When I was a wee lad, my father's faith in the probity of the police was unshakeable, and in our family formed another stout wall parents erect between childhood innocence and adult wickedness.
Years later, after his sons' assorted 'run-ins' with the law, dad's faith is tattered, but still stubbornly intact. My own trust, which was never absolute to begin with, has been razed after almost a decade in Slovakia, where the best rule to go by is that you can expect the cops to be at least as venal as the man on the street.
Norman Mailer, in his novel Tough Guys Don't Dance, wrote that people are attracted to the police corps 'to shield themselves from their own criminality', by which I think he meant that a cop's badge gives people a certain freedom to indulge in behaviour that comes naturally to them, and which wouldn't otherwise be 'legal' (the evidence baggies of cocaine that must be 'tested', the self-righteous beatings of non-white 'suspects' etc.)
In Slovakia, people have a saying that 'whom the state doesn't pay, the mafia will.' While the average pay of a Slovak policeman is 19,000 Slovak crowns ($404) a month, almost 70% above the national average, the money Slovak cops can make in bribes is far higher, although understandably not documented. This average also does not reflect the pay of lowly traffic cops and police rookies, who man the traffic checks where foreigners often first encounter the 'men in green'.
Thus, what foreigners need to know about encounters with the Slovak police largely concerns money - when to give it, how much, and what happens if you don't.
Slovak police are horribly short of officially budgeted cash, meaning that they have few cars, and rely on ramshackle technology like their infamous police walkie-talkies, which function only at extremely short ranges, and which they have dubbed "I see you, but I can't hear you".
This means that they tend to set up road checks for innocent motorists, rather than driving around and nosing out crime. If you are stopped at such a road check (which you will be), there are a few things you have to know.
1. Foreigners are allowed to drive in Slovakia as long as they have valid driver's licenses from their country of origin, and as long as they have not been in Slovakia for over 30 days. According to Pavol Havierník, the head of operations at the Slovak Police Presidium (the top cop establishment), if the policeman on the scene cannot make heads or tails or your English, German or Swahili licence, "that's his problem, not yours." The police are not entitled to issue fines if you hold a valid license, a passport or other personal identification, and as long as you present valid documents testifying to the road worthiness of the vehicle (known as a technický preukaz), vehicle insurance (zákonné poistenie motorového vozidla) and, if you are driving on a Slovak freeway, a windshield sticker showing you have paid your fee for the privilege (diaľničný poplatok).
2. If you have been speeding or have committed a traffic infraction, the cops are entitled to fine you up to 500 crowns on the spot, or to take you to the station and fine you up to 2,000 crowns. Each fine must be accompanied by a receipt (pokutový blok). If no receipt is forthcoming, ask for his badge number (identifikačné číslo), which is worn on the left breast pocket; you may find that your fine magically disappears.
3. If you have been in Slovakia longer than 30 days, you must hold an international driver's licence valid for Europe. According to the ERI agency, which arranges all manner of documents for foreigners, getting this licence in Slovakia is a nightmare, since it involves first getting a Slovak licence, and going through all the tedious road tests we all thought we had left behind us. Their advice is to arrange it in your home country.
4. If you have been bad, for example having drunk a bottle of beer on Slovakia's technically zero-tolerance roads, you may be able to buy your way out of it. It largely depends on how much you are willing to spend, the mood of the cops (which will likely be avaricious if no one is around to observe), and whether you will feel proud about having bought off a drunk-driving charge. But you could easily wind up losing your licence, and by far the best policy is to drive slowly, drink mineral water and mind your manners. Even if you are the only driver on the roads doing so.
And if, heaven forbid, you wind up in jail, Banská Bystrica criminal lawyer Ján Hrubala says you are entitled by law to a) a translator, b) notify a person of your choice what has befallen you. Note: This does not mean you are limited to one phone call, but that you establish contact with someone; of course, you are not likely to be given a dozen calls at public expense.
On the other hand, if you are the victim of a serious crime (assault, theft), you are at the mercy of the public purse. I was once beaten up by three men who invaded my home, stole my property and threatened to kill me. The police arrived 90 minutes after I called them. You may be luckier; but if your skin isn't white, you may not be satisfied with the results when the cops do finally roll up.
Be forewarned: Rely on yourself, memorise the number of your embassy, and don't expect more from the police than you would from strangers on the street.
Foreign Affairs is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping ex-pats and foreigners navigate the pleasantries and pitfalls of living in Slovakia.
Next column (on stands May 7, Vol. 7, No. 18): Getting a job