Eastern Europe's Police Forces Court Public Opinion

By Land, Thomas | Contemporary Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Eastern Europe's Police Forces Court Public Opinion


Land, Thomas, Contemporary Review


The traditionally repressive state security services of East-Central Europe have been perceived for generations as the enemy of ordinary citizens. Now they must win widespread public support in order to confront organized crime successfully. Can they achieve that?

The underpaid and overworked state security services of formerly Soviet-dominated East-Central Europe have embarked on a radical internal reform programme to suppress corruption and civil rights abuse within their ranks in order to win the approval of the public. They are facing an uphill task.

The purge of corrupt officers is sweeping the region at an accelerating pace. It will bring enormous relief to the trading partners of these countries who have paid clearly for the tradition of low wages and high bribes inherited from the region's former communist masters.

These countries are bowing to pressure from the West to clean up their security services. Their law enforcement agencies employing mostly poorly trained and equipped staff provide plenty of opportunities for their officers to abuse public power for private gain. Yet they have found themselves in the very centre of their societies' struggle to establish confidence in public administration.

The public is deeply sceptical. The concept of democratic rights in the face of anonymous authority wielded by uniformed officials is still novel in the transition societies of this region.

They have been conditioned by decades of callous corruption at the hands of the security services of the communists, preceded by the brutal administration of the Gestapo during the war and the tradition of paternalistic, bureaucracy under the Austro-Hungarian empire as well as the Tsars of Russia.

The crime fighters of post-communist Europe lack any democratic tradition in the enforcement of the rule of law beyond loyalty to the rulers of the day. Now they must learn to defend the public interest according to new concepts of personal accountability.

The issues are enormous. For the implosion of communist administration a decade ago has left behind a power vacuum quickly filled by organized crime. Yet the security services of the fledgling democratic administrations of the region cannot establish and indeed defend law and order in the absence of widespread public support.

To win the sympathy of the public, the police, the Customs and the other uniformed crime-fighting services must become widely perceived as the servants and defenders rather than enemies and repressors of ordinary citizens. Can they achieve that?

Sandor Pinter, the Minister of Interior in Hungary's recently elected centre-right administration - and himself a former police chief - declares: 'It is simply essential to improve relations between the police and the public. In my view, the police should be aware which aspects of crime offend the public the most in order to concentrate our resources on these very areas. That means a relentless hunt for offenders profiting from drugs, car theft and burglaries. And, perhaps even more importantly, we must confront the abuse of authority by the police themselves.'

Pinter has just established a highly mobile supervisory force comprising 18 high-ranking police officers to investigate complaints made by the public against the service.

Colonel Karoly Krozsel who is in charge of the new taskforce, has been given access to all police files - including those allegedly containing complaints levelled against the police and 'lost' in transit between investigating authorities. His cruising inspectors have already won the respect as well as the fear of officers on the beat who frequently alert each other by telephone when they become aware that they have come under their scrutiny.

More ominously perhaps, an authoritative new study concludes that as much as 66 per cent of the entire national police force still believes that different classes of civilians are entitled to different treatment and consideration by officialdom. …

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