A prominent Serbian NGO claims that the integrity of the police in Serbia has been weakened by the insufficiently active fight against corruption and by politicization. Interior Ministry officials find that remark unfounded and point to upcoming improvements of regulations. Strengthening police integrity is one of the key tasks facing Serbia on the road to the EU, and police reform, according to experts, is the key to the success of Serbia’s plan to harmonize with EU regulations and standards in Chapter 24 – Justice, Freedom and Security. Serbia opened that chapter in the accession negotiations with the EU this past July.
The European Commission’s annual report on Serbia’s progress in European integration, unveiled on Nov. 9, read that Serbia had made some progress in police reform.
Serbia, which is mostly reprimanded for poor human resource management in the services, lax control and oversight of police work and politicization of the service, in January this year got a new Law on Police. The law envisages the reorganization of the Interior Ministry, career advancement in the sector and strengthening of the Sector of Internal Control.
The new law gives the Sector of Internal Control much greater authority, and also envisages “integrity tests” and the storing of Ministry heads’ property lists, with the option of checking other employees, too. That ought to considerably increase the level of control and access to data on an employee’s property for the sake of combating corruption.
Debate on the Number of Reports against Police Officers
The Belgrade Center for Security Policy, which is monitoring Serbia’s activities in the talks on Chapter 24, in mid-December said that the Sector of Internal Control annually pressed, on average, just around 130 criminal charges against police officers for corruption.
“The number of charges is small and does not fit the high perception of corruption within the police, because only three percent of the population believes there are no corrupt police officers. Another problem is the fact that the court epilogue of the charges pressed against police officers is unknown,” said Center researcher Saša Djordjević.
The Center on Dec. 13 presented the results of research showing that these phenomena, as well as politicization of the police, result in weakened police integrity in Serbia.
The Interior Ministry in its response to these claims underscored that the Belgrade Center for Security Policy had used only the data on charges pressed by the Sector of Internal Control, rather than those pressed by other Ministry services.
According to Interior Ministry data, the Sector of Internal Control in January-October this year pressed 147 criminal charges, 168 last year, against police members, whereas other organizational units of the Ministry in 2015 pressed 587 charges against police officers for various criminal offenses.
The Ministry failed to specify what criminal offenses the charges had been pressed for, but stressed that it was approaching the fight against corruption seriously.
“We have seriously approached the fight against corruption and are one of the rare countries in which 20 or 30 members of the police are arrested in a single day for corruption offenses,” stated the Ministry.
The statement further reads that of the 10 countries in the region, only the Anti-Corruption General Directorate of the Romanian Ministry of Interior and the Serbian Ministry’s Sector of Internal Control press criminal charges for illegal activities by police officers.
Problem of Political Influence
The Ministry said that by connecting the perception of corruption to the number of criminal charges pressed, the Belgrade Center for Security Policy demonstrated “a highly unprofessional approach to this research” and presented unsubstantiated claims of police politicization.
“The Belgrade Center for Security Policy continues to present unsubstantiated claims of police politicization, deliberately forgetting that the new Law on Police, passed early this year, reduced the minister’s authority relative to a past period. They probably believe that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth,” reads the statement.
Presenting the report titled Integrity Testing in Serbian Police, the Center representatives unveiled the finding that 75 percent of the population believed politics greatly influenced the work of the police.
Djordjević said that politicians “present information on ongoing investigations in a media attractive way,” and that the practice had been implemented since the elections of Oct. 5, 2000, which marked the end of the Milošević regime.
“The citizens, non-governmental organizations, but also EU institutions see that, hence the European Commission in its latest report called on the Serbian government and Interior Ministry to carry out measures ensuring operative independence of the police,” said Djordjević.
He added that the case of the nighttime demolition of structures in Belgrade’s Savamala quarter “revealed systemic problems in the police, as well as that some police officers are not immune to crime and politics.”
Masked individuals during the election night between April 24 and 25 demolished several structures in the quarter, near the construction site of the Belgrade Waterfront apartment and office complex. In the process, the individuals also tied up and took away phones from the citizens who had been at the site of the demolition, while police failed to respond to citizens’ calls in a timely manner.
A Lack of Dialogue
Responding to the Ministry’s response to their research, the Belgrade Center for Security Policy urged the Ministry to continue its dialogue with civic associations on systemic responses to corruption risks within the police, but added that it did not befit the Interior Ministry as an institution that should work in the interests of the citizens to release statements resembling those by political parties.
The Belgrade Center for Security Policy voiced regret that the Interior Ministry had not, in the previous period, answered the organization’s invitations for a talk on its research and on problems in the police.
The NGO welcomed the data unveiled by the Ministry now and called on it to publicize other concrete data for the period as of 2005, including for what criminal offenses charges had been pressed against members of the police.