Racism and Reform: The Treatment of Immigrants and Minorities in Law Enforcement

By Aiano, Zoe | The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Racism and Reform: The Treatment of Immigrants and Minorities in Law Enforcement


Aiano, Zoe, The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs


Perhaps it is not surprising that the senseless killing of a 43 year old Vietnamese immigrant in Brno last January failed to capture public interest; Czech society is well-known for xenophobia. What is surprising, however, is that the story of three respectable Czech policemen who beat a man to death with no apparent motive has left people equally indifferent. In reality, the two stories are the same.

On the 4th of January the police received a call to supposedly deal with a domestic disturbance in the area known as the "Brno Bronx," in Brno, CR. The details of what followed are still unclear, but it appears that three officers arrived at the apartment of Huang Son Lam and proceeded to beat the man severely. Following the beating, the officers took him into custody without providing any medical care. Lam was eventually taken to the hospital, but died shortly thereafter. It wasn't until two weeks later that the officers in question were suspended from duty, and yet another week before the case reached the papers. What little information has been made public is unclear and contradictory; the police initially insisted that Lam died from a drug overdose. As of yet there has been no further mention of a trial, and the police decline to comment. At present Lam's death is poised to fall into obscurity, an anomalous incident that warrants no further consideration.

Whether this case is an isolated occurrence or not, its racist and violent undercurrents are alarming in men whose fundamental duty lies in upholding the law and protecting the community. Though the specific men involved are said to hold no previous convictions, this is by no means the first time the Czech police force has come under criticism.

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More notorious incidents include the 2005 Czechtek rave festival, which was broken up by riot squads using tear gas and water cannons resulting in the death of one party-goer. In December of last year, 900 police and three armoured cars raided the largest Vietnamese market in Prague known as "Little Hanoi" or Sapa. The incident provoked Vietnamese students to protest what they considered to be "an abuse of power by public agents and an infringement of basic laws and human freedoms."

Clearly, there is a marked difference between these incidences and that of Lam; while the aforementioned actions were government sanctioned, the Czech government frequently refuses to admit any wrong doing when faced with accusations of abrasive activity. The prevalence of both authorised and individual violence lies at the heart of police violence.

Underlying Theories

Violence and racism on the part of the police is a problem that affects most if not all countries throughout the world, yet no one thus far has given a unified explanation or a unified solution. In many politically unstable countries, the police are used as a tool for both suppression and uprising. The question remains as to why the police commit such atrocities and why, then, are similar concerns found in supposed democratic nations?

One of the most widely known theories, and incidentally the most widely propagated by police representatives, is the "rotten apple" theory. First proposed in the Knapp report of 1974, this perspective asserts that misconduct is limited to individual "rotten" officers, who either manage to hide their anti-social tendencies during the initial screening process or are corrupted by the opportunities that present themselves during quotidian police duties. In the case of departments with numerous problematic policemen, this is attributed to the influence of the original bad apple.

This approach is idealistic and overly simplistic. Many sociologists instead subscribe to the opposing "rotten barrel" theory--that the nature of police work itself alters the officers' behaviour. This theory is also known as the "deviant subculture theory." The theory addresses issues such as the prolonged opportunity to accept bribes or abuse authority and trust, as well as notions of group identity and alienation from the rest of society. …

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