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“At Least I Tried”: Swedish Police Officers’ experiences of meeting with women who were raped

Swedish Police officers’ experiences of meeting with women who were raped are vitally important. In a recent study, officers stress their motivation and wish to be supportive and empathic. However, they also express their need for support and lack of prerequisites to be professional and supportive. Their criticism of failures in the system is a call for action.

Women who have been raped often suffer several traumatic reactions including depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD. The psychological outcomes of women reporting sexual abuse seem to depend on whether they feel support and empathy from the professional they disclose to. Previous studies find that women who report rape feel that being treated fairly and with respect by police is as important as the outcome of the case. The treatment can also affect how the raped woman continues to process what has happened, and if she chooses to seek help again.

Police officers experiences of meeting with women who were raped, are therefore of vital importance. What motivates the officers, and what kind of support do they need, to be better equipped to meet these women with support and compassion? “At least I Tried” is a peer- reviewed article on the subject, in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology.

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a portrait picture of Lisa Rudolfsson
Ph.D. psychology and project leader at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at University of Gothenburg Photo: Hillevi Nagel
Photo: Hillevi Nagel

“Participants in my study stress their wish to be supportive and empathic, but also their lack of support and prerequisites, for example lack of amenities in interrogation rooms. They feel frustrated and describe their work as ‘trying’ rather than succeeding. If unaddressed, such shortcomings risk negatively affecting both police officers and victims” says Lisa Rudolfsson, Ph.D. psychology and project leader at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research at University of Gothenburg 

A Sisyphean Task

The police officers describe rape cases as hard to investigate and the demands put on them as sometimes exhausting. Participants say they feel Swedish society and the Police Authority doesn’t prioritize investigating and punishing violence against women. Consequently, they describe a lack the pre-requisites to meet empathically and respectfully with women who has been raped, causing them frustration. In relation to this, some participants stress the lack of preventive work against sexual crimes.

”With everything else, there is a lot of talk about preventive work. How are we to prevent gang-related shootings and stop recruitment into gangs? That discussion doesn’t exist in relation to sexual crimes.” (Male, frontline officer)

Work that Touches Me

The police officers describe how meeting with raped women affect them personally, how they get emotionally involved and how the stories they listen to make them sad. Participants struggle to understand how some women can stand to live the way they do, if it’s possible to help all women, and whether they are allowed to doubt some allegations. The struggle to understand sometimes also include trying to make the woman understand that what she’s been subjected to is in fact a crime.

A Struggle for Restoration

The police officers describe how most raped women would not get what they need from the legal system, and so, they describe it as a personal struggle to offer them some kind of healing. They also describe it as a struggle to take care of themselves in these meetings - if they are not able to take care of themselves, they say they will not be able to be supportive of victims either. However, participants also describe a culture within the Police Authority, encouraging toughness and not validating their efforts.

Research project

This study is part of a larger research project, titled Female rape victims: Quality of initial police and medical care contact, funded by the Swedish Crime Victim Compensation and Support Authority. Researchers: Lisa Rudolfsson, Ph.D., project leader, Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research and Elisabeth Punzi, associate professor, clinical psychologist, Department of Social Work, both at University of Gothenburg.

Please click here to get information about the research project on the website of Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, University of Gothenburg

Facts about the study and about rape in Sweden

About the study

  • Participants were 16 police officers (11frontline officers and 5 investigative officers), working in the mid-north to the south of Sweden.
  • The officers participated in focus groups, and the data were subjected to inductive thematic analysis.
  • Participants working as frontline officers had not received any specific training in how to interview victims of rape, while most of the participants working as investigative officers had received such training.

About rape in Sweden

  • Swedish legislation defines rape as intercourse or equivalent sexual acts, depending on the degree of violation, with a person who is unwilling, unable to either comprehend or consent to the act, or in some way dependent on the perpetrator (Criminal Code, 1962/2018 , Ch. 6, §1; author translation).
  • Although Swedish police investigate 94% of the reported cases of rape, only 5% lead to successful prosecution and sentencing.
  • In 2019, a total of 8580 rapes were reported to the Swedish police. However, the Swedish Crime Survey from 2019 reports that 9.4% of all women in Sweden had been subjected to one or more serious sexual assaults (≈ 482,400 women), which is in line with the accepted supposition that most cases of rape go unreported.
  • Women are significantly and unquestionably, more often victims of sexual abuse than men are. In 2019, of the total number of reported rapes in Sweden (8580), 7940 involved a female victim (Brå, 2019 ).