Gang-related crime is not a war in the legal sense
The current discussion about using the military to support police efforts in combating gang-related crime requires a full understanding of the fundamentally different functions of the military and the police. While the two professions sometimes are perceived to be very similar, there are fundamental differences between the military and police, especially regarding the use of force.
"For that reason, it is not advisable to use military actors for police tasks that may require the use of force", says Carina Lamont.
The increase in gang-related crime in Sweden has initiated discussions about military support for police functions to address the situation.
“The military and police serve completely different purposes for our state and society and they handle different types of threats”, says Carina Lamont, Senior Lecturer in International Humanitarian Law and Operational Law at the Swedish Defence University. She has studied the interface between the police and the military for many years.
"People in general think of the military profession and the police profession as very similar. But if we look at the legal regulation of the use of force, there are fundamental differences between the professions, especially regarding how they determine when and how to use force", says Carina Lamont.
Media often describe gang-related crimes as 'gang wars', which, combined with the discussion of military support to the police, can lead to confusion in the current debate. The term 'war' is sometimes used in different contexts to stress the seriousness or strength of certain events. However, it does not mean that the situation constitutes war or armed conflict in the legal sense.
This is why it is important to look at the legal definition of armed conflict, as it is only in such situations that the main capabilities, organization, and actions of the Armed Forces can be considered. Carina Lamont continues:
"It can be very confusing for people when the media talks about the ‘war against gang-related crimes’ in combination with the deployment of the Armed Forces, so we have to be mindful of the rhetoric. We are not talking about war in the legal sense of the term, but rather as a political concept of what is going on."
The separate roles of the military and the police
Traditionally, the military is responsible for external threats to the state, and mainly the threat of war. The legal framework governing traditional military acts of violence is only applicable in armed conflicts. It is status-based, meaning that the use of force is permitted against legitimate military targets even when there is no immediate threat. Those threats are comprehensive, and the primary concern is surviving the war.
The main task of the police is to maintain domestic security. The use of force by the police is threat-based and aims to eliminate immediate threats to human life that cannot be addressed by other means.
Time-critical and threat-based police violence stands in stark contrast to military violence, which does not have these limitations. Military violence is sometimes perceived simply as a higher level of police violence. However, that is not true, as traditional military violence and police violence operate on different scales. Military violence is therefore not a higher level of police violence.
"In this discussion, it is important to remember that legal frameworks do not exist for their own sake or in a vacuum. The regulations have been designed for specific purposes in different situations, not only to ensure that what you do is legal, but also as tools to ensure both efficiency and sustainability in the efforts for security", says Carina Lamont.
If the Swedish Armed Forces are to support the police in operational functions involving the use of force in the fight against organized gang-related crimes, the Armed Forces must adapt and align their capabilities, approaches, and working methods to those of the police.
The demands on the Armed Forces will therefore be high, given that their skills and capabilities are primarily designed for war. Switching to a context with completely different rules of engagement requires careful training and understanding of the police framework. This means that the military needs to conduct training to make correct assessments of when potentially lethal force can be used.
"For that reason, it is not suitable to use military actors in police work that potentially involves the use of force", says Carina Lamont.
What support could be considered?
Politicians have mentioned a wide range of tasks that the Armed Forces could support the police with, from surveillance to analysis and explosives expertise.
"It is important that the respective authorities determine what kind of support that is needed. The Armed Forces must ensure that they have resources and adequate competence for police duties, and the police authority must assess what support they may need", says Carina Lamont.
Under the current legislation, the military has limited powers to support the police and the support that is available is mainly in transportation and logistics. These functions are not connected to the operational work of the police. However, regarding terrorist crimes, the police authority can request support from the Armed Forces. What is currently being discussed is the increased scope of terrorism support, but currently, the legislation is limited.
In Sweden, we are generally unaccustomed to talking about the border area between the military and the police as they have been strictly separated until now. Understanding these complex differences is crucial to ensure that the right actor takes the right responsibility, Carina Lamons concludes:
"We are not used to domestic crises that fall into the border area between the police and the military in Sweden, so we have a steep learning curve ahead. This is true for all of us, from the political level all the way down to the citizen level.
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