The following text presents the main themes and subthemes that emerged in the analysis. Quotations have been lightly edited to facilitate reading. Participants’ gender (F, M) and position as frontline or investigating officer are noted after each quote. Findings are summarized in Table 1.
A Sisyphean Task
Participants described meeting with raped women as very demanding, especially since they knew that in most cases, their work would not lead to criminal prosecution. They described rape cases as hard to investigate and the demands put on them as sometimes exhausting. Participants said they felt Swedish society and the Police Authority did not prioritize investigating and punishing violence against women, and so they lacked the pre-requisites to meet empathically and respectfully with women who had been raped. All participants said meetings with these women made them frustrated with society in general, with their own organization, and sometimes with the raped women.
Work That Puts High Demands on Me
All participants talked about rape cases as hard to investigate due to a usual lack of witnesses, suspects’ denials, and often a lack of physical injuries. They even said that some cases were impossible to investigate, especially if the woman had not reported immediately after the assault or if she refused to go through a medical examination. The participants said meeting with women who reported rape was highly demanding, as every woman was different, and they need to learn the needs of each individual.
I think it is important to think, “What’s this person like?” So that you don’t become too formal, but that you’re able to meet them in their way, so to say. People are very different, girls are different, and depending on age, what they do for a living, the situation… Well, like, “What are your specific needs when meeting with me so that you can feel strengthened?” (F, frontline officer)
All participants stressed the importance of being comfortable with talking about sex in physical detail, as well as being careful about what words to use to avoid embarrassing the woman. Participants also stressed the importance of posing questions so they were not accusatory or blaming: “I am always careful how I pose my questions so that they won’t be accusing or victim-blaming or presumptive [sounds of agreement].” (M, investigator)
Frontline officers described handling different types of reported crimes as exhausting. Interrogations with women reporting rape were described as both time-consuming and time-pressured, taking a toll on both the woman and the officer.
I mean, those interrogations are tough [on the woman]. To completely empty yourself in that way, maybe you have to go a year back or two and you have to give details and if, for example, there were children involved, then you [officer] have to give notice to Social Services… You have to ask them [women] to go out and wait for a while because you have to call the prosecutor, maybe several times. /…/ Meanwhile, you are quite exhausted yourself and maybe these victims come in at a time when you haven’t eaten or had a break for several hours—then it’s quite challenging to do this… and to be professional… (F, frontline officer)
I Am Not Given What I Need
When discussing the demands on them, all participants described a lack of pre-requisites to do their job effectively. Some participants attributed this lack to the fact that rape cases have low status as a crime mainly affecting women. Participants described how interrogation rooms lacked things necessary to help a woman feel comfortable enough to tell her story. Many described being unable to offer the woman something to eat or drink or not having toys for her children to play with if she has had to bring them with her. Some participants even described feeling obliged to apologize for bringing the woman into such a room.
(1)The room, it doesn’t invite you to tell, there’s no warmth, no “welcome”. It’s like in a hospital setting, a cold, boring examination room with empty walls and it’s been like that for a long time. /…/ I usually apologize for how our interrogation rooms look. (M, investigator)
Participants sometimes talked about the lack of prerequisites at the police station with resignation. “I mean, it’s… crazy, we’re so far behind. When I think of how badly equipped we are to care for these women it feels like we’re stuck in the nineteenth century.” (F, frontline officer)
Participants described the Police Authority as focused on instruments and techniques and inattentive to the caretaking aspects of police work. Although some participants said that things had become better in recent years, they also described the education offered within the Authority as focused on memory and interrogation techniques, rather than caretaking. Some described the guidelines offered within the Authority as a theoretical “paper product” with no basis in the actual experience of police work. Participants described that meeting a raped woman with respect and empathy was as a task neither taught nor prioritized in a systematic way. Rather, each officer had to learn by doing, making it dependent on individual intuition.
We, I, lack education regarding how to treat crime victims in general. I find it more to be up to each individual officer to think about “How do I want to treat a crime victim?” (F, frontline officer)
Many participants described watching and learning from colleagues. However, they also reported that just as they had learned from some colleagues, they had also learned what not to do from others. Investigators talked about the hazards of not being able to work in teams when investigating allegations of rape. They described how that not only affected the quality of the investigation and the treatment of the victim but also had a negative effect on their own health.
(1)We need more resources [sounds of agreements]. Because it’s like… when you were at the hospital and there were several suspects involved; you would have had to be three or four from the get-go (2) Yes, yes (1) The way things are, you’re only one, maybe two. /…/ (2) We were two, or almost as one of us was working part-time, and it wasn’t enough. We did get a conviction, but I mean it was at the expense of the investigator’s health. (1F, 2M, investigators)
Participants sometimes described the lack of prerequisites and its effect on the victim with sadness and resignation.
You are actually embarrassed when you call to say… “Hello, I’m calling from the police. I know you filed a report of rape several months ago,” [sighs] and it’s just awful, it’s… well you have to apologize. Well, it really feels awful to have to do that. (F, investigator)
It Makes Me Frustrated
All participants described rape cases as frustrating. They attributed some of this frustration to their exposure to the dark side of humanity. However, the participants mainly described that the feeling of working in headwind frustrated them. They talked about it taking a toll on them, both professionally and personally. Participants directed part of their frustration toward society and part to the Swedish government not being willing to make the effort to institute the changes needed to safeguard women.
The government and the Authority and everything, they say, “We will put resources into working against domestic violence and sexual crimes. Now, we will make sure to put resources into that.” They have said that for several years, but I haven’t seen any serious attempts to do so [sounds of agreement]. If you’re not down in the trenches, so to say, then no one takes it seriously. (M, investigator)
All participants expressed frustration that they did not have the capacity or mandate to work on the core of the problem: the fundamental power imbalance between men and women in Swedish society. In relation to this, some participants stressed 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. Then it’s like, we’ve kind of accepted that this just happens [sounds of agreement] and we just take it job by job as it comes. We do absolutely nothing to prevent these problems. (M, frontline officer)
Participants also described frustration with the Police Authority for not being organized by specialties. Willingness within the Authority to thoroughly improve how victims of sexual crimes are met was described as absent, and political suggestions for improvement as insufficient. Participants also discussed how the top management of the Authority did not always value the experience of officers, and further, that managements’ priorities were off-track. Participants discussed a lack of knowledge as making it hard to keep up with research, which also affected the training available. Participants stressed that many officers were highly committed to their work. However, some colleagues were described as reluctant to learn something new to improve their work, thinking they knew enough just from having worked as an officer for many years. Participants also expressed frustration over some of their colleagues not working for the victim’s best interest.
It’s not always the right individuals; they aren’t motivated, or they don’t view their work as important. They have no perspective on how it is to be the victim of a crime. /…/ And I feel sorry for all the… victims, both men and women, who end up with these people who aren’t interested and don’t think that these reports matter. (F, frontline officer)
Participants also expressed frustration about having to work under the lead of prosecutors. They described prosecutors as not understanding the work of police. Investigators described prosecutors as too quick to drop cases that participants wanted to continue investigating. Even in cases leading to trial, the slowness of the system and the pressure put on the victim to tell her story over and over again were expressed with frustration.
Sometimes I feel like, “Why do we even conduct a preliminary investigation and why do we even record the interrogations?” when everything has to be re-done in court. (F, investigator)
In some cases, participants’ frustrations were directed against the woman, mainly when the woman did not want to participate in the investigation the way the participants thought was necessary.
When you have a woman or a girl in front of you, who has been molested and she refuses to go through an examination… I mean, the enormous amount of frustration, where you just “Damn! If we are to work this, there are no witnesses, there’s nothing. This is what we have to do, and now you don’t want to!” /…/ I mean, you’re almost pissed, you don’t show it, but the feeling is that you’re pissed off. Like, “Damn” [sighs, others agree]. (F, frontline officer)
Work That Touches Me
Participants described how meeting with raped women affected them personally. They described listening to sad stories that stuck with them and made them sad as well. Female participants in particular described identifying with women who had been exposed to violence, partly because of being woman themselves and partly because as female professionals they were more often assigned to such cases. Confronting sexual violence vicariously that way led many to struggle with understanding how some women could stand living the way they did, what consensual sexuality actually is, whether it were possible to help all women, and whether they were allowed to doubt the allegations of some women. The struggle to understand also sometimes included struggling to make the woman understand that what she had been subjected to was in fact a crime.
I Get Emotionally Involved
All participants talked about the sadness of some meetings. Some felt that getting emotionally involved made them better equipped for new meetings and described meeting with raped women as more than a job. When participants recalled some cases they had handled, the sadness was sometimes hard to hold back.
I was, and now I’m… chills on my arm and I feel it coming [sounds sad] because it was, I was so into this. Her life, there it comes [cries], I’m reacting [wipes tears]. (F, investigator)
Participant’s reactions to the women’s stories and situations occasionally recurred after some time and/or in unanticipated situations. “My experience is that the reactions come two or three weeks afterwards. I mean, in a situation where you least expect it [sounds of agreement]”. (M, frontline officer)
Many talked about feeling that although they believed the woman had in fact been raped, it would be very difficult to prove. Participants discussed the gap between professional objectivity and their emotional response to believing the woman sitting in front of them. They talked about the difficulty of finding a balance between showing empathy and being professional. The ability to be caring, while still staying focused on the task at hand, was sometimes described as learned over time and with experience. Because most rape cases do not make it to court, participants described feeling a lack of closure. They described how this affected them on a personal level and made the stories difficult to put behind them. They also ascribed their ability to put themselves in the position of the women to their recognition of the similarities between them. Both male and female participants talked about gender when meeting with raped women. Female participants described being able to identify with the women they met because they as women themselves felt better equipped than men to understand. The victims’ own desire to talk to a female officer was attributed to victim’s feeling more understood by another woman. Some female participants said they could empathize better than a man because they could imagine the pain of being raped.
Because sometimes the woman says, “But as a woman, you must be able to understand how I felt,” and I say, “Yes, I can understand that.” When it comes to pain, for instance, how the violence during a rape feels, I mean, I can definitely identify with that. (F, frontline officer)
Being able to identify with the woman gave female police officers a unique opportunity to make the victim feel supported.
With everything that relates to violence against women, I think it works by talking about it as a “we”… That you say, “We are not supposed to put up with this, we don’t deserve this, we should be treated better.” Then she feels, or at least I’ve perceived it that way, that it makes the girls feel stronger. (F, frontline officer)
Some participants noted the majority of women not only in the focus groups in the study but also in work within the Authority with domestic violence and youths. Although stressing that the individual was what mattered in these meetings, some male participants talked about their inability to identify with women as an obstacle: “Well, I have no choice. From the get-go, I always start from behind.” (M, frontline officer)
Participants also described often wondering about how things had turned out for the women they had met. This was discussed partly as their wondering whether their treatment had been adequate and helpful to the women and partly whether their work had contributed to the case being taken to court. Participants talked about not knowing the results of their previous cases as an obstacle to them improving their work.
(1) Well, how many raped women have I responded to? 30, 50… How did it turn out, was I helpful? (2) And to grow and get better, it is quite important to know what you have done right and how did it turn out? (M, frontline officers)
I Struggle to Understand
When talking about women raped by their partner in abusive relationships, participants sometimes struggled to understand how the women they met could live under such conditions. Participants also discussed how many raped women did not put up a fight to safeguard themselves. Although all participants stressed their awareness of how victims could come to freeze during abuse, many participants seemed to think that were they in a similar situation, they would fight for their life. Participants talked about needing to be familiar with the full spectrum of sexual practices to be able to distinguish consensual from non-consensual sexual encounters. However, awareness about the variety of sexual practices also made participants struggle to understand the boundaries between consensual and non-consensual sexuality. Participants also discussed how as professionals they were not immune to notions about how a raped woman should behave and react, which made it more difficult to believe women who do not fit within these molds.
(1) That is within us as well; the preconceptions of how a victim should react. It is still there, although it feels so old… I mean, the preconceptions about how a victim, the “perfect” victim, is supposed to be… (2) That there is an ideal way, yes, that is true. (1) Unfortunately, it is. (1F, 2M, investigators)
Participants discussed whether it was okay to doubt women to their faces. Investigators described their task as not just accepting the woman’s allegations but also investigating their veracity. Frontline officers seemed not to agree about whether they could express doubt. In some discussions, participants’ wishes to discuss how to proceed when the woman’s story seemed unbelievable were shut down by other participants claiming it not to be an officer’s role to believe or doubt. The struggle to understand included sometimes finding it hard to make the woman understand.
[T]hen she said, “I was always to lay on my back, and he would caress my breasts.” So I said, “Did you perceive what he did as a caress?” “Well, he…” and then she described how he quite violently groped, pinched, and smacked her breasts. So I said again, “Did you perceive that as a caress?” And she said, ”No. No, I didn’t.” (F, frontline officer)
Meeting with women who had been abused over a long period of their lives, who had repeated contact with police, made officers struggle as to whether it was even possible to help most of the women they.
Is it true that we cannot help everyone? Can everyone be helped? Because, people are sick, or some are. You cannot fix some of them. No matter how hard we try, sometimes, I need to react that way, like “Okay I can do my best, but in some cases, I cannot make a difference.” (F, investigator)
A Struggle for Restoration
Participants discussed how most raped women would not get what they needed from the legal system. They described their own personal struggles to offer them some kind of healing through their efforts to take care of them, validation of their experiences, and demonstration that they had at least tried. However, they also described it as a struggle to take care of themselves, accept support from their colleagues, and allow themselves their own emotional responses. However, they described how a culture within the Authority encouraging toughness hindered them from taking care of themselves. Participants also described how that culture did not validate their own efforts to take care of themselves and the women.
Caring for the Woman
In the discussion about most rape cases not leading to trial, some participants discussed hoping that their work might at least make a difference for the woman by letting her feel that someone had listened to her. Participants described a need to validate the woman’s experience and feelings, sometimes by explicitly acknowledging her experience. Participants described a need to, sometimes, go outside their professional objectivity to reassure the woman that they understood and believed her. Some talked about the shame and guilt many victims of sexual abuse experience and how they sometimes made sure to tell the woman that what had happened was not her fault: “To be allowed to lift that off their shoulders. ‘Hey, it’s not… it’s not your fault’.” (F, investigator)
Investigators stressed the need to prepare the woman for how difficult and tough rape investigations usually were on the victim. Frontline officers talked about how time-pressured police work usually was and stressed the importance of ensuring that the woman was given enough time and assured that they were not in a rush.
Because there is a lot of talk about police being too busy, especially we who work on the field. Well… you often hear, “Well, you must have other things to do now. You must have better things to do than to talk with me.” You really have to say, ”We’re here for you and we can take the time that’s needed” /…/ You need to show them that it’s okay by putting your phone down and turning your radio off: “We are here with you, and this is where we are supposed to be.” (F, frontline officer)
Participants stressed the importance of using their body language to show the woman that she was listened to. Easing in to the harder parts of the woman’s story by creating a safe environment was also stressed as important. Investigators mainly described using their own caretaking ability to help the woman tell her story and remind her that they could stand listening to difficult stories. “I need to remind them ‘I have heard everything. You can say whatever you want to, whatever you feel comfortable with,’… and you need to repeat that. (M, investigator)
Participants stressed the need to make the woman feel safe during the interrogation. They also described needing to prepare women for the difficult questions that would be posed during an interrogation, explaining that they were necessary because they could come up later if the case went to court. Some had developed their own way of asking the harder questions so that the woman would not perceive them as threatening, for example, by asking what the perpetrator was wearing before asking about the woman’s clothes. Participants also talked about needing to prepare the woman for what would come next in the process. Investigators discussed feeling responsibility for caretaking after the interrogation, something not included in guidelines, but something they had learned from experience.
For example, how do you send a person home after an interrogation? I usually think… well, you can’t, you do not want to send this woman home alone /…/ Because, after the interrogation, my life continues as usual, but she has just told me about the worst thing that’s ever happened to her. (F, investigator)
One participant had made it a habit to phoning and trying to meet with the woman if the prosecutor chose not to take her case to court, making sure to make clear that the woman felt believed. The thought of being able to help women made participants’ work meaningful and motivated them to continue. Some participants talked about their job as a helper and as possibly bringing the women, if not legal, then at least psychological restoration. However, regrets about the legal system became apparent, as participants described their work as trying to help the women, rather than succeeding. “The process can still be rewarding for the woman, knowing that, at least I tried.” (F, investigator)
Trying to Care for Myself
All participants stressed the importance of debriefing with colleagues. Frontline officers sometimes talked with their colleagues on the ride back after a call. However, investigators described working most cases on their own and therefore lacking natural opportunities to get support from colleagues. Participants described that meeting with many victims resulted in an accumulated sadness that they felt a need to let out. In a profession that encourages emotional toughness, they expressed a need to allow themselves to cry. However, participants also talked about a culture within the Authority that discouraged showing emotions as police were expected to be tough and able to keep it all inside. “I might think, ‘I’m supposed to handle this, why am I reacting this way? I’m supposed to handle this.’” (F, frontline officer)
Participants said that showing emotion or their need for personal support was taboo within the Authority. One male participant described once needing rehabilitation and feeling that some colleagues had looked down at him for “being weak.” Participants talked about either trying to stay tough and risking a mental breakdown or becoming “lazy” enough to retain their own health, but possibly lessen their motivation and ability to care for the women they met. Although participants said they tried their hardest, they sometimes developed cynical tendencies, as they did not want to overwork cases that they knew would not make it to court.
Sometimes I feel like, there is no need to put too much effort into a case that we know is going to be dropped anyway. (F, investigator)
All described not feeling validated for their efforts and stressed the importance of finding ways and contexts to care for themselves to protect themselves from an emotional crisis. Several also described colleagues who had not managed that and had left the police. “If you apply for our department, you usually stay. Those who don’t, they leave because they can’t take it. I mean, they’re exhausted.” (F, investigator)
All participants agreed that if they were not able to take care of themselves, they would not be able to be supportive of a victim of rape either. Participating in the focus group was described as a good experience that had offered participants insights, allowed them to get in touch with their emotions, and given them opportunity to really get to know the colleagues who had participated in their same focus group. Discussing the benefits of participating in the focus group also made participants reflect on the supervision offered within the Authority. Some described the supervision as taking place in groups that were too large to allow them to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and emotions as they could do in the smaller focus group. Some participants also stressed the benefits of having time to focus on the concept of rape and various aspects of their work with victims of rape in a focus group that allowed more openness than other settings.
(1) This has been a mix of debriefing, being allowed to listen to your colleagues and talk about your emotions and situations we’ve encountered and… to be allowed to express your opinions and be given new thoughts to ponder. /…/ (2) In addition, the focus on rapes, that we were allowed to focus on that. We’re not allowed to do that very often. (F, investigators)