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Czech town's "zero tolerance" policy generates police abuse

1.9.2015 1:12
The corridor of the apartment at the Janov housing estate after a gas explosion in 2015. (PHOTO:  voj)
The corridor of the apartment at the Janov housing estate after a gas explosion in 2015. (PHOTO: voj)

A reporter for news server Romea.cz is mapping the current situation at the Janov housing estate in the town of Litvínov. The estate is an excluded locality that experienced one of the first big anti-Romani actions organized in the Czech Republic by right-wing extremists seven years ago.  

Recently a petition was signed by "decent residents" of the estate who alleged they were being "terrorized" by local Romani people and anticipated that new demonstrations and protests would be the inevitable result. In order to illustrate the atmosphere in this dismal place - which for the time being apparently has no great hope of change - we will tell the stories of several local residents.

These are people who have encountered groundless aggression, both from their neighbors and from police officers. They are people who frequently feel themselves to be second-class citizens without rights when it comes to their relations with authorities and the police.

On our way to the first household where we had arranged an interview we passed by the ruins of what used to be a playground - against the background of the prefabricated apartment blocks it gave the impression of having been abandoned, with a layer of dust and rubble covering the slides and swings and the dug-up ground around them making it look like the set of a decadent film. In contrast to the deep-seated notion of the housing estate as a place of unimaginable disorder and noise, what instead prevailed was a rather unpleasant silence, with clusters of female neighbors here and there debating each other over their prams.

Zero tolerance

Since 2008, as part of a "zero tolerance" program, there has been a ban at Janov on sitting on curbs, railings or staircases, for example, and its enforcement by some police units in the past has been pedantically consistent. The current Mayor of Litvínov Kamila Bláhová is clear that the ordinance is justified.  

She replies to our query about it with an all but tautological consistency:  "I am of the opinion that the ordinance makes sense in Litvínov, and that is why it was adopted." Social worker Ondřej Kocur, who is accompanying us around the housing estate, confirms that it has a depressing atmosphere:  "There is no playground here, no recreational club, and the locals are not much tempted to walk to the nearby park."  

Our view of the estate's shabby buildings, which are distinguished from one another by different letters for different "blocks", is no fun either. One is insistently reminded of the association of such block markings with their historical use in the camps.

How to not give up

Ondřej Kocur is a person who deserves attention and is an important figure for many occupants of the housing estate, as he gives them the strength not to give up. As a social worker in the field for the Společný život ("Common Life") organization, he provides the inhabitants of Janov with counseling services in the field.

As we walk through the housing estate, Kocur describes to us in detail the kinds of problems its occupants are grappling with; his words reveal frustration at the futility and hopelessness of efforts that, for several years now, have been developed in the hope that the usual vicious circle of isolation, poor social conditions, segregation and stereotypes can one day be broken. According to the people we speak with at Janov, he is the right man in the right place.  

We were able to see for ourselves the clear, dignified, sensitive way Kocur manages to speak with people who usually reap either disdain, open resentment, or poorly-concealed distrust in their contact with authorities. It is obvious that his approach guarantees their full attention.

At the same time, Kocur has all of the legal knowledge these people need "in his little finger", which is useful for cases in which the uninformed frequently grope about as if blind and are, therefore, even more vulnerable to any eventual tardiness on the part of those responsible for handling their problems. In a place where any such support is tangibly lacking, Kocur is indeed needed and useful.  

Police collecting fines with submachine guns

We hear from all sides that life at Janov is not easy. Both the non-Romani and Romani residents there agree on that point.  

Janov is a socially excluded locality with everything that entails: High unemployment, the lack of any clear program for change or vision, tense relations between neighbors, and the "zero tolerance" program. Politicians take little interest in working on a vision for the housing estate that would lead the situation away from the dead point at which it has settled, compensating for their own lack of interest by encouraging the increased interest of police officers in the locality.    

Given the loan-sharking and petty property crimes that occur there, there is nothing so incomprehensible about that. The problem, of course, is that many housing estate residents share the experience that not all of the officers working there aim to protect the law and uphold order.

"This is not about the Janov police officers. We basically know them all. They behave decently towards us," says a resident named Mr V., who witnessed an incident, described at the end of this article, in which officers slapped a Romani youth around for no reason.

"They were police officers from Ústí," he claims. The Janov residents with whom we spoke primarily criticized officers from the Special Order Units of Ústí nad Labem in particular, as well as the work of the Municipal Police.

"I don't have a problem with our Janov officers. Once, though, it was terribly hot, I wasn't feeling well, and I had to lean against a low wall near the garbage cans. Suddenly a police car drove up, but not with Janov cops, they were municipal ones. One of the cops poked his head out of the window and said he would fine me CZK 500 for sitting there. When I told him I didn't feel well and I would not be paying any such fine, he asked if he should get out of the car so I could see what that would be like. I told him sure, I wasn't afraid of him. He got out and wrote me a ticket, but I went to the mayor to complain that this is not normal. The Municipal Police Chief, Mr Urban, was there and they agreed with me. Ultimately I did not have to pay the fine," Ms. K, a Romani inhabitant of Janov, describes her experience.

According to information from a representative of the leader of the Janov Police Department, Michal Schlauch, officers from the Special Order Units of Ústí nad Labem travel to Janov to back up police there because of the above-mentioned petition "from the decent residents of the Janov housing estate against the Gypsy minority". He explains that "Officers from the Special Order Units are here once a month and they are a completely different authority than we are. If they need it, we provide them with office space, but they have their own system and the Janov officers can't access it."

Many local witnesses said they had seen armed Ústí officers enforcing the collection of fines. They said the weapons looked like submachine guns.      

The town council sleeps

The town itself arranges for five social services workers to perform field work directly at Janov through an off-site workplace. According to the manager of the Litvínov Department of Education and Social Services, Ms Knoblochová, when needed these staffers can be found either in the field or in their office.    

However, when we ask several locals about this, it seems that in practice the burden of serving the more than 5 000 residents of the housing estate is essentially falling solely on Mr Kocur - none of the people we spoke with could recall having seen anyone else "in the field". He was said to address both minor and more serious difficulties on a daily basis.

We also asked the employees of the off-site workplace what their practice in the field was like and what they made of the claim that they are not "visible" to locals. However, even after three phone calls, they were unable to provide us with a specific statement - ultimately they sent us an SMS text message that read as follows:  "Currently we are on our regularly scheduled vacation. Given this circumstance, please contact us with your questions once we have returned."

Is this typical? In any event, it could confirm the feelings of those who say it is not easy to encounter these social workers in the "field".

The explosion

We next approach a building at Janov where an explosion recently occurred. On the top floor we see the blackened brickwork resulting from the fire.

We have agreed to meet Ms Č here, a lady from a family whom Kocur regularly visits. She was one of two main actors in a long-term dispute between neighbors, with the other party being a Ms V.H., a "non-Romani" lady who occupied the top floor of the building where the explosion happened.  

The case has been reported on predominantly by regional media outlets, who have mainly discussed the damage caused and described the "moments full of horror" that tenants experienced after the explosion:  While the Mostecký deník referred to "more nights full of horror", the Severočeský deník painted a picture of a "housing estate of horrors" that had "lived through yet another crazy night". The tabloid news server ahaonline did not hesitate to report that the incident involved "a fight with inadaptable tenants who were destroying the building."  

The circumstances of how the fire arose are still being investigated by police. For now we can at least put together an approximate picture of what preceded the event.

"Black fucker" and bleach in the elevator 

Ms Č begins describing the events on the night of the explosion, and despite her apparent effort to tell us her story calmly and comprehensively, her voice breaks excitedly every once in a while. "I moved here in April, and in the beginning everything seemed really good. However, I heard that one of the neighbors, Ms. V.H., was afraid we would not be 'decent' enough, that we wouldn't pay our rent, etc. Rumors began to spread about her, that she was aggressive, that she had a drug problem, and that her son sometimes visited Romani households hoping to be fed. It didn't take long before all hell broke loose:  She accused us of having broken the toilets, she left a light bulb in front of our door that we had allegedly broken, and she poured bleach all over the elevator in the building so we would 'get a proper wash', etc. Moreover, the entire time she also subjected us to vulgar curses:  She shouted at us that we are 'black mugs' and even snapped at my seven-year-old son that he is, forgive me, a 'black fucker'," says Ms Č, as a female neighbor and her relatives angrily join in with their own testimony.        

"When things didn't improve, I went to talk with her, and I asked her not to bang on our door anymore because she was scaring my daughter," Ms Č continues, "but she just shouted at me 'You Gypsy, you fucker!' We couldn't use the elevator because of the bleach, the children were afraid of her, it was unbearable. Ultimately I went to the police to file a criminal report."  

According to Ms Č, the Janov Police would not accept her criminal report, not then and not the following three times she attempted to file it. Allegedly they told her to talk "to the city" and warned her that she would have to pay a fee of CZK 800 just to file it.

"That's absurd, of course," Mr Kocur says, and tells his clients, from the bottom of his heart:  "It is not possible for the police to dismiss you like that. On the contrary, they are obliged to receive a criminal report under almost any conditions, so remember that next time. If you have a problem, or if you're not sure what to do, call me. In any event, you must not forget that it is always necessary to keep your emotions in check. Don't be angry, try to stay calm whatever happens. You all have children!" he ends his appeal to the little group, for whom it is apparent that this reminder of past events is causing the blood to rush to their heads.  

A decent majority?

Apartment Block F2 is administered by the Krušnohor apartment cooperative - the very one whose director, František Ryba, became a co-initiator of the petition against the allegedly "inadaptable minority" at Janov at the beginning of this year. According to data reported by Czech Television at that time, Krušnohor owns a total of 18 prefabricated buildings at Janov, while the other apartments are either administered or owned by the real estate juggernaut "CPI byty".  

These real estate companies, which "are moving people from all over the country to the housing estate", are, according to Ryba, one of the reasons why tensions are arising there; and while back in March he was talking about "desperate longtime residents" (not further identified) who were being prevented from beautifying the housing estate by this "tide" of newcomers, today he points directly to the ethnic aspect of the matter. "The real estate agencies are buying up apartments at Janov and moving Gypsies from all over the Czech Republic into them. Our petition is warning that a decent majority lives here who are being universally terrorized by this inadpatable minority and the state must do something about it. The laws must apply to everyone the same," he says.    

It is difficult to say what the terms "majority" and "minority" mean to Mr Ryba, given that Romani people comprise approximately 80 % of the housing estate's residents. We also asked him to comment on the explosion in Sadová Street, but all we were able to learn from him is that "allegedly there was a gas explosion and it's all still being investigated."

Who is to blame?

Was that explosion the culmination of a series of provocations by a neighbor whose case was neglected by local police, or are these events completely unrelated? We attempted to reach Ms V.H. directly by telephone, and while she did answer our call, she briefly rejected us and hung up once she determined we were journalists.  

As we are leaving Ms Č's family, we encounter other neighbors, such as Mr J.P., his common-law wife and their little daughter, who are among the "non-Romani" residents of the housing estate. They agree to an interview, so we go to their apartment and continue to map the relationships between neighbors in the building.

Mr P.'s family had also noted the escalating disputes between their non-Romani and Romani neighbors; his common-law wife confirms that bleach was poured in the elevator, that racist abuse was heard, and that Ms V.H. has the reputation of being a drug addict. Moreover, they point out that in the moments just after the explosion, when residents spontaneously gathered around the intervening firefighters, it was obvious to see that all four burners on the stove had been turned up high and all of the doors and windows had been closed.

Whatever the investigation of these impressions and information ultimately confirms or refutes, what is certain is that the tensions that have accumulated among the occupants of that building had been perceptible for at least several months before the explosion. To what degree the final development of those events was the result of the systematic neglect of the problems in the building by the institutions called upon to address them remains an open question that will most probably go unanswered, just like many others that are easily swept under the carpet in the marginalized environment of a ghetto.  

What's more, another family Mr Kocur brings us to has had quite a fresh experience of such problems being swept under the carpet. We meet M.K., a 17-year-old student at a secondary vocational school.  

On 15 March of this year she was standing together with two friends her same age in front of the building where she lives when a police patrol of the Special Order Units from Ústí nad Labem drove up and asked them all to identify themselves. M.K.'s identification was at home, just a few meters away, but she says that when she proposed going to fetch it, she was not only told not to do so, she was threatened with "leaving in handcuffs" if she didn't do as she was told.    

Before her friends could run upstairs for her mother, M.K. had been taken away by the officers. "On the way to the station the cops kept on asking again and again what my name was, demanding urgently that I tell them my name. I told them that I had just told them my name!" the girl relates.  

"At the station they sat me down and told me to take off my coat because I was going to be there a long time. They give me paper and pencil so I could write my name down, but the member of the force who was typing it into their system kept misspelling it. When they finally succeeded, my photo turned up in their database, the same one I have on my id. Despite that, one of them obstinately claimed it wasn't me," she says.

During a long wait that ultimately extended to three hours, the three officers, according to the young girl's testimony, amused themselves by addressing each other with uncalled-for allusions and vulgarities - at one moment, for example, one of them performed obscene motions. M.K., sitting there forlornly, was not permitted by the officers to telephone her mother.  

The officers ultimately called her mother themselves at around 11:30 PM, by which time, her mother tells us, she was beside herself with fear. When Ms K vigorously demanded that the police at least drive her daughter back home, the officers just laughed at her.  

"When I made it to the station, we argued," Ms K. describes her interaction with the officers. "I yelled at them and asked them how they dared take my girl away and leave me without any news of her for almost three hours. I asked them for their badge numbers, but they laughed at me again, saying it was all written up in the protocol and that I couldn't file a complaint against them because they are from Ústí."  

We can't tell you

Ms K ultimately did file a complaint, with Mr Kocur's aid, but the response they received paints a completely different picture of the incident. The police claim, among other things, that the detained M.K. did not tell them that she lived in the building in front of which they had asked for her identification.  

Police justify the fact that M.K. spent such a long time at the station by claiming, on the one hand, that she had been incapable of spelling her own name, whether verbally or in writing ("Understandably, she's a Romani girl, so she's automatically half-illiterate," commented the mother ironically during our visit) and by claiming, on the other hand, that "the young lady first refused to tell us her telephone number, but after we found all her data and verified that she was not a wanted suspect, she told us her mother's telephone number." News server Romea.cz then asked Jana Slámová, press spokesperson for the Regional Police Directorate, how the police explain the differences between their claims and those of M.K., specifically, how their argument that the girl was incapable of writing her own name jibes with the fact that she is a high school student, and she responded that "per Act No. 101/2000, Coll. on the protection of personal information, the Police of the Czech Republic cannot communicate any information about specific persons."  

Mayor of Litvínov Kamila Bláhová believes all is as it should be. "I believe all officers proceed professionally irrespective of the locality they are working in. We have no indications that there has been any police bullying," she told news server Romea.cz.  

Hands out of your pockets! Or the police will slap you

Mr. V. told us about another such incident. "I was coming home from visiting my mother and I saw a group of young boys, they might have been 15, 16 years old. Three municipal cops had just passed by them. The cops called them over and one, who is a sound young guy, told them he needed to see their identification. One of the boys said he didn't have it with him, and as he said that he put his hand in his pocket. There was an arrogant cop there, and he said to that kid:  'Take your hands out of your pockets!' The boy took his hand out of his pocket, but it was terribly cold outside, so he put his hand back in his pocket again, and the officer slapped his face, just out of nowhere. I turned around and asked what he had done to deserve a slap, but his colleagues immediately silenced me and told me not to get involved. I asked again, though, and the cop says:  'He didn't obey an order.' So I said 'Aha, is he in the Army?' They said:  'Keep going on your way or you'll have a problem too.' So I told them I wasn't going to leave. I automatically called Mr Kocur," Mr V. described.  

The investigation of this case, too, has been suspended. Why?

Mr V said there were three officers present, but police say only a two-member patrol was in the field that day. What's more, the boy concerned is momentarily in England, and Kocur says no one knows when he might return so the case can be reopened.  

"I believe he's afraid," Kocur concludes. This last case, of course, may not seem like much.

What's one slap? It might not seem like much - until we ask whether it is normal for a police officer to slap a child's face on the street.  

Is it normal that a certain group of people should have to anticipate such a situation - perhaps because they are impoverished, have darker skin, and live in a ghetto? Is it normal for some police officers to enjoy such petty bullying of the public?  

In principle, it's all the same whether the officers are waving submachine guns around or "just" slapping people on the street. None of this is normal in the least.

Adéla Gálová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Discrimination, Housing, Janov, Nulová tolerance v Janově, Policie, Šikana, vyloučená lokalita



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