Cynthia Shain, former deputy chief of the Louisville, Kentucky police department, leads a seminar on modern policing principles May 28.
photo: Ján Svrček
Over the next two years, the American team (consisting of three ex-police officers and a sociologist) will hold six week-long seminars with national police chiefs in Bratislava, Banská Bystrica, Košice and Prešov. Funded by the US State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, the initiative stresses the philosophy of "community partnership", which aims at developing 'bridges' between the police and minority communities at the grassroots level.
"We're trying to get Slovak police to re-think the arrogance US law enforcers have held in the past, which said 'we know what [a community's] problem's are, and this is how we're going to fix them'," said Cynthia Shain, who when she retired as Deputy Chief of the Louisville (Kentucky) Police Department in 1999 was the highest-ranking female officer in city history.
"We had a housing development known as Clarksdale [in which] we felt the biggest problems were drugs and burglaries," Shain told a classroom of some 30 Slovak district police leaders in Bratislava May 28. "We knew this according to our statistics. But when we actually went in and asked them what the biggest problems were, a little lady got up and said 'gambling in the courtyards'."
That woman went on to say that public urination, cars with loud stereos at night, broken street lights which had been shot out by youths, and abandoned cars were among the community's other main concerns.
"I was listening and thinking, 'Whaaaaat?'," Shain said. "'What about the burglary rate? Do you know what it is here?' This was my thunderbolt. It told me that the concerns of the police are not necessarily those of the community."
Around 30 senior Slovak police officers spent a week at the end of May rethinking their approach to policing.
photo: Ján Svrček
Some suggestions offered by the US team in developing community ties were to allow citizens to participate in "ride-alongs" (during which civilians join officers on a given beat) and to establish Civilian Police Academies (where normal people go through a scaled-down version of police training and are thereby exposed to controlled situations police face).
Identifying the problems
Although project co-director Deborah G. Wilson, a sociologist and the chair of the University of Louisville's Department of Justice Administration, said that the response to her team had been "overwhelmingly positive", not all the officers present on the first day were sold on the new ideas.
"We don't have difficulty identifying the problems," responded one officer when Kranda emphasised the importance of asking the community what they needed from the police. "We know what their problems are, but they don't trust us and we don't have the means to deal with this.
"While we know what the problems of our citizens are, we also know that we are unable to resolve most of them," he continued. "We may know that there are many drug users and dealers in the gypsy community, for example, but we really can't do anything about it."
That little trust exists between minorities and the Slovak police was confirmed by Sayon Camera, director and founder of Zebra, an association of African families in Slovakia. "I perceive them as the enemy," he said firmly May 30.
"There is no trust at all," he continued. "If we have problems, we cannot ask them to rescue us. If we are attacked by skinheads, it seems that they are more interested in checking our papers to make sure we are legal than they are in arresting and prosecuting the skinheads. Instead of filing a complaint, they ask us why we are here in Slovakia."
Shain said that reversing entrenched police thinking on how to serve citizens was difficult because officers have traditionally been trained to react to situations rather than listen to the community.
"From day one, police are trained to come into a situation and then to take charge and restore order," she said. "It's not in the nature of a police officer to sit back and listen. But through these seminars, we hope to get them thinking that maybe they don't actually know what the real problems are."
In light of recent problems between US police forces and their own minority communities, including recent race riots in Cincinnati sparked when a white police officer shot and killed a fleeing black man, Wilson was asked if American police experts were qualified to teach others how to deal with minorities.
"We are not here to lecture, but rather to share our experiences," she said. "It's taken us over 200 years to get where we are, and we're not perfect. We try to be honest about our successes and failures so other forces can avoid the failures we've experienced."
The real issues
When asked what problems he would identify with policing in Slovakia, if given the opportunity, Zebra's Camera responded: "They don't help. I would tell them to be honest with us, to treat our complaints seriously, and respect our human dignity. If I'm guilty of committing a crime, it's their duty to arrest me. But it's also their duty to not treat me like an animal, and not to think that all we do is cause trouble."
Bratislava police headquarters spokesperson Marta Buňaková admitted that modern Slovak law enforcement needed improvement, but said that the police lacked the know-how. She added that the Slovaks would embrace any future cooperation with the US team.
"They make our people think about police work from a different perspective," she said. "We sometimes think that we can solve broad social situations, but they are teaching us to approach problems on an individual basis, to go into the community and talk with the citizens. We are open to these new ideas. Our doors will always be open to them [the US team]."
Although the seminars have only just begun, the US team says that the Slovaks don't appear to be much different from police forces in America.
"I know you're all dying to get out of here," said Kranda at the end of the seminar, to which the officers collectively laughed in agreement. "See? You're not that different than American cops."
3. Jun 2001 at 0:00 | Chris Togneri