'Our (Bulgarian) Police Is Guarding Us' Even When Sleeping
A while ago, a song "Our Police Is Guarding Us," performed by a close friend of Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov, caused mass ridicule in Bulgaria.
Days ago, the spokesperson of the police in the city of Varna stirred the latest scandal, quickly flaring into an outrage against the police in general.
In July, Varna man Boyan Maximov took a picture of 3 police officers, apparently asleep in the patrol car, and spread it on social networks and later on TV, in what he says was a protest against the laziness and the incompetence of Bulgarian police.
In commenting on the case before bTV, the spokesperson, Kalinka Pencheva, labeled Maximov "an idiot; a red neck idiot, who has nothing to do and is bored." Her comment provoked wide-spread indignation among the public and particularly in social networks, with demands for her dismissal.
The always quick to react Prime Minister Boyko Borisov ordered her sacking. Subordinates rarely dare to contradict him, nevertheless, Tsvetanov denies Pencheva is fired, stressing disciplinary proceedings are ongoing. It also emerged that Borisov is the godparent of her son.
Maximov, reportedly, had a criminal record, even a jail sentence, has been in self-admitted brawls with neighbors, etc., however, Bulgarians, who are more and more divided on political and ethnic issues, seem united in their outrage from Pencheva's words.
She feels Maximov tarnished the image of law enforcement authorities. Apparently, the police officers and chiefs in the Black Sea city felt the same since the man insists he has been consistently harassed by them with endless stops and fines on petty grounds, for example, not carrying an ID card when taking out the trash or walking his dog without a leash.
Bulgarians don't like the police. In other countries some people hate them as well. In Bulgaria, people overwhelmingly don't like the police. The police fail to protect them from petty crime, robberies, phone fraud, rapes. They ask and take bribes, they harass citizens, many are physically and psycologically unfit, despite the annual tests; they don't speak foreign languages, as foreign diplomats recently noted. (Actually, a number of them have a hard time with the Bulgarian language.) High-profile crimes, including murders, remain unsolved; cases of police brutality remain unaddressed with the culprits usually exonerated by their bosses and by magistrates, in the rare occasions such cases reach trial stage.
Examples of police "laziness and incompetence" abound – the young mother with a stroller, who had her cell phone stolen from her purse and was scolded in the police precinct for being careless with her belongings. The man, who reported his bike stolen, and was told the police were too busy to deal with such minor occurrence, but advised him to look for a guy named "Danny" at the Women's Market (an open-air market in downtown Sofia) and maybe find it on his own there.
I have witnessed how two drunken Roma, (I am mentioning their ethnicity because Roma crime has turned into a plague, stirring ethnic tensions) with open beer bottles, shouted in a public transportation bus that the police are helpless against them, while two uniform policemen kept staring absent-mindedly from the bus' window. I have seen a uniform policeman on duty in front of the Presidential building eating sunflower seeds and spitting the flakes on the pavement.
When our car was stolen, it took over two years for the police to find it. It happened by chance during a routine traffic stop. It took another year for the investigation to release it. We never learned who the thief was and what happened to them. When someone broke into that same car at nighttime, we called the police. They came, looked at the damage, and said: "What do you expect us to do?" I have waited for several hours for traffic police to arrive (they never came) at the scene of a fender-bender. This can go on and on.
Much of the above is the legacy of the Communist regime when militia was almighty and untouchable. They could arrest and beat almost any ordinary citizen without any consequences – for telling a joke, wearing a short skirt, having a beard, long hair, for reading something or listening to something. They learned not to do much and expect everything, including respect, though from fear; it was simply owed to them.
However, 23 years later, isn't it high time for them to change, to reform?
I lived in the US for quite a few years. I have never been treated harshly or bashed during traffic stops or denied help. Of course, no policeman ever asked me for a bribe. In my encounters, all were courteous and polite. I didn't notice any "overweight" police officer.
There, when a friend had a flat tire and attempted to change it at a place deemed unsafe by the passing police patrol, the officer helped him call a tow truck and said the police will pay for it because the young man, strapped for cash, objected. The policeman then took him in his cruiser to wherever he was going because it was a work-related emergency.
One rainy Friday evening, I was driving on the 4-lane Washington DC beltway when suddenly my car died. It just stopped and no attempts for restart helped. I was stuck on the second lane from the left in bumper to bumper rush-hour traffic and, as they say in the movies, my entire life played in seconds before my eyes.
"This is the moment when I am going to die," I thought, turning all blinkers and lights on, waiting for the next truck, coming down the beltway, to sweep me away. Another car stopped next to mine. It was unmarked, but the plainclothes man inside took out police lights and turned them on. He then walked out of the vehicle with a baton and stopped the entire traffic. In the pouring rain, with the help of another driver, they pushed the car to a safe place on the shoulder.
This stranger, after letting the traffic go, drove to me to check how I was doing. He stayed with me until the tow truck arrived and someone came to pick me up. "What is your name?" I asked. "Sergeant Bryant from the Maryland State Police; it was an honor to serve you Mam," he said and drove off in a soaking wet suit. He was off-duty. I keep wondering where was he heading this Friday evening, before he stopped to help me...
America is my only extensive experience outside Bulgaria, so it is natural that such memories and comparisons come to mind...
However, I also do remember a recent incident in Istanbul, Turkey. Our car, parked on a busy street, disappeared. We noticed nearby a traffic officer on duty, but we don't speak Turkish and he didn't speak anything but Turkish. Realizing that we were quite upset, he called a replacement, and walked us to the closest police precinct. There, he directed us to a young colleague, who spoke very good English. The latter took the license plate number and the description of the vehicle, made some calls, and gave us directions to the parking garage where the car was towed. In this huge and foreign city, we retrieved the vehicle in less than an hour.
Let's be honest, American police also come under fire for brutality and corruption. There zealousness even feels too much at times, especially if you are in a hurry. Some even call them "pigs." We have all seen movies. However, under pressure from the media and from the public, sanctions follow in the majority of these cases. The intolerance for them prevails.
Let's be honest, there are some perfectly fine policemen in Bulgaria, and I have met several. Earlier this year, EU Funds Minister, Tomislav Donchev, sang praises about two young, well-mannered traffic cops in clean uniforms, who stopped him and fined him for not having his lights on, instead of saluting him and letting him go. Good job, indeed!
However, the overall picture and impression are what matters most.
Bulgaria has an estimated 60 000 policemen, some of the highest per capita in Europe. There is an estimated 150 000-men-strong force of private bodyguards. (Would we need that many if the police were doing their job?) The Interior Ministry and related institutions have the highest budget, revolving around BGN 1 B, and it keeps growing every year. Despite it, Tsvetanov is relentless in his mantra about shortage of funds, asking for more, and threatening otherwise crime will skyrocket.
It is skyrocketing. The serious crime rate is one of the highest in Europe. Petty crime and corruption are common occurrence.
Investigators are cramped in crumbling offices. Many have to dig in their own pockets to purchase computers and computer paraphernalia in order to do at least part of their jobs. Policemen suffer shortages of uniforms, shoes, fuel for the cars. They complain about lack of motivation and protest against what they see as humiliatingly low wages.
Ironically, over 97% of the Interior Ministry's costs go for salaries, consumables, and maintenance. The other 3% are capital costs for equipment, technology, training, etc.
The conclusion is more than obvious – numerous, unmotivated policemen, abominable work conditions, poor pay, poor, ineffective work.
The remedy seems obvious as well – cut on the number of jobs and on the recent-years avalanche of eavesdropping and wiretapping of political and other rivals. Use this money for training and technology, along with toughest admission criteria so that the best and the fittest make it; those who have a calling, or at least desire, for such line of work.
"To Serve and Protect" is the motto displayed on police patrol cars in the US.
If Bulgarian police want respect and prestige, they should start serving and protecting. Then and only then the ridicule, the bashing, and the anger will subside. Ministers will not have to write eulogies about the exceptions, and songs like "Our Police Is Guarding Us" will no longer be the laughing stock. Law enforcement image would be more difficult to tarnish.
I wish for every Bulgarian in need to have a Sergeant Bryant. This text is dedicated to him – a tribute to the ordinary policeman and the Guardian Angel.
This article in Bulgarian.