Crunch time for the police

As optimists have been noting amid the international gloom, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. This has been said with regard to the economic crisis but it is just as apt for the microcosm of Greece, where we can only hope that the seemingly endless run of disasters will lead, eventually, to someone doing the right thing, i.e. getting off their backside and making the tough decisions needed to get the country moving forward. Pessimists, however, will note that our politicians have an almost perfect record of making the wrong choices when they make any decision at all. The country has been left to the forces of inertia, drifting like a leaf along the great currents of history and global developments. But the woes of our police force in the last 12 months alone show just how dangerous it is when complicated state mechanisms and agencies are left to their own devices, when no one is really in charge of making things work. This space has continually noted the dire consequences of neglect, whether this concerns the breakdown of law and order in central Athens (because immigrants have been left to fend for themselves) or the country’s farmers, who have been turned into wards of a state that was once generous, but will soon have no more funds to keep them wasting time and money in the way to which they are accustomed. But the case of the police is even more pronounced – and alarming. These are not just any members of society: They are entrusted with ensuring the smooth and safe functioning of society – and that is why they are armed. When they do not do their job, not only do they allow the criminals to run free, but they themselves, being armed, become a danger. True to form, our political leaders and senior officers have allowed the force to succumb to all the ills that plague the rest of our society. One can argue that it is good that police officers are not set apart the way the officer caste in authoritarian states usually is (with better pay, separate living conditions and so on). But the lack of training and motivation, along with the lack of discipline and accountability result in a force that cannot be expected to deal with the times’ increasing challenges. As the rise of organized crime has shown, criminals grow stronger and become more daring in direct proportion to the lack of effective police work. Much of the organized crime can be blamed on rackets formed by immigrant groups who found rich pickings here, but Greek racketeers have been increasingly emboldened by police weakness. Even the most highly publicized success of our security forces – the cracking of the November 17 terrorist gang in 2003 and the hosting of a safe Olympiad in 2004 – now appears to have been a matter of luck, foreign police help and the fortunate coincidence of political and police leadership that was determined to get things done. Since then, the political will to use the apparatus that was in place for the Olympics has weakened; well-trained professionals have been transferred to posts where their specialization is unnecessary; the force has been allowed to muddle on as if the modern world was not full of dangers that demand police work that is better than ever. The youngsters who are now trying to pick up November 17’s baton are emboldened by the evident disarray in the police. Now the government is promising to enforce stricter controls over officers’ behavior, introducing psychiatric testing and so on. The problem, though, is that police work at the most basic level (that of foot patrols in neighborhoods) has been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that it will take a long time for people to feel confidence that the police can be effective in policing the country – and themselves.