A local paper (Somogyi Hírlap) asked its readers which organization they trust more, the Hungarian police force or the Hungarian Guard. Eighty percent opted for the latter. Of course, this is not a representative sample but it says a lot about the radicalization of Hungarians and the lack of respect accorded the Hungarian police. I might add that this sudden concern over the lack of security and the alleged growth of criminal activities is somewhat surprising because in reality crime hasn't increased of late. On the contrary, in the last few years it has substantially decreased in all categories. However, the public thinks otherwise. This has been especially true in the last two years.
Perhaps it started with the brutal murder of a school teacher in Olaszliszka who inadvertently hit a child who ran in front of his car. Nothing happened to the child but the extended Roma family attacked him and in front of his two daughters beat him to death. (See "Verdict in Olaszliszka [Hungary] murder," May 30, 2009) And the public's perception of a "crime wave" was further reinforced in February 2009 when a well known handball player, Marian Cozma, was stabbed to death, also by Gypsies. These two terrible incidents further inflamed the intense anti-Gypsy sentiment among the population. According to several opinion polls about 80% of Hungarians have very negative opinions of Gypsies whose situation has become close to hopeless in the last twenty years, ever since the mammoth Hungarian state factories where they worked mostly as unskilled workers closed their doors. They live in villages where work is practically nonexistent and in any case they are widely discriminated against in the job market. Large families live on state assistance and some of them help themselves to the possessions of their neighbors. These are petty crimes that the police refuse to investigate. According to the rules and regulations, if the value of the loss is less than 20,000 Ft (€73 or $100) the police simply don't bother. However, some old folks in a God-forsaken village somewhere in northeast Hungary don't consider the disappearance of a few chickens or a piglet a small thing at all. They naively think that if the mayor of the village calls in the Hungarian Guard and the Guard frightens the living daylights out of the Gypsies, then the thieves will be afraid to repeat their evil deeds. Problem solved. Well, we know it is not that simple.
There used to be all sorts of cruel police jokes in Kádár's Hungary about the inordinate stupidity of Hungarian policemen. Today the requirements for admission to the force are much higher. I wrote earlier about the woes of the Hungarian police force and gave a detailed description of the educational background necessary to become a police officer. ("The Hungarian police force," March 1, 2009) In fact, the training program for candidates is unusually long. Two solid years. I checked a few police academies in this country and found that they demand only 15-20 weeks of training. Whether Hungarians need two years to become a police officer I don't know. Most likely not.
There are also lots of complaints that there are not enough police, but as far as I know there are over 42,000 employees of the Hungarian police force, which is considered to be more than adequate. However, looking at the Magyar Statisztikai Zsebkönyv (Hungarian Statistical Handbook), I ascertained that about 10,000 of these people are not policemen but civil servants who sit at their desks all day long. Another problem is that according to rules and regulations all police, even traffic cops, must serve in pairs. This is not the case in most other countries. Thus the number of cops on the beat might actually be quite low. However, there is something called "polgárőrség" (citizen guards) who are supposed to assist the police in patroling public places. I think in the United Kingdom they are called "police civilians." These people are volunteers who receive no remuneration. Their number is high: 88,000. The police chief is now considering the option of allowing a citizen guard to replace one of the two policemen patroling the streets or checking traffic violations. There are some people who would further raise the number of citizen guards and make them salaried employees. The police leadership is also thinking of enticing retired policemen to reenter the force. A Hungarian police officer can retire at a relatively early age with a handsome pension. Most of them also work in their "retirement" at well paying jobs, and therefore my feeling is that it will be difficult to convince them to return to full time work for the Hungarian police where salaries are low.
In my earlier blog I mentioned an article written by two law professors specializing in law enforcement who argued that the centralized Hungarian police system is an impediment to good police work on the local level. A policeman should be a native of the town or village where he serves. Moreover, local authorities know the law enforcement needs of the locality better than someone sitting in Budapest. So the Hungarian police force should be completely reorganized. I can't quite see the current top brass, the Országos Rendőrfőkapitányság (National Police Chief Captaincy), giving up all its powers and passing them on to local–municipal and county–authorities. However, perhaps a combination of the two systems might work. Apparently the legal foundation for establishing such a system is already in place. In the 1990 law establishing local governments there is half a sentence about "keeping order in public places" as one of the duties of local governments. That provision, according to some people, including the police chief, might enable local authorities to establish their own police force with some central financial assistance. The name would be "települési őrség," meaning simply municipal police, but Fidesz immediately labelled them "Red Guards" which is, of course, total nonsense. Especially since most of the localities are in Fidesz hands or in the hands of the so-called "independents" about whom I just wrote.
How do Hungarian policemen strike visitors? Their uniform is a bit casual but this seems to be the trend everywhere. I read somewhere that even in the United Kingdom a couple of years ago helmets were exchanged for baseball caps in certain localities. So it is not the baseball cap that is the problem. The uniform doesn't look half bad on the attached picture. On the streets, however, they look shabby. I don't know how many uniforms they get and who is in charge of their laundering but their clothes look crumpled. Moreover, the cops don't set a good example by smoking on duty and throwing cigarette butts on the pavement. Perhaps policemen shouldn't look like the military, with perfectly pressed uniforms and shined shoes or boots. But somehow they don't look like professional crime fighters; their uniform looks more like that of an unkempt FedEx driver.
By the way, when I was looking at the web site of Kiskunlacháza the other day, I discovered that in that town of 9,000 there was no resident policeman prior to the murder of the fourteen-year-old local girl. The enterprising mayor immediately demanded and received a police force–eight policemen and a police car as well. Whether crime statistics warrant such a large force I have no idea. (As a point of comparison I live in a town of 4,500 last year voted "the best little town in Connecticut"; we have no local police, only one resident state trooper.)
And one more related topic. József Bencze, the national police chief, has an entirely different interpretation of yesterday's verdict in the Hungarian Guard case from István Lövétei who spoke yesterday on József Orosz's program. Bencze, who has a law degree, in consultation with constitutional lawyers came to the conclusion that the police have the right to disperse members of the dissolved Hungarian Guard if they appear in uniform. Tomorrow might be the first test case. Earlier a group of extremists applied for a permit to demonstrate on July 4 in front of parliament to protest the arrest of György Budaházy, the alleged mastermind behind the Arrows of Hungarians. The police refused to grant permission, claiming that such a demonstration would impede the work of the legislators. However, that didn't deter the organizers, who are still planning to demonstrate. The members of the Hungarian Guard, fuming over yesterday's verdict, are planning to join them. In fact, they are organizing the protest on their website. The Hungarian police also made clear on their website that they will disperse any such demonstration; see http://www.police.hu/tlz .
The police chief sounded very determined. One had the feeling that yesterday's verdict emboldened the Hungarian police who in the last few years had become completely demoralized. What will happen tomorrow? Hard to predict. I didn't particularly like the comments accompanying the article that appeared in Népszabadság about tomorrow's "non-demonstration." They were belligerent and ugly. They predicted civil war. However, I'm an optimistic sort. Most likely that the police will defend the square in front of parliament with a very large force and perhaps some of the extremists will think twice before going against them. And if not, and if they are injured in any way, they will soon have their spokeswoman in Brussels in the person of Krisztina Morvai.