The Internet is a wonderful thing. It has put the combined knowledge mass of the human species in a format that is easily accessible by billions of people hungry for scientific and historical facts about the world. The Internet, however, has also brought with it the possibility of spreading misinformation and nonsense at a rate that was never before possible. Someone can post an incendiary fake news story that inspire fear and anger about some real or imagined event during breakfast and before the evening has set in, the story has been shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media, provoked and misled millions of people and sometimes even made it into the mainstream media.
Sweden has recently become a target of various political outbursts designed to spread fear, anger and misinformation about refugees and immigrants. In reality, Sweden is a country that has not declared a single war since 1814 and is one of the best countries in the world to live in based on dozens of different metrics such as safety, education, health care, happiness and so on. In the dark and damp places of the Internet, however, Sweden is wrongly portrayed as a hellhole where murder and rape are out of control, criminal gangs have taken permanent control over several dozen areas and the radical feminist government and the media are actively covering it all up.
The reality, of course, is entirely different. Anti-immigration activists abuse rape statistics, the rape definition used in Swedish law has expanded multiple times since the late 1990s, the propensity to report rape has doubled in recent years and the police records each individual case as a separate police report. Two reports published by the Swedish federal police has shown that although there are social problems in especially vulnerable areas, but the idea that they are somehow no-go zones is a propaganda myth and the police works there every single day.
Primer: how does lethal violence statistics work?
Looking at murder rates is often a useful way to track differences in murder over time and between countries. This is because the definition of murder is unlikely to change very much over time or between countries. It is also to some extend correlated to crime in general, giving a glimpse into crime incidence.
However, murder rate as a metric also have some limitations. It is sometimes difficult to separate out accidental deaths, suicides, natural causes, self-defense and lesser charges such as manslaughter. In some cases, the same murder or event involving the death of a person can be mistakenly counted more than once. It is also possible that some cases that involve the preparation to commit murder or criminal conspiracy to commit murder are booked as completed crimes. Some countries may not put sufficient effort into getting accurate statistics for a wide variety of reasons.
In an attempt to handle these complexities, it is often useful for police and governmental task forces that gather and analyze statistics to talk about “determined cases of lethal violence” where they make a strong effort to eliminate accidents and suicides from the statistics and compile a data set of cases were one person kills another and where the case would count as murder, manslaughter or physical assault with a deadly outcome. This, however, is not a perfect system and some of the above cases that do not involve murder or manslaughter will inevitably remain.
Thus, the lethal violence rate is often a slight overestimation of the number of murders and manslaughter cases reported to the police.
Swedish lethal violence statistics: few cases, short-term fluctuations and long-term decline
The best and most comprehensive source of Swedish crime statistics comes from Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (“Brottsförebyggande rådet”, abbreviated “Brå”). The below image is taken from their summary page on lethal violence statistics (cache).
There is also a Swedish version of the page with a little bit more information here (cache). Brå also publishes a special report on lethal violence every year. The latest report cover data from 2015 and is available here. The figures above are not rates, but absolute figures. So changes in the total population size is not adjusted for.
The lethal violence summary page has four main highlights:
(1) Sweden has very little lethal violence: the y-axis is not a rate (such as cases per 10 000 or 100 000 people), but the absolute number. That’s right, there are ~70-120 cases of lethal violence in Sweden per year in a country with ~10 million inhabitants. Making a rough estimate, this translates to about 100 cases per 10 million people or 1 per 100 000 people. In comparison, the U. S. has a murder/non-negligent manslaughter rate of 4.5 per 100 000 in 2014 according to FBI data (cache).
So the U. S. has a rate that is ~4.5x the rate in Sweden.
(2) Sweden has a long-term decline in lethal violence: like many countries in Europe and North American, Sweden has a long-term decline in lethal violence. This is also true for the U. S. which is currently experiencing the lowest homicide levels between 1965 and 2009. There is a long-term decline in lethal violence in Sweden. The Brå murder and manslaughter summary pages states this explicitly when it says that “Lethal violence is declining over the long run.” and “In a long-term perspective, ever since the 1990’s when Brå started the measurements, the trend shows that lethal violence is declining.”
So lethal violence is going down.
(3) Sweden has a lot of year-to-year variation in lethal violence: between 2006 and 2015, the number of cases of lethal violence (keeping in mind the limitations discussed in the primer section above) has varied between ~70 and ~120 cases. If you are very careful about which years you include in your interval, you can make it wrongly appear as if there is a murder epidemic (2012-2015), no change at all (2008-2013) or even a strong decline (2007-2012).
Thus, when media personality and anti-immigration activist Ami Horowitz falsely claim that “the murder rate in Sweden is up almost 70 percent”, he is intentionally cherry-picking his start and end years (starting with the most recent lowest point at 2012) and only looking at very, very short intervals. This is exactly the same method that climate deniers use when they erroneously claim that there have been no warming since 1998 (a strong El Niño). They just pick and chose interval ends to fit a pseudoscientific narrative and push their ideology.
When taking a look at longer periods, Swedish lethal violence rate are either in a long-term decline or more or less comparable over time due to a lot of year-to-year variation.
Lethal violence is uncommon in Sweden. The United States has ~4.5x the lethal violence rate. There is a long-term decline in lethal violence in both Sweden and the United States. Between 2006 and 2015, there is a lot of year-to-year variation, but no radical trends. Anti-immigration activists like Ami Horowitz cherry-pick their start and end points to make it appear as if there is a murder epidemic, but the facts say otherwise. It is the same fearmongering about immigrants and refugees that are so common among authoritarian governments and ideologies. Do not fall for it.