more police were needed on the beat.
At the moment, around one Swedish police officer in 20 comes from an immigrant family, but Rissa is not enthusiastic about the suggestion that the Swedish police should be recruiting more people from ethnic minorities.
"The police in Sweden have to get used to people from other countries, and try to learn more and understand more about them. I think the police need to learn more about other cultures. The solution is not to recruit more people from other countries."
As Rissa stands outside the metro station in Husby, Jamil, the gardener, drives up in a small electric truck.
"Rissa is a very good police officer," says Jamil. "She's the only one who is good."
"That's not what you said the first time I came down here," she laughs.
Jamil acknowledges that he was aggressive the first time they met. "But when she talked good to me then I started to be good with her."
"He calmed down," Rissa explains. "I said, 'Why are you so angry? You don't know me, you've never met me. This is the first time, so let's talk.' And now we're friends."
"It's the person, not the uniform," says Jamil. "I like the person."
"But you hate the uniform," says Rissa.
Jamil agrees. "But if every police officer were like her," he adds, "I swear to God we don't have a problem with the police."