Petr Torák: the Roma refugee who became a British policeman

Petr Torák, photo: Jiří Hošek

Petr Torák is being touted as the ‘new face of British policing’. But he actually comes from Liberec, northern Bohemia. Having emigrated from the Czech Republic with his family in 1999 – following on from a racist attack - he is now working to accommodate the immigrant community in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. His story has captured both the local and the foreign press. I caught up with him on a brief visit back to Prague:

Petr Torák, photo: Jiří Hošek
“So, I moved to Britain in 1999 because of the persecution we were facing here in the Czech Republic. Because my father was active in politics, and because of his opinions and his activities, I was attacked by a group of skinheads. Passers-by just watched and did nothing, they didn’t say anything. And then a few days later my mother was attacked by a group of skinheads – she was beaten up. So we went to the police and they said ‘do you know their names? If you don’t there is no point in even making a statement’. So they did nothing and that is when we decided to leave the country.”

And when you moved to Britain was it what you hoped it would be, or did you find yourself subject to more abuse?

“I didn’t know a lot about Britain, but we were very surprised how it works in the UK. It was a positive surprise, because even in those first days we would walk around the city and people would greet us with a ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’, and it was really very nice.”

Can you tell me how you first got involved in the British police force?

“Yes, I tried to become a councilor in the city where I live, but that was unsuccessful. So I had to think of another way to work helping the community, and joining the police force was a good way to do that.”

And can you tell me a bit more about the job that you do, because I know that you work with immigrants in particular?

“Yes, most of my time is spent working with newcomers from Eastern Europe in particular, from the Czech Republic, and from Poland. Not only because I am from the Czech Republic originally, but because I know the majority of these sorts of languages and I can do it well because I can interact with them and understand their culture. So that is why I work with them so much.”

From what you have seen in your work, do you think that this new wave of immigrants in Britain is integrating well, and being well integrated, into British society? Are there particular groups which seem to be integrating better?

“Yes, you see it is a long process, integration, and it is not always easy. But there are certain groups which integrate more quickly, and more easily than others. For example Polish people – I think because they have been resettled in the UK for sometime now. So yes, there are some who integrate more quickly and more easily, but all in all, it takes a long time.”

From what you see in Britain right now through your work, and from what you have experienced here in the Czech Republic, can you compare the problem of racism in the two countries? Are different groups targeted in these countries?

“I think discrimination exists everywhere, in the UK as well. But the main difference is the public opinion. Because here in the Czech Republic, I know from my personal experience that it is not just the opinion of one politician or one group of people that the Roma are bad and thieves and dirty – it is the opinion of the whole population. In the UK, you are taken more as an individual – so if you behave badly, then you can expect to be bullied and expect hatred.

“And also the difference can be seen in the police and in other public bodies. In the UK, they tackle the issue of discrimination very quickly and very efficiently.”