Dogged by scandal, police force defends its new image

On Thursday a regional court served a 43 year old police officer an 18 months suspended sentence for brutally beating up a man who the officer said had been cruel to his dog. The court was held just a few days after a traffic officer in the west Bohemian town of Pilsen caused an uproar by shooting at a pedestrian who was crossing the street on a red light. Such incidents of abuse of position seriously hinder the long-term efforts of the police to present itself as a body which serves and protects.

Ever since the fall of communism in 1989, the Czech police force has made a sustained effort to present a friendly and trustworthy face to the public. In a survey just published the STEM/Mark agency asked over 6,000 Czechs what they thought of the police transformation. Pavel Simonik sums up outcome:

"The police force has certainly managed to change the way in which the profession is perceived - and I think that the best proof of that is that, in the survey, two thirds of Czechs said that if a child of theirs wanted to join the police force they would support them. In other words having a police officer in the family is no longer considered something to be ashamed of."

The face of today's police officer is a younger and friendlier face, which is also due to the fact that after 1989 over 70% of the police force was replaced. No other institution went so far in its clean-up drive. On the other hand, people still have plenty of reservations. Pavel Simonik again:

"People understand that individual officers can do wrong, and they do not hold the entire police force responsible, but there is a widespread belief that they are not being adequately punished for their misdeeds, that the police force protects its own, so to speak.

Thirteen percent of respondents told us they had first hand experience with corruption, either having offered a bribe which was accepted or been asked for money directly by an officer. And, over 50% of respondents said the police tended to give certain people preferential treatment, that they were often more lenient with the elite and did not always respect the basic principle of equal treatment for all, regardless of race, nationality and sex."

As regards potential areas for improvement: two thirds of respondents said that the police could do more in terms of prevention - preventing petty crime, robberies and traffic accidents by clamping down on bad drivers.

As far as report cards go - that would be a C plus or, at best, a B minus. But police president Jiri Kolar is rather pleased with the result. He claims that 15 years is not so long when you are trying to change the public's perception of a force that had evoked fear and distrust for over four decades. And that the internal problems that the police is now tackling are only a reflection of the problems of Czech society in the present day.