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March 29, 2023

The new police

The `Septimiu Muresan` Police Agents School of Cluj celebrated its first decade of operation with various events. One was more special: holding three projections at the art cinema hall of the town (‘Victoria’) as part of the ‘Days of the police film.’ The special character did not refer to the initiative in itself, but the choice of the three films. Proof of a realistic and even potentially self-critical attitude – an encouraging sign for the reform of the institution.
The three films – already classics of the ‘policier’ genre – speak about the scourge of corruption in the world of police, about discouraging the social reintegration of delinquents, about competitions and envy, sometimes with tragic end, between departments. `Serpico` (directed in 1973 by Sidney Lumet) definitively launches young Al Pacino, playing a nonconformist (and somehow hippy) New York policeman, stubborn in his honesty.

A pariah in a deeply corrupt institution, he is betrayed by his colleagues in a mission (that nearly cost his life) and can only denunciate the scourge with the help of the press. One of the key phrases of the film belongs to Serpico, who says that, if policemen used the same energy against crime as in favour of corruption, the town would become clean.
Here lies the difference between a police in a democratic system and a totalitarian one. In the former case, much energy is needed to conceive and hide corruption, while in the latter it can operate almost formally. An institution that has the power of punishing is inevitably very exposed to corruption, because everybody wants to escape punishment and often only fear from another punishment keeps him from trying to bribe. It is human, too human. But the corruption degree of a system can vary, which can make a decisive difference. The existence of several independent departments (as Serpico demanded in the movie) contributed to a more efficient surveillance of the very ‘supervisors.’ Because corruption scandals have not disappeared last year, even in Cluj.
From an activity report of the County Anticorruption Service for last year, the main police crime was bribe taking, either by members of joint squads (policemen and gendarmes) in charge with public order, or by traffic agents, or even by investigators of criminal cases, to which adds the influence trafficking. Fortunately, the system is far from being generalised as in `Serpico` (it did not exceed several dozens of culprits), although a new chief of the Police County Inspectorate had to be appointed from outside, after his predecessor (targeted by ANI) went on early retirement and some of his former subordinates were probed (the chief of the Traffic Police of Cluj-Napoca or the chief of Dej Police) or demoted (the well-known case of a deputy chief fined in traffic, which harassed the respective policeman). Fortunately, like the New York Times for Serpico, the press plays the unpleasant (sometimes there is the risk of political instrumentation), but beneficial role of denunciating the abuses.
The second American film presented on this occasion was `The French Connection` (directed in 1971 by William Friedkin), a controversial perspective on police violence. It is about combatting crime, not repressing social movements, but anyway the image is that of methods that are as tough as the adversaries. Street accidents, innocent victims of car chases in town, cruel treatment of suspects – everything seems inevitable in this asymmetric war.
A scene reveals the frustrating difference (which exacerbates the repressive violence): two drug traffickers eat delicacies in a fancy restaurant, while the police officers who keep them under surveillance wait outside in the cold, eating pizza or drinking cheap coffee from plastic cups. In today’s Romania, competition for accession to police schools is still high, because they are free and provide safe jobs, a not at all minor social advantage. There are also ways of specialisation that increase the attractiveness of the profession, plus the chance of cooperation on international missions. In the film, the two Narcotics policemen are constrained to collaborate with the loathed FBI agents because the department cannot financially afford a complex operation.
The resources and professionalization are important for the psychological stability of the policeman, to which adds the civil status (the demilitarisation conducted in 2002 was imposed by the European integration), which cultivated a different mentality of intervention (with more autonomy and another perception of the public service) and a different psychology of social integration (the military caste being semi-autonomous).
The ‘proximity police’ appeared (even Serpico was advocating another type of contact with population), shifting the emphasis from repression to mediation (a real challenge, not only professional, but also moral). The conflicts between those associated in this war against crime (in the film a policeman involuntarily kills another) are present, as in the case of Traian Berbeceanu, the ex-chief of the Alba County Brigade against Organised Crime, a star in the field, arrested and investigated in a controversial file, then rehabilitated and even declared as ‘policeman of the year 2013’ by the police trade union. The chief of DIICOT Alba, another prosecutor and a judiciary police office are now probed for misuse of authority.
The third film presented was French (directed by Jose Giovanni in 1973), ‘Two Men in Town,’ a collaboration on screen between Jean Gabin and Alain Delon. The latter is a former robber released from prison, who wants to change his life, helped by the former, an empathic re-educator. But, harassed by a suspicious police inspector, he kills the man out of desperation and will be guillotined. The movie presents a society unwilling to invest in the social reinsertion of former convicts and favours strict repression. The conditions of detention are psychologically discouraging, dialogue is out of question in case of prison revolts, death sentences are pronounced rather easily. France has abolished them late, only in 1981, during the presidential term of Francois Mitterrand, and the film also denounces a practice that had been already abandoned by the other countries of the European Community (Romania banned it after the fall of the communist regime).
Even if the character of the ex-convict is idealised, the problem remains actual. The probation system is among the big judicial challenges after 1990, which implies a real effort of changing public mentalities. Especially in the context of the public perception being rather inclined to blame the political-economic failures on a criminal law that is too lenient, or inefficient in some cases. Of course, the criminal record is not only a sword of Damocles above certain socially vulnerable persons, but also the expression of a justified prudence of judiciary authorities. But a just balance between prudence and moral credit deserves being invested in a probation system that also yielded good results. As a matter of fact, evaluating the institutional reform of a country can also start from the image of its police system.

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