A Swedish City Finds Success with U.S. Anti-Violence Program

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“Dialogue police” in Malmö, Sweden, are plainclothes officers trained to liaise between uniformed officers and protesters at rallies. Photo by Am. johnstam via Flickr

Rebeca Persson remembers clearly the afternoon in October 2018 when she and other residents of Malmö, Sweden first met with 10 young men – many from rival street gangs, and all on parole – in the city’s soccer stadium.

The social worker sat onstage next to the other speakers as the gang members filed into the large hall. An audience of 40 people stood to greet them: neighbors, sports coaches, owners of corner shops, leaders in local mosques, and even relatives of the young men.

Neither Persson nor the men knew exactly what to expect from the gathering.

But Malmö had reached a crisis. There had been an unprecedented 65 shootings and 62 uses of grenades or small explosives in 2017 alone, high numbers in a country where possession of guns is highly regulated. So the city had to try something.

Everyone present was gathered to support one message to the young men: We care about you. We don’t want you to die, and we don’t want you to hurt anyone else. We will stop you if you make us, and we will help you if you let us.

Rebecca Persson. Photo by Oscar Morin/Christian Science Monitor

It was the city’s first “call-in,” one piece of the anti-gun violence approach that Malmö began to implement in 2018 called Sluta Skjut, or Stop Shooting.

The strategy is modeled after the group violence intervention (GVI) approach that emerged in Boston in the 1990s and has seen success in cities such as Oakland, Chicago, and Detroit. In addition to call-ins, Stop Shooting consists of continuous face-to-face contact with members of Malmö’s street groups as well as close collaboration with community partners.

In 2018, Malmö became the first city in Sweden to implement an anti-violence strategy based on the American model of group violence intervention.

Since the start of the project, severe violence has fallen consistently in Malmö. In 2020, there were only 20 shootings and 17 explosions. Of around 300 men reached by Stop Shooting, 40 are now in prison, but another 49 have joined a city program to help individuals leave gangs and start over.

Experts say it’s too soon to attribute the drop in violence to Stop Shooting. But those who have participated say the approach’s value lies in the way it brings together so many types of people – law enforcement, those in social services, and community members – to rally behind one unified, moral message against violence.

“If you do shoot or use explosives, we will know which group has done it, and we will come after the whole group,” says Persson, Stop Shooting’s project manager, explaining the approach.

But that warning comes with a promise. “If you want help, to leave this way of life, or help with anything else, we will help you.”

At the three call-ins Malmö has now organized, speakers are given short time slots to speak: Malmö’s mayor, the police chief and a police officer, a prosecutor, Ms. Persson and her colleague from social services, a mother, an imam, and a deacon.

Some moments are stern, but others are tender. The police chief apologizes for failing to keep the men safe. When the mother speaks of the pain she shares with other mothers whose sons have been shot and killed, tears well in the young men’s eyes.

Persson’s favorite memory was a time when the imam spoke, assuring the men – many from Malmö’s Arab minority community – that they could still choose a path of peace. One of the men who had walked in with a particularly hostile attitude removed his cap in deference.

“We all care more about what our mother thinks than what the cops think,” says David Kennedy, professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who helped design the GVI strategy in Boston.

He says that while a credible threat of punishment and offers of support are essential, “what’s really important is this sustained collective relationship between the team and the streets.”

A former street criminal from Malmö who prefers not to share his name agrees that when offenders understand how their behavior is affecting their families and communities, that makes the biggest difference.

He learned this the hard way the night a friend was shot.

“That was the moment I woke up, when I saw his mother and sisters who came to the hospital,” says the man who has since given up crime. “I couldn’t imagine that I could put my mom in that situation.”

He knows some of the young men who have been part of Stop Shooting, and he says the feedback has been mixed. Some are not interested in lectures, but for others who know they need to make a change, the strategy is “very good, because they get all the help they need.”

“These criminals are also human, and they may have not received help or support from their parents, or at school,” says Romdhane Boussaidi, the director of a local mosque and an audience member from the call-ins.

“We’re here to tell them, ‘You can stop this and start your life in the right way.’”

Noah Dib grew up in an immigrant neighborhood. As a young teenager, he got caught up in gang life, which his friends and cousins are still in. Now, as a mentor in his mid-20s at the nonprofit Flamman Youth Center, he is one of many community leaders making sure the Stop Shooting message gets through constructively.

Because he is not a city official, he is able to build trust with the young men in the community more naturally.

After one call-in, he got a call from one of the gang attendees, asking what it all meant, why he had been chosen to be in the spotlight, and if he could trust what the authorities said.

Noah Dib. Photo courtesy Christian Science Monitor

“I told him, ‘Maybe they chose you because they know you’re the best speaker in your group, so you can deliver the message to everyone,’” Dib says. “Then they take it in a more positive way.”

Of course, there are wider problems underlying the violence in Malmö that Stop Shooting cannot address – especially systemic racism directed at Arab communities, says Rafi Farouq, the nonprofit’s director.

The societal marginalization and economic disadvantages that many Arab communities in Sweden face still create pressures that help their youth see crime as a path forward.

Nevertheless, Stop Shooting’s commitment to clear, respectful, and united communication with the individuals who so frequently feel shut out of society is a step in the right direction.

Stefan Wredenmark is one of the police officers who conduct “customized notifications” – continuous face-to-face meetings with gang members in their homes, at the hospital, or in prison to deliver the Stop Shooting message.

“One of the messages is that we don’t want you to die. When I said that the first time, I thought, what am I doing? Because normally I would like to lock them up,” says  Wredenmark. Because of Stop Shooting, he tells each person that he wants them safe, alive, and free.

“Now, I get to go straight into the heart of the young men. That’s a much more effective way to reach them.”

This story, originally published in the Christian Science Monitor, is reprinted here through the Solutions Journalism Exchange, part of the Solutions Journalism Network’s programs to spread rigorous reporting about responses to problems.

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