I hate to think how many people have been in charge of the 42,000 strong Hungarian police force in the last few years. Most of them were fired after a year. A few days ago there were rumors that the currrent one is going to get the sack after the terribly mishandled case of arson and murder in Tatárszentgyörgy. Well, he was spared, unlike his predecessor, who was fired because of the alleged rape of a young woman in downtown Pest by five policemen. It wasn't true, but Ferenc Gyurcsány somewhat hastily fired the police chief. Then there are all the changes at the head of the ministry of law and order. Perhaps this is the best translation (however obviously beholden to the powerful TV franchise–now, I understand, with a British version) of the ministry that was created by combining the ministry of justice with the ministry of the interior. The latter, as is the case in most European countries, was in charge of the police. MDF and its veteran politician Péter Boross, who briefly headed the interior department in the Antall government, are convinced that all the current problems of the police stem from Gyurcsány's decision to get rid of the ministry of the interior. If I remember correctly, there have been at least three "law and order" ministerial changes, but the effectiveness of the police hasn't improved.
What's wrong with the Hungarian police force? Some claim that the force is simply not big enough. However, I just read an article by two law professors specializing in criminal law and police work arguing that Hungary's police force is plenty big enough. For every 100,000 citizens there are 420 policemen, which makes Hungary one of five best endowed countries in Europe. Ahead of Hungary are Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. The average in the European Union is 360. In fact, in the Scandinavian countries the police force is half the size of the Hungarian: 210 per 100,000 inhabitants.
The number of criminal cases has been dropping in the last few years, and the police have a good track record in solving murders–over 90%. When it comes to robbery, however, the success rate is only about 20%. (See Géza Finszter and László Korinek, "Rekviem egy rendőrségért," Népszabadság, February 28, 2009.)
What does a young man have to do in order to become a police officer in Hungary? Plenty. He not only has to finish high school but he has to take his matriculation examinations before entering police academy for two years. Then how is it possible that police work is so often unprofessional? Apparently most of what the cadets learn is academic–theory, not practice. Law and sociology at the expense of nitty gritty police work. Another problem is that too many policemen are paper pushers and not enough patrol the streets. Perhaps the Budapest police chief exaggerated the other day when in an interview he said that 90 people supervise 120! But above all, say Finszter and Korinek, the police force doesn't function well because the whole structure is wrong. Basically, the strictly hierarchical structure inherited from the Kádár regime cannot deal with the problems of today. The disaster of the mob attack on the MTV headquarters in September 2006 awakened the government to the fact that something must be done: the Hungarian police cannot handle, for example, riots. They don't have the equipment and the whole structure is too cumbersome to act swiftly and effectively. Moreover, the men don't really know what to do in a situation like that. So a committee was set up: historians, sociologists, former high ranking police officers, and legal experts put their heads together and came up with, according to the authors, impressive recommendations. The government received the committee's document which to this day is gathering dust somewhere in one of the ministries.
Then every time there was a new police chief he tinkered with the internal structure of the force. To no avail. A central command can't effectively allocate officers to places where they are really needed. The local cop on the beat can't morph overnight into a member of a riot squad. Just to give one truly outlandish example, during the disturbances at the television station policemen from outside Budapest were ordered to the capital where they promptly got lost.
Therefore more and more people are recommending a decentralized police force. Each big city or even middle-sized town should have a police force of its own. Several villages nearby could share two or three policemen on duty all the time. Of course, for serious disturbances one would still need hundreds of policemen to make sure that a demonstration is well covered. Finszter and Korinek suggest a regional police force that could be called upon in time of need. Such a thorough reorganization of the police force would need time. Perhaps a decade. A step by step strategy should be initiated; implementation should be done incrementally.
As far as I can see there is no visible sign of such a strategy as yet, and if I'm not mistaken the tinkering continues even after the latest jolt at Tatárszentgyörgy. Meanwhile they are madly looking for those who burned down the house of the Roma family and killed father and son. By now they're talking about serial murderers, highlighting the similarities between Tatárszentgyörgy and Nagycsécs. It is hard to judge the cause of the policemen's lackadaisical handling of the case. Was it because they didn't care very much about the Gypsy victims? Was it because they were lazy? Was it because they were incompetent? Were they misled by the doctor who didn't notice the gunshot wounds inflicted by a hunting rifle? What about the firemen who never checked whether the fire was a case of arson? There are too many questions. Meanwhile I don't believe that there will be real improvement in the performance of the Hungarian police anytime soon. The force will receive an additional billion forints next year. They will be able to hire 1,600 new officers, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this blog the problem is not really the size of the force. Meanwhile, the majority of Hungarians think that with a larger and more effective force "crimes against the Roma" can be eliminated. I very much doubt it.