Police Sgt. Henryk Wrobel was working the day shift when the call came.
The owner of a wholesale warehouse on the outskirts of town was frantic. A band of thieves had broken into the building. They were walking off with thousands of dollars' worth of tools.
Wrobel is a 14-year veteran cop. He still gets a rush from a good bust. But when he got to this crime scene, the place was already cleaned out.
Small wonder. Wrobel had to take the bus.
"It was actually two buses, because we changed once," he explained. "It took us 1 1/2 hours to get there."
The problem was as simple as it was demeaning. Strapped authorities here cannot afford to keep the precinct squad cars tanked up. Competition for vehicles with gas is so fierce that a cop working the burglary detail doesn't stand a chance.
The previous time he had to respond to a call, Wrobel used the family car. Before that, he hitched a ride with the caller reporting the crime. He has also been known to walk.
These are not good times for police in this unkempt industrial crossroads in northwestern Poland. It is not unlike many towns across Central and Eastern Europe.
The collapse of communism five years ago brought an end to the privileged status of law enforcement in most of the former East Bloc countries. Police states and government monopolies are out. Shoestring budgets and private security are in.
Keeping up with the changes has not been easy for crime fighters from Bydgoszcz in the north to Bulgaria in the south. Many fed-up officers have quit. Police work is so objectionable in some big cities that authorities have resorted to recruiting unemployed farmers.
"If I had known 14 years ago that the police would undergo such a deep crisis, I would never have taken this job," Wrobel said.
The predicament has had profound consequences. Crime rates in Eastern Europe are still well below those in the West, but they have risen astronomically. Residents speak with nostalgia about the feeling of personal security they enjoyed under Communism. Some demand a restoration, at least in part, of the once-loathed police powers of the former regimes.
Even former dissidents are beginning to agree. Polish Interior Minister Andrzej Milczanowski, an underground Solidarity activist in the 1980s, wants to give police new authority to tap telphones and intercept mail in bribery, counterfeiting and drug cases. He complains criminals have become too adept at exploiting newfound freedoms, while police have been stripped of resources and authority.
"Police need powers appropriate to the dangers facing society," he said.
Capitalism was expected to bring competition to former Communist countries. But few thought it would mean police competing for money to keep precinct lights burning, radios transmitting and cars running.
So far, the police have little to show for their early forays into budget politics. Mostly they have joined retirees, teachers and doctors in the long line of tax-funded groups bemoaning the shrinking handouts that democracy has given them.
"We have police stations where they can't pay the electrical bill because they are so poor," said Andras Zsinka, a personnel administrator for the Hungarian national police. "The trend has been for governments to focus their attention on developing the private sector. Hopefully, now we will begin looking at better balancing the public and private spheres."
The average Bydgoszcz cop earns $250 a month, what a private English teacher or a Warsaw taxi driver can pocket in a week. He receives no overtime pay and is allotted enough gas to drive fewer than 25 miles a day. To save money, officials want to replace the precinct telephones with pay phones. One busy downtown station has been so neglected that it was declared structurally unsafe.
Meanwhile, crime in the Bydgoszcz metropolitan area of 1 million has doubled since 1989. Criminals have begun shooting back at police. More than one-third of the city's 237 squad cars are in a perpetual state of disrepair. Many of the 2,700 police officers feel so let down that they are helping organize a national demonstration to be held on the steps of the Polish Parliament.
Two hundred miles southeast, in Warsaw, low pay, tough working conditions and plummeting job prestige have made recruitment so difficult that the capital's police department has 2,000 vacancies it cannot fill. In the Czech Republic, there are 3,000 vacancies; in Hungary, 1,200.
"I actually have the money to hire them, but I just don't get the applicants," said Warsaw Police Chief Jerzy Stanczyk. "All I can offer them is a dangerous job, where they have to work at night and get poor pay."
Desperate for officers, many big-city departments have turned to the countryside, where unemployment is high and new graduates and out-of-work agricultural workers have few options. They have also increasingly welcomed women, who have been hit harder than men by job losses but have been traditionally relegated to administrative jobs in law enforcement. In Bydgoszcz, where unemployment is 20 percent, 48 women applied recently for two female slots in the police academy.
Last year, Czech officials developed slick recruitment materials aimed at high school students. One glossy brochure features a baby-faced officer on a motorcycle with a blonde policewoman grinning nearby. The police have also broadcast television and radio recruiting commercials, something unfathomable just a few years ago.
Among the campaign refrains: "A job for a real man." For the sportsman: "Score a goal in the net of crime." Still, it has been difficult to entice the best candidates. Nearly half of Czech applicants do not meet the minimum requirements.
In Hungary, about 40% of the police officers in Budapest, the capital, have been imported from rural areas. But one in five of the transplants leaves after just a few years. The attrition rate is comparable in other big cities.
With no tradition of housing mobility in Eastern Europe, just finding a place for the recruits to live is an overwhelming task. The officers soon miss their families and familiar surroundings. Many decide the job is not worth the misery.
"They are totally unaccustomed to living in the big city," said Jerzy Dziewulski, a former Warsaw police officer and an expert on police issues in the Polish Parliament. "Work in the big cities has become dangerous and difficult. These youngsters don't know the conditions here and are not used to dealing with the sophisticated criminal world."
So many police officers have quit since 1989 that more than one-third of all police in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic have worked fewer than four years. In Warsaw, about 40% of the police force has less than three years' experience. Three of every four Hungarian cops are under age 40.
Police academy officials in Prague, the Czech capital, predict it will take 20 years to recoup the expertise lost to retirements and resignations.
"The losses have been felt mostly in specialist areas and in management," said Jiri Semrad, an instructor at the school. "Those are the toughest to replace."
The flood of inexperienced cops has hindered crime fighting at a time when criminals are testing the limits of democracy. In some cases, their naivete has endangered the public and the young police officers themselves.
Two rural Hungarian rookie patrolmen were killed on the way to the scene of an accident when they got so excited driving their late-model German squad car, one of many donated by the German government, that they crashed into a truck while speeding on a narrow road.
Last fall in the Czech Republic, two German motorists were killed in separate incidents involving poorly trained officers. One was shot in the head during a dispute over illegal parking. The other was gunned down after driving through a traffic checkpoint near the Czech-German border.
Authorities have blamed the shootings in part on inexperience and inadequate training. A recent report by the Czech Ministry of Interior showed that most incidents like these involve young recruits who joined the force after 1989.
"As a rule, these policemen lack experience, especially in the criminal area," said Col. Hana Bartosova, a 20-year policewoman and vice rector of the Czech police academy.
Much of the brain drain of older, experienced officers was inevitable. Police services throughout the former East Bloc were purged of Communist-era ideologues in the early 1990s. Secret police sections were abolished, or invented anew with former dissidents replacing Communist apparatchiks. Anyone with something to hide quit or took early retirement.
But the bloodletting did not stop there.
Many older cops found it difficult to adjust to a society where suddenly police were openly criticized, ridiculed and challenged. A survey last fall in the Czech Republic showed that more than two-thirds of respondents did not trust the police. Police in Poland enjoy popular support, but they are considered largely incompetent. In Bulgaria, police are vilified as lazy, corrupt and ineffective against the growing number of thugs and sophisticated schemers.
"Criminals got professional quicker than the police," said Dziewulski, the Polish parliamentary police expert. "And a lot of police got tired of always finding themselves on the front page portrayed in a negative light."
Proposals to save money by cutting retirement benefits also persuaded many unhappy police officers to leave early. Lucrative offers from private security firms were too tempting for many to resist.
"Can you blame people for not wanting to work for a company that has no future?" said Maria Ryglewska, a 22-year veteran of the Bydgoszcz department and head of the local police union. "Based just on the amount of gasoline they have budgeted for us this year, police work here should stop altogether in the fourth quarter."
The lure of private security firms has compounded problems for authorities. Rent-a-cop services are new to the former East Bloc. Private guards were illegal in most countries before 1989.
Police services under communism were centralized, monopolistic and tightly controlled. Not only did the state-run police spy on citizens and chase criminals, but they guarded banks, patrolled factories and even enforced regulations at public pools. That changed rapidly. Capitalism wasted no time in amassing private armies of security guards. In Bulgaria, private guards now outnumber police. In Poland, their forces are of equal strength. In Hungary, there is one private guard for every two police officers.
Many of the firms are headed by former employees of Communist-era secret police forces, some with less than honorable pasts. The firms often pay better than the police departments and provide better equipment and working conditions.
"Some former police officers have sought other activities in private companies where they can earn several times more than they would working for the state," said Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev in a recent television interview. "This has, of course, demoralized those officers who have remained."
Robert Horszczaruk, president of Protector, a Warsaw-based security firm, pays his detectives 2 1/2 times the average police salary in Poland. His lowest-paid employees--who do nothing but stand guard outside buildings--earn typical police wages as a minimum.
Horszczaruk keeps an office on a prestigious central city boulevard and spends $50,000 a year on advertising and promotion. He has no police background. Police work is strictly a business for him.
He boasts that his detectives use "the fastest-focusing camera in the world." Their counterparts on the police force fumble with antiquated equipment. Most of his 100 employees know the difference: Three-quarters of them were once police officers.
"The general state of security in our country is very low, which has helped give me a lot of business," Horszczaruk said. "But I must say, as a citizen, I worry. I don't let my wife go shopping in the center of town without one of my agents."
But in much of Eastern Europe, authorities say private security agents contribute to the crime problem. While most are legitimate, some commit more offenses than they prevent:
* In Bulgaria, Zhelev has blamed rogue firms for scaring off new businesses through intimidation and widespread racketeering.
* Complaints abound in Budapest about crooked security firms that are paid to protect homes and businesses but in fact are nothing more than organized burglary rings that rip off unsuspecting customers.
* Private guards in Prague have beaten soccer fans celebrating a home-team victory. In 1993, they commandeered a municipal building in a real-estate dispute between a businessman and the city. And they have been charged in any number of extortion schemes, some life-threatening.
* Strongmen for a Warsaw-area firm forced restaurant owners to buy its protection services last summer. When one merchant refused, guards beat up a customer--a tourist from France--and threatened others. Police say the firm is run by gangsters.
* A private Polish firm has been so aggressive in pulling over motorists suspected of driving stolen cars that police have alerted residents not to stop unless they see a clearly marked police car. Many private guards wear garb so similar to police uniforms that a police car is the only sure sign of a bona fide cop.
Officials everywhere have been slow to curb the abuses. The Hungarian government began requiring security firms to obtain special licenses only last fall. Polish authorities have mandated licenses for several years, but regulations are so lax that a mere handful of applicants have been rejected. The Czechs are still haggling over new guidelines.
"We are not very happy with the state of affairs," said Jan Rybczynski, an official with the Polish Interior Ministry, which has jurisdiction over the private firms. "To improve the situation, we are going to need new laws."
But legislation of any kind is long in the making in the new democracies of Eastern Europe. Many criminal codes still have not been updated from the Communist era. It is legal for a car thief in Poland to go free, for example, if he claims to have taken the stolen vehicle as a "temporary possession." For now, authorities say, rewriting such laws takes priority over tackling the new problems of private law enforcement.
Wrobel, the police sergeant in Bydgoszcz, understands the frustration. But he is trusting grass-roots democracy to sort things out--with a little prodding from foot soldiers such as himself.
When Wrobel arrives at a crime scene, he first tends to official duties. Next, he apologizes for being late (as he nearly always is) and describes his tortuous commute. Finally, he launches into a brief civics lesson.
"People complain that they pay their taxes and they want the police to be there when they need them," he said. "I explain the only way to change things is to vote for politicians who will fulfill their election promises. You have to listen to what they say and track what they do."
He then politely asks for a ride back to the station.
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Low Pay. . .
Average annual salaries in Poland
(in U.S. dollars)
Private accountant: 20,083 Army general: 11,046 Warsaw taxi driver: 11,046 Private detective: 7,531 Hotel receptionist: 7,029 Auto worker: 4,016 Steelworker: 3,514 Police officer: 3,012 Sales clerk: 3,012 Public school teacher: 2,259 Retiree: 2,008 Public hospital nurse: $1,757 Sources: GUS (Poland's main statistical office), Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper
. . .and High Crime
% Increase in reported crimes, 1989-90 to 1994
Czech Republic and Slovakia: 66%*
* Pooled, based on 1990 figure for Czechoslovakia
Sources: International Criminal Police Organization; BBC Summary of World Broadcasts