Romanian Police Shake-Up

Police force dogged by allegations of violence and corruption gets multi-million dollar overhaul.

Romanian Police Shake-Up

Police force dogged by allegations of violence and corruption gets multi-million dollar overhaul.

Wednesday, 18 September, 2002

Romania's police force is undergoing a radical transformation in an attempt to shake off accusations of brutality and corruption that still cling to the force 12 years after the fall of communism.

A six-year, 120 million US dollar programme is designed to bring officers into line with others across Europe.

Under the new legislation that came into effect on August 24 after months of parliamentary debate, police powers will be significantly curbed and attempts will be made to make officers more public spirited.

Policemen will not be allowed to cause physical or mental damage to a person while attempting to obtain information or statements, nor punish, intimidate or use pressure on a person suspected of a crime.

The majority of the money will be used for new equipment, such as cars and communication devices, and training. Officers will also get a new uniform, although budgetary constraints mean many will not receive them until next year.

Officials say the shake-up is designed "to place the policeman closer to the community and make him work for the society".

Human rights activists, who have long highlighted police excesses, should welcome this. "Police brutality was encouraged by a lack of proper laws to prevent it," said Manuela Stefanescu, co-president of the Association for the Defence of Human Rights in Romania - the Helsinki Committee, the APADOR-CH.

"Anybody can be taken to a police station if officers suspect he is going to commit a crime - even a petty offence - or if he is not carrying identification papers. This is when the biggest abuses take place."

In the eight cases investigated by APADOR-CH last year, five involved serious police abuse. Four similar complaints have already been made to the organisation in the first six months of this year.

During the communist era, the Militia - as the police department was called before 1989 - was used as the main means of political repression. For the past 12 years, the Romanian public has remained concerned by corruption and a lack of professionalism in police ranks.

"Romanian policemen continue to behave abusively," said a section on Romania in the Amnesty International report for the year 2001. "At least two people died in custody, reportedly as a result of torture or ill-treatment. Safeguards to prevent this were routinely ignored. Police often questioned suspects in the absence of a lawyer.

"Minors were questioned without the presence of their parents or a representative of an authority responsible for child welfare. Most of those who alleged ill-treatment were not allowed to contact their family and denied medical treatment while in custody."

Local police promised to investigate these incidents. "If the accusations turn out to be true, necessary measures will be taken," interior ministry state secretary Nicolae Berechet said in June. But nothing has been announced to date.

Commentators have mixed views about the reforms, acknowledging that they are far-reaching but questioning whether attitudes within the force will change.

"The authorities say that this measure will bring officers closer to ordinary people," said journalist Petru Calapodescu. "(But) the real difference will be made when the force changes its mentality - and this will take a long time."

Daniela Tuchel is a Bucharest-based journalist for the daily newspaper Libertatea

Support our journalists