Cops in crisis

In Hungary there is one centralized police force–until recently under the watchful eye of the minister of interior, nowadays under the minister of justice and security. A month or so ago there was a major personnel shakeup. The government fired the chief of police of the entire police force, László Bene, a surprisingly intellectual looking officer, and the chief of police of Budapest, a not so intellectual looking Péter Gergényi. The triggering event was the alleged rape of a young woman by policemen in the early morning in downtown Budapest. Right there on the street. In daylight. The story didn’t sound too convincing to me, and I thought Prime Minister Gyurcsány acted a bit hastily. As it turns out, my suspicions were not without foundation. Although there is still no final verdict, it looks more and more as if the five policemen accused in the affair were not guilty of rape but perhaps of some extortion. Of course, since the firings the prime minister has frequently been asked by reporters whether, given these new developments, it would not have been prudent to wait until the investigation was finished. Gyurcsány’s answer invariably is that his decision to fire the two men preceded this event: several other things had taken place that showed a deep crisis within the Hungarian police force. For example, cameras recorded a policeman after a bank robbery taking a large amount of money from the bank. Another story that came to the surface was that a group of policemen who patroled a certain highway received bribes from a tow truck company in exchange for preferential treatment in highway accident calls.

In addition to the problem of corruption, the police have also not been particularly talented at solving criminal cases. Let’s start with one of the worst crimes ever in Hungary. Five years ago, two men broke into a small branch of the Erste Bank in Mór. In the course of the robbery (with a very modest take) they killed eight people. The police responded quickly; on the same day they named two men whom they were already looking for as suspects in another crime. Unfortunately these were not the bank robbers. A few weeks went by and the police came up with two new names. One was subsequently convicted and, despite only circumstantial evidence and often conflicting testimony, received life without parole; the other’s case is still pending. Fast forward to a few months ago, when the police were looking for another murderer in another town in another case. One thing led to another, and it turned out that at last they had their men. For example, the fingerprints of one of the new suspects matched those found in the bank (which, of course, didn’t match those of either of the two earlier convicted men). One of the newly charged men, in pre-trial custody, took justice into his own hands and committed suicide in his cell. It seems that prisoners are supposed to clean their own cells, so a mop is kept in the cell. The arrested man opened the window, put the mop across, made a rope out of his sheet and hanged himself. A botched end to a botched case.

There are also many unsolved high profile cases. About ten years ago a wealthy businessman was driving in broad daylight somewhere in Buda and stopped at a red light. A car pulled up next to him and shots were fired. The businessman was dead. The DNA of the perpetrator is available, but in ten years nothing has been unearthed.

In February, fifteen shots were fired from a machine gun at the Hungarian police force’s headquarters in Budapest. The police to this day have no idea who did this or why. Although there were eyewitnesses who, among other things, pointed the police to a black Volvo, the police until now have found nothing.

Last fall’s disturbances began with the "siege" of the MTV (the Hungarian Public Television) building. A few days before the "siege" a recording surfaced on which one can hear a distorted male voice in the name of "Soldiers of Democracy" threatening to set the capital on fire if the government did not resign before September 20. The next day the MTV’s siege took place. The police found again nothing and they have since stopped the investigation.

The last major unsolved crime is the murder of a Fidesz councilwoman in Debrecen. She was killed in her own home on April 7. In this case there is not even a suspect.

These cases may cast doubt on the professional competence of the Hungarian police (though, of course, there are cold cases in every country). But there is one area in which the situation has improved. In the past, especially during the Orban government in which the minister of interior was the former chief of police, it seemed that the police force chose not to pursue some politically sensitive investigations. For instance, the police dragged their feet when probing corruption cases that would have been embarrassing to the government. They simply couldn’t find people, even when it turned out that the person’s address and telephone number was in the telephone book.

So now the police force has a new chief. Let’s hope he’s tough on corruption and smart on detection.