When you visit Romania, you might be surprised to learn that there’s more than one kind of police (or you might not be, depending on where you come from). As I understand it, in the US you’ll find local police and state troopers. Among the local US police forces you’ll find all kinds of teams and task forces whose authorities overlap with those of the the state police and the federal law enforcement teams (and if you’ll click on that link, I’ll bet you didn’t know there were so many of them).
In Romania, you have what people commonly know as the police, which acts locally but answers to its national ministry in Bucharest (MAI = Ministerul Afacerilor Interne). Let’s call them the “national police”, for lack of a better term. You also have the “local police”, which is literally called the “local police” in Romanian (Politia Locala) and answers directly to each city hall, to the mayor’s office. There is no national website for them, because they’re entirely local. For example, here’s the website of my city’s local police. And then you have the jandarmes, which are separate from the regular police force but are also part of it, since they answer to the same national ministry (MAI). I’m not sure what they do; I believe they’re called in for crowd control or in violent confrontations between citizens, but in my city, they do blended patrols that combine local and national police forces, as well as jandarmes. As you can see, this is fairly confusing and can’t be fully explained in a paragraph. I don’t know why countries make it so confusing for their people to understand how their law enforcement teams are organized and how they work.
At this point you’re wondering why I’m writing about this. Well, because as a private citizen, my concern is not with how the police are organized, but with getting a response when I call the dispatch office. That’s all anyone cares about, right? You have a situation, you need police assistance, you call the emergency number and you’re supposed to get some help. Let’s stop this line of thought for now, it’ll start to make sense later down the page.
In Romania, one of the things that is going on right now is a jostle for authority between the “national police” (for lack of a better term) and the “local police”. At some point in the past, the government decided to split up the police force this way, but it didn’t move policemen from the national police to the local police. Instead, it promoted local teams that used to be called “gardieni publici” (public guardians) or “politia comunitara” (community police) to the local police force. See here for the details.
This created a chasm between the national police and the local police. The main problem, as stated by the national police, is that the local police don’t go to the Police Academy and aren’t trained to be legitimate policemen, leading to unprofessional behavior and a poor knowledge of the laws they’re supposed to enforce. Another problem is that insignia and uniforms meant to be used by the national police are being used by the local police without the authority to do so. These arguments are ongoing and are constantly revived on social media by various policemen. Examples abound in the media of local policemen using the wrong insignia or behaving unprofesionally toward private citizens.
However, as a private citizen, I have also seen plenty of incidents where the national police behaved in completely unprofessional ways toward citizens, abused their authority, acted in such ways that made me suspect them of having been bribed, or were simply too lazy to respond to calls for assistance. And contrary to the general image one finds in Romanian media about the local police forces, in my city (Mediaș), they’re professional, they’re polite and they respond to calls for assistance.
Allow me to give you a few examples from my experiences.
A few weeks ago, we were driving through Bușteni, a mountain resort town, and a traffic policeman (they belong to the national police) was directing heavy traffic as he saw fit. What I mean by that is that he had just given our side of the street the go-ahead, the traffic light was green, but a few seconds later, he spotted a blonde who wanted to cross the street. He quickly changed his mind and stopped an entire convoy of cars so he could let her pass and leer in her direction while he measured her from head to toes. Of course she smiled, flattered (or as I like to call it, flatulated) by the attention. I was part of that convoy of cars and I considered it an abuse of authority to stop heavy traffic for the sole reason of leering at a woman.
In our own town, traffic police were directing traffic during road construction. My wife was a first-hand witness when they screamed at people. Those of you who understand Romanian will agree with me when I say that this phrase, “Măăă, io nu ți-am spuuus să nu te miști, măăăăă! Stai acolo băăăă!” is inappropriate. I understand they’re stressed out when directing traffic and that they have to deal with confused and perhaps even dumb people, but you don’t speak to citizens that way, and then demand respect for your authority.
Also in our town, we have this bar/restaurant of ill repute, which is constantly blasting music up and down the street without regard for noise ordinances. In the past, they’d bring in hookers for the party-goers and have all-night booze and STD festivities. People would spill out and urinate, defecate or vomit on the street. It was thoroughly disgusting and illegal. I and other neighbors would call in the national police and here’s where I think you’ll raise your eyebrows: a few minutes before they would arrive, the music would stop, the gates to the filthy place would close and their facade lights would be turned off. The police car would make its way past the place, see and hear “nothing”, then come and berate those of us who called and they’d threaten us with fines for calling them in for no reason at all. Then they’d either leave or sometimes park their car and go into that same place for “refreshments”. I like to call those refreshments “payoffs”. Feel free to call them what you like. After they’d leave, the lights would come back on, the gate would open and the whole disgusting thing would continue until the early hours of the morning. This happened multiple times. Years later, after countless verbal and written complains to whomever would listen at the local, county and national level, that place is no longer operating in that manner, though they still have loud music from time to time. So what are you thinking, was that appropriate and professional behavior from the national police?
A few years ago, we were driving in wintertime on a national road, in a place called Rupea Gară. We made a turn onto a side street in order to take a break from driving and make a few phone calls. There was a bit of an incline to get back onto the road and even though I had winter tires on, the wheels kept slipping (there was ice underneath the snow) and I couldn’t get the car back up on the road. As we were wondering what to do, I saw a traffic police car coming our way with two policemen inside and I flagged them down to ask for help. Do you know what their response was? “We can’t help you, manage by yourself,” in those words. Having been used to the traffic police and state troopers in the States, who would stop of their own accord to offer assistance if you were stopped or stuck, and who would call a tow truck if one was needed, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from these two uncaring policemen. I call them uncaring because they didn’t even care to look at me or my wife while they were talking, nor did they get out of their car, even though it was winter. I asked them if they knew of a tow truck company or if they were willing to help pull us up. We only needed a little help, we were driving our MINI Cooper at the time and we only needed to get over a 2-3 meter stretch of slippery asphalt. They declined and told me to “leave them alone because they’re busy” before they sped off. We were left there stranded and were finally helped after a half hour or so by a good samaritan who saw us and pulled us up in a matter of minutes with his car (not a tow truck). When I hear policemen ask for salary increases or for respect from the general population, I think back to this incident.
The street where we live is a residential street inside the medieval city walls. It’s classified as a low-speed zone. The traffic police, city hall and navigation apps all differ on the speed limit that should apply there. There are no speed limit signs, nor are there any policemen there at any time to enforce the speed limit. I’ve written to the city hall and to the police, I’ve even met with the chief of the traffic police and have gotten nowhere. Children play on this street and yet cars will drive up and down at speeds of 60-80 km/h. Idiots on motorbikes will accelerate their death-mobiles on purpose when they drive here, but it’s still just a two-lane street in the middle of the city, on a street packed with houses, where children play. Just a couple of streets over, right in front of a middle school, a car ran over a girl a few years back. You would think the police and city hall would be more sensitive to the issue. Navigation apps say the speed limit is 5 km/h. City hall says it’s 30 km/h. But no signs are posted and nobody’s enforcing anything. I’ve told the chief of the traffic police, if he’d only post a patrol car there every once in a while, it’ll be well worth his time. He’ll hand out plenty of fines that’ll help his bottom line, but he’s not interested.
The same lack of interest is shown by the rest of the national police when they’re called to deal with noise violations from automobiles, apartments or houses, or with littering and vandalism in public places, or with begging in the streets and many other “little things” which if not resolved, tend to make life less civilized in the cities. They’d rather someone else handle these things; they consider these tasks beneath them, and they’re more than happy to let the local police handle them. Thank goodness there is a local police that deals with this stuff, or else who’d take care of it?
In order for you to understand this next issue, I have to offer a bit of a preface. During Ceausescu’s communist regime, all kinds of people, mostly low to no-education and low-income, were moved into historic Saxon homes in the centers of medieval cities and villages, which had been illegally appropriated by the state. These large homes were subdivided into 1-2 room apartments. The idea was to use all the livable space without having to fund new construction, and these homes had been left empty by Saxons which fled to West Germany. “Fled” perhaps isn’t the right term, because West Germany had to pay a sum that varied between 10,000 – 20,000 Deutsche Marks per person, before the Saxons were allowed to leave the country. Fast forward to modern times, and what we have now is people with very mixed (and mostly low) incomes living in homes that are meant for people with deeper pockets, because they’re historic homes whose renovation requires lots of funds. It’s not like in the States, where there are zoning laws and where residential neighborhoods are separated by income levels. Of course, most of these homes are now crumbling, because surprise, surprise, these people have neither the funds nor the drive nor the know-how nor the good taste to renovate these homes, which are no longer government housing. So what you have now, in countless cities and villages in Romania, are beautiful, historic homes which are in various states of disrepair, defaced and destroyed by careless people who’ve even chopped the furniture and the structural beams into firewood. Still, not all the houses are like this. Some people understand their historical value, have bought them and have restored them, but as I said above, this requires significant funds and is not be undertaken lightly.
Okay, now I can move on to the next example I wanted to give you, because you now understand the context. On our street, gypsies live in one of the neighboring houses. For years, we’ve had noise issues with them. I know what some of you are saying now, “here he goes, he’s discriminating”. This has nothing to do with color or ethnicity, this has to do with behavior. It is my opinion that gypsies have no place in civilized society, not because something they’re born with (such as ethnicity or skin color) precludes them from participating in society, but because they refuse to change certain antisocial (and also illegal) patterns of behavior, and that in itself makes civilized people go, “Oh, I don’t know what you’re doing here, but you really shouldn’t be here. Not until you learn to behave properly.” Furthermore, you can be purple with pink polka dots, if you’re a good person and you behave like one, I’ll not only have no issues with you, I’ll probably like you. But these gypsies, they simply refuse to understand that there are laws against blasting “manele” at night and against getting piss-drunk and going outside and yelling at each other, at night or during the day, in the middle of a residential area where people are trying to live, work and sleep in a civilized manner. The list of illegal things they do could go on and on (and belive me, law enforcement authorities throughout Europe know this too well), but I’m restricting the discussion to this particular group of gypsies. We tried talking with them and it solved nothing. We called the national police and they were fined a few times, but the noise still continued. We filed written complaints and the noise still continued. And then the national police refused to bother anymore. They’d hang up on me when I called. Yes, you read that correctly. By the way, they’d also hang up on me when I called about that bar/restaurant mentioned a few paragraphs above. I’d call again, ask them why they hung up on me, and they’d do it again. They’d even tell me that “they didn’t feel like it” (“nu am chef, lasa-ma in pace”). Then I started calling the local police and they didn’t hang up on me. They responded, each and every time, and after several visits from the local police, the gypsies finally got the message and now they abide by the laws (somewhat). They’ll still “forget” every once in a while and play loud “manele”, they still make other noises at night (they cut firewood or move boxes/furniture) that are so loud we can hear them through thick brick walls, but the situation is better.
I did have a positive experience with the national traffic police (just one, unfortunately) in the Brașov region a few years ago. The cops in that area are renowned for the amount of traffic fines they hand out but in my case — and granted, it was an exceptional situation — they let me go on my way. It was time for Ligia to give birth to Sophie (our daughter who is now four years old). Her water had broken and we were driving to the hospital in Brașov where Ligia was going to give birth, from Mediaș. I had my emergency lights on and was driving about 10-20 km above the speed limit (depending on the road conditions), rushing to get to the hospital so that Sophie would be okay and Ligia could give birth under medical supervision, not in the car. Why Brașov and not Mediaș, you might say? Because the hospital in Mediaș is terrible and I wanted Ligia to give birth to our daughter in a properly equipped and staffed hospital, where the staff would be attentive to our needs, which was in Brașov. Well, as we were driving that way, I spotted a traffic stop ahead. We were flagged to stop and we did. The policeman came to our car and told us we’d been seen driving over the speed limit and asked why we had the emergency blinkers on. I pointed to my wife’s belly and said we were on our way to the hospital in Brasov so she could give birth. He looked at her, looked at me, then waived us on and told us to drive carefully. He could have fined us but chose not to do it. So that’s my one positive experience with traffic cops in Romania.
I could give you more examples, but I’ll stop here. The point is, as a private citizen, my experience in my own city with the national police, the ones who are making such a fuss about the local police, has been less than adequate and less than appropriate. On the other hand, the local police have always answered my calls for assistance and have done what they could to resolve those situations. And they’ve been professional, courteous and wore their uniforms correctly (that’s another complaint the national police have about them). I’ve been in the US Army, I know what a properly-worn uniform looks like and they’re doing it right.
I understand this is definitely not the case in other cities or villages in Romania, where the local police are behaving entirely inappropriately, don’t know the laws and are easily corrupted, but again, as a private citizen, I have to say that this perceived competition between these two police forces has resulted in better results for me, the citizen. As is the case in business, where competition is better for the consumer, having the option of calling two different police forces who answer to different authorities is good for citizens. It’s harder to corrupt both forces (corruption is an ongoing issue in Romania), so that if one of these forces is bought off locally, at least you still have the option of calling the other. I don’t know how this jostle for power is going to be resolved in the future, but for now, it allows the private citizen access to an honest, responsive police, whichever of the two it may be.
One last thing: the question in the news these days (at the time of publishing this article) is whether or not the police ought to have more authority. Yes, I believe they should, but I’d also like to see them put that authority to good use. Judging by what I’ve seen so far (about nine years of living in the country), the Romanian police are far more concerned with ignoring situations than solving them.