Police corruption: Reality vs. Perception

Zlatan Šehić, 20, from Sarajevo said he bribed policeman twice for a total of 30 KM not to punish him for a traffic violation.

The public ranks the police as one of the most corrupt parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) society, along with the government and the health care industry, according to various polls.

Police say they don’t deserve their negative image.

‘Corruption is not as pervasive as people tend to think’ said Midhat Huremović, head of the Internal Affairs Unit of the Ministry of Interior in Tuzla Canton (MUP TK).

To find out, the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo (CIN) requested records of citizen complaints against police officers from departments across BiH. Not all departments had or were willing to give this information and some gave information with errors in it. The data CIN did collect shows that some 2,000 to 2,700 complaints a year are officially filed by citizens or police reporting problems with colleagues. That works out on average to one complaint for every seven officers.

Srđan Blagovčanin, iz TI-a BiH kaže kako građani ne prijavljuju korumpirane policajce jer misle da policija neće ništa poduzeti. (Foto: CIN)

Srđan Blagovčanin, a spokesperson for Transparency International BiH (TI BiH) which regularly surveys citizens on their perception of corruption, said the statistics likely underestimate the true extent of citizen anger.

Blagovčanin said citizens who witness corruption often do not file complaints because they already believe police are corrupt and won’t do anything.

Pollsters have heard from people who say they don’t know how or to whom to complain.

Two sides to corruption

Last year, inspired by the TI BiH corruption survey, members of the Alumni Association of Sarajevo Criminologists did their own study of police and citizens in both entities.

They found that one in four motorists polled admitted bribing police. However, only one in fifty police in the study admitted to taking bribes.

Nedim Bradarić (25) iz Sarajeva kaže da nekoliko puta policajcu dao 10 KM kako bi izbjegao plaćanje kazne. (Foto: CIN)

A group of 47 students under the guidance of methodology professor Vladimir Obradović tried another approach last spring. They covertly watched traffic police for 63 hours at about 20 sites around Sarajevo. In that time, they witnessed 269 drivers being stopped and in 10 cases they witnessed drivers bribing police to avoid paying more expensive fines.

The students calculated how police patrols with a weakness for bribes could make up to 100 KM a day. Students also witnessed that drivers of more luxurious brands such as Mercedes, BMW, or Volvo were more prone to offer bribes for their offenses.

Obradović, a former police inspector for the Zagreb police, said the public is primarily to blame for the corruption because they offer bribes willingly.

‘I don’t think anyone would be immune to that’ said Obradović.

Punishment for corruption

Compared to the widespread perception of the police corruption, internal affairs inspectors investigate few policemen for criminal activity while in uniform and fewer still are charged or even disciplined.

Darko Datzer, a member of the Association of Sarajevo Criminologists Alumni, said research shows only 5 percent of the actual criminal deeds are reported. More crimes go unreported, ignored or are hushed up, he said.

On the other hand, internal affairs officials or police officials claim that the vast majority of complaints are unsubstantiated. Ramo Brkić, police commissioner of Una-Sana Canton, said the cantonal department of internal affairs reviewed 1,043 complaints in the past six years of which only 21 were about bribery and corruption. Of those, 11 were found to be grounded and 12 policemen were eventually disciplined.

‘There was all kind of things. Money taking, but gift taking as well in order to do an action for something that the officer was supposed to do without a fee’ Brkić said.

Huremović in Tuzla also complains about ungrounded complaints. ‘I connect this with some sort of post-war syndrome in which people are obsessed with everything and nothing’ he said.

Huremović himself said he was accused by an anonymous complainant in January of this year of taking a bribe while a judge of a driving license testing. He assigned his own staff to investigate but he told CIN reporters that so far they have found no evidence of bribery. He asked his staff to keep the investigation open in case new information is found. ‘It was not a pleasant experience for me, but my conscience is clear, now and then. I knew that this was reported by someone with bad intentions. He gave no evidence for it’ said Huremović.

‘I think that it’s a conflict of interest if the head of internal control is being investigated by his own inspectors’ said Jasmin Idrizović, chief of Center and Stari Grad police departments in Sarajevo. ‘It’s ridiculous and not impartial.’

Burden of Proof

Bribery cases are especially hard to prove, say prosecutors and internal affairs officials in explaining the low numbers.

‘You’ve got those who are giving bribes and those who are accepting bribes. We have two satisfied parties. That means that once it is done, no one is willing to report it’ said Zdenko Ružević, head of the Professional Standards Unit at the Republika Srpska MUP.

When citizens are asked to pay bribes, there is often little or no evidence and it comes down to the word of a citizen against the word of the police office. Without evidence cases are often dropped.

Mustafa Bešić, head of the Professional Standards Unit at the Sarajevo MUP, said legal constraints keep the Internal Affairs Department from doing a better job.

‘We are limited in the choice of the investigative methods’ Bešić said.

Prosecutors and police can use phone taps, surveillance, sting operations and other techniques when there are grounds for suspicion, but judges allow such methods only in case of most severe corruption.

Solidarity Rules

Police are also reluctant to apply such techniques to their colleagues.

The police ethical code requires that they report colleagues engaging in illegal or unethical behavior but most people in the system acknowledge this rarely happens. For example, in the poll published in 2006 by the Alumni Association of Sarajevo Criminologists, 65 percent of the officers said they would keep their mouths shut rather than report a colleague.

Obradović acknowledges that he still carries his police badge, which always helps him avoid traffic tickets except, he notes, in Slovenia where he gets tickets like everyone else.

‘Rare are those who will point the finger at their colleague and say that he is involved in such acts. I think there are cases in which they protect each other’s back’ says Marko Dominković, a police commissioner in Posavski Canton.

In the ultimate sign of police solidarity, Emir Kadrić, a Sarajevo policeman, sheltered his colleague, ex-cop Armin Gazibara in 2001 when he fatally shot his girlfriend. Kadrić also hid the murder weapon.

Of the police who do get prosecuted, attorney Duško Tomić said, ‘the little fish gets caught, while the big one remains.’ Tomić represents Milorad Vladić, a member of the Ugljevik police department, charged with cigarette smuggling.

In a 2007 report, TI BiH agreed saying: ‘It is interesting to note that only low ranking police officers or inspectors were criminally prosecuted and against whom disciplinary measures have been imposed.’

Talk but No Action

While many polls register the public’s belief in the need to fight corruption, in reality few people support this fight. Traffic tickets are the most obvious example. Few take the correct action and file complaints.

Obradović says a line must be drawn between corruption that is tolerable and that is not. He once received a doe’s leg as a gift for some service he rendered as a policeman. He doesn’t consider that a bribe. He shared his gift with co-workers.

Dominković said citizens are not ready to report corruption from fear of police retribution. ‘Especially in the situation when the case doesn’t get proven.’

And it is easy to find out who has blown the whistle, because a policeman knows from whom he took money. ‘If you have spent eight hours on the road today, you will not take money from every driver, but only from two or three’ he said. ‘So, you can have easily guessed who might’ve complained.’

First published on June 4, 2007