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Moonlighting Serbian Police Suspected of Violence and Corruption

Police officers working as nightclub bouncers are accused of beating customers and taking part in protection rackets.

Dragana Peco Novi Sad, Banja Luka and Leuven

Laze Teleckog Street in Novi Sad

Photo: Predrag Uzelac

On March 26 this year, Bosko Sekerovic, a 23-year-old cruise ship sailor, picked up some friends in Serbia's capital Belgrade and drove to the northern city of Novi Sad for a night out.

Sekerovic and his friends headed for Laze Teleckog Street, the heart of an area of nightclubs and bars full of young people drinking and dancing. Serbian traditional and foreign pop music booms out of every doorway.

As Sekerovic and a friend talked in front of a bar at around 2 a.m., a burly man shoved him roughly with his shoulder, knocking him off his feet. Bouncers from various nightclubs then arrived and began beating Sekerovic and his friends.

“Fifteen of them were beating the three of us. I lost consciousness several times,” said Sekerovic, who suffered a broken nose, a broken tooth and a black eye in the beating.

His friend and colleague Jovan Jovicic was also injured. His legs were so badly bruised that he was unable to walk for days afterwards.

“It was pure savagery. One guy holds you while five others beat you,” Jovicic recalled months later, the scene still vivid in his mind. “One of the attackers went to a club and came back soon after with a telescopic baton, like the one the police use.”

Sekerovic and his friends escaped after a young woman working in a bar gave them the key to the toilet. They locked themselves in and waited for the police to come.

But the police were not just their rescuers. At least one police officer moonlighting as a security guard was among the attackers, according to police charges filed on the basis of video evidence.

The young men's terrifying experience highlights a widespread problem in Serbia and other Balkan countries. Young off-duty policemen often work as security guards in nightclubs and bars - sometimes committing acts of violence and taking part in protection rackets with impunity.

Novi Sad's police problems

According to Serbia's 2005 Law on Police, police officers are not allowed to engage in any activity “incompatible” with their official duties. But the law does not state specifically that this includes private security work.

Demand among bar owners for private security guards has been high since the 1990s, when crime rose as Yugoslavia collapsed amid chaos and war. Police officers were ready to supply the manpower as the state - impoverished by the wars, Western sanctions and economic mismanagement - could not afford to pay them well.

“It's unfortunate that anyone can buy a policeman for 20 or 30 euros, get a weapon and a police badge”

- Nenad Ljubisic, Novi Sad police officer.

Today, Serbia remains poor compared to European Union nations and such side jobs can add substantially to a monthly salary of around 400-500 euros for ordinary police officers.

The moonlighting problem is particularly acute in Novi Sad, Serbia's second largest city, where locals say new clubs on the pedestrianized Laze Teleckog Street have attracted a rougher crowd.

According to a mid-ranking criminal police officer in the city, just two years ago there were only one or two serious fights a year on the street.

“Nowadays, there's one a month and local young policemen are involved," he said, noting there were undoubtedly even more incidents that were not reported to the police.

Like other police sources in this story, the officer spoke to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) on condition his name was not used.

On nightclub doors in Laze Teleckog Street, moonlighting policemen and other security guards are indistinguishable from one another. Neither wears uniforms or other identifying symbols.

“Half of the guards in Laze Teleckog Street are policemen - members of the riot police, the gendarmerie and other units,” said a senior officer in the Novi Sad criminal police department.

Security camera footage shows one of those policemen, a muscular 28-year-old, was involved in the attack on Bosko Sekerovic and his friends, according to police investigating the case.

“The video shows 15 people beat them," said the mid-ranking officer. “The policeman didn’t take part in the fight right at the start. He joined in once it got going."

Afterwards, "instead of reporting the case to the police, he was silent," the officer added. "And then, we found the video."

The policeman and four other men have been charged by police with brawling and causing grievous bodily harm to Sekerovic and his friends, according to state prosecutors.

In the interests of fairness, BIRN has not named the policeman, the four other men or other suspects charged by police in this story because prosecutors have not yet endorsed the charges. In the Serbian justice system, prosecutors decide whether there is enough evidence to pursue charges proposed by police and take a case to court.

Gvozden Grgur, a lawyer for the policeman and the four other men, said they were all innocent. He said the policeman had not been at the scene of the brawl and had not been working as a private security guard. Grgur also said he had not seen any video evidence.

Unhappy New Year

While the problem of policemen's double lives is particularly obvious in Novi Sad, it also exists far beyond the city's boundaries.

In the southern Serbian city of Nis, a member of the gendarmerie paramilitary police force, who was working as a security guard at a café, attacked and injured three people without any justification early on January 10 this year, according to local police.

The officer was suspended from his job, has been charged by the police with violent conduct and faces an internal disciplinary procedure, police said in a statement.

The accused policeman could not be reached for comment. Prosecutors have yet to decide whether he will be brought to trial.

In Bosnia, 27-year-old Goran Misic spent last New Year's Eve in hospital after being beaten up in a nightclub called Tamaris in Banja Luka, the capital of the country’s Serb Republic.

Fitness trainer Goran Misic, recovering after a beating in a Banja Luka nightclub

Photo: Nezavisne newspapers, Banja Luka

Misic, a fitness trainer, was standing by some stairs when security guards including a member of a special police unit assaulted him, according to a police investigation.

"I was attacked several times during the night and my neck was broken," Misic recalled in a Banja Luka café.

The Serb Republic's Interior Ministry said three other members of the special police were also present during the attack. They were suspended pending an internal investigation but investigators were unable to prove they had been working illegally as security guards.

In a statement, the ministry said private security work by police officers was "strictly forbidden" but "these kinds of activities are difficult to prove as the owners of bars and restaurants often protect people who are working for them".

The police have charged the alleged attacker with causing grievous bodily harm and the case has been passed to the prosecution service. BIRN was unable to reach the accused policeman for comment on the allegations against him.

No police, no business

The role of many police officers in private security means they are also involved in the murky world of protection rackets.

A former police officer who has investigated the issue in Serbia claimed local police commanders were often implicated. They make initial contact with bar owners as part of their official duties then put pressure on them to employ their officers as private security guards, he said.

If the owners refuse, they can expect police raids and local officers ordering them to turn off their music. Inevitably, business suffers.

"You can't have a nightclub in Novi Sad if you don't engage the police,” declared Svetlana Gajinovic, who says her bar in the city was the target of persistent police harassment at the start of this year.

“They would come almost every weekend and carry out a police raid without a warrant,” she said.

Svetlana Gajinovic, who used to run a Novi Sad nightclub

Photo: Dragana Peco

Sitting in her living room, sometimes pausing mid-conversation to collect her thoughts and calm her anger, Gajinovic said she finally agreed to engage a police officer to provide security.

"He would just sit in the corner having a drink," she said. "He was not the kind of security guard that makes sure everything's in order and there's no trouble."

The officer was present only for a couple of nights before Gajinovic closed down her bar. She did not even have the 30 euros she was meant to pay him.

Even police officers who may just want to earn some extra cash end up in a milieu full of people who should be their enemies.

“The problem is that policemen and criminals are on the same side because 90 percent of the security guards in nightclubs have a criminal background,” said Nenad Ljubisic, a Novi Sad police officer who heads a professional association promoting high police standards.

The Novi Sad police department declined requests for an interview or a written statement in response to the allegations against its officers contained in this story.

Cops, cash and guns

Moonlighting police officers can earn anywhere from 10 to 50 euros per night, according to police sources. Over the course of a month, they can get as much from private security work as they earn from their police salaries, creating obvious conflicts of interest.

Often these officers are tough, physically fit young men who work for units that are called upon to deal with dangerous and violent situations.

For the owners of bars and clubs, employing them offers significant advantages. They have inside knowledge of police investigations and can help get round local regulations, such as rules on closing times. They are also legally allowed to carry a weapon, even off duty.

“It's unfortunate that anyone can buy a policeman for 20 or 30 euros, get a weapon and a police badge,” Ljubisic said.

Ironically, having so many armed off-duty police officers in one place can be a recipe for insecurity.

One October night last year, Miodrag Ristic, an off-duty riot police officer in his early 30s, accidentally shot dead his friend and police colleague Aleksandar Simic in front of Novi Sad's Tapas Bar, where Simic was working as a private security guard.

“Man, I killed you,” Ristic yelled, hitting a wall with his hands in distress after the shooting, according to witness statements gathered by the police. He tried to shoot himself but was prevented by people nearby.

In April this year, a court convicted Ristic of murder and sentenced him to nine years in prison but a higher court has since ordered a retrial.

Tight grip on muscle in Brussels

Belgium's 1990 law regulating private security is widely seen as among the toughest in Europe and could be a model for Serbia and other Balkan countries if they want to clean up the sector.

"We made it very clear that a company of private security could not hire an active police officer," said Lodewijk De Witte, the governor of Flemish Brabant province who worked on the law as a senior official in the Belgian Interior Ministry.

The Belgian approach seeks to minimise the risks of any conflict of interest. Under the law, police officers are forbidden from working in private security for five years after they leave the force. De Witte said this was particularly important because the police had to enforce the law on all sections of society, including private security companies.

"That's why we wanted a strict separation between both of those institutions," he said.

"If we didn't regulate that, without any doubt, companies of private security would try to hire police officers and... say 'well, if you come to work with us, you can start next month and we'll pay you better than you are paid in the police'."

Tina Weber, a British researcher who carried out a 2002 study on the regulation of private security across the European Union, said the Belgian law strongly emphasised "the protection of citizens from any abuse of power by private security providers and guards themselves".

"Belgium also has the most restrictive requirements prohibiting prior criminal record and requiring certification of ‘good character’," Weber said via email. "Strict regulations are in place regarding the initial and ongoing training of guards and the carrying of weapons."

Blue wall of silence

Even though it is widely known that their colleagues moonlight as security guards, police officers complain they face many obstacles in trying to tackle the problem.

If policemen are spotted in clubs, they always say they are just having a drink like any other customer.

Their colleagues also help them conceal their side jobs. Officers who patrol the streets will not reveal the names of those doing security work in nightclubs.

“Instead of helping us, they conceal the perpetrators and obstruct our work," said the mid-ranking police officer in Novi Sad, shrugging his shoulders to convey his powerlessness.

The practice of not informing on a police colleague's illegal activities is sometimes known as the ‘blue wall of silence’.

It is not the only wall of silence around the issue. BIRN requested interviews with more than 10 bar owners on Novi Sad's Laze Teleckog Street about police officers working as security guards. All declined, even when assured their identities would not be revealed.

Other security guards are silent too, refusing to tell police if their fellow officers are working on the doors of clubs and have committed any offenses.

But the ex-police officer who investigated the issue said the main barrier to convicting former colleagues who beat people while working as security guards was the victims' fear. In many cases, victims would readily tell him their whole story but balk at going to court.

“Before they face their attackers (in court), anyone can contact the victims to influence or threaten them,” he said. “When someone considers that they have to come face to face with a policeman who beat them, they're afraid to go to court. That's how it is in 99 percent of cases."

Salaries and skills

The former officer believes the only way to bring rogue officers to justice is to mount serious long-term investigations using wiretaps and undercover video surveillance.

But, he said, the police's internal affairs department was more interested in meeting targets by resolving many simple complaints than spending time on a single lengthy in-depth investigation.

Police moonlighting contributes to a much broader mistrust among citizens in a force that is meant to protect them. In 2013, the proportion of Serbian citizens who trust the police stood at 31 percent, according to a survey for the European security body OSCE.

By contrast, polling in 2010 found 64 percent of European Union citizens trust the police.

Some experts believe one way to tackle moonlighting and corruption is to pay police officers more so they are less tempted by extra work.

"The government should pay a reasonable salary... A reasonable salary is one of the most important tools to prevent corruption," said Odd Berner Malme, a former senior police officer in Norway who worked as an OSCE adviser to Serbia on police reform.

Aleksandar Fatic, an expert in ethics in public life, suggested banning police officers from carrying guns when they are off duty would help address the problem.

Fatic and other experts also questioned the training of police recruits, suggesting it was not rigorous enough in enforcing ethics and discipline.

Last year, a photograph surfaced of police cadets lounging on the steps of a training centre, pointing guns at the camera in an arrogant pose reminiscent of local gangsters.

Serbian police cadets in a photo posted on social media

For years, officials have said they would explicitly ban police officers from private security work by issuing regulations linked to the 2005 Law on Police.

Now, however, they say the government will pass a new Law on Internal Affairs that will include a section specifying the jobs that police are not allowed to undertake.

"In my opinion, this is better than passing regulations to deal with this because the law is the law, completely emphatic, no room for different interpretations," said Milorad Todorovic, a top official in the Serbian Interior Ministry. He said the government would try to pass the law by the end of the year.

Experts suggested police officers should also be banned from working in private security for a specific period after leaving the force. At the moment, police officers often quit then promptly set up security firms and recruit colleagues still in uniform to work for them.

"In many other countries this problem is resolved in a drastic way - for example in Belgium, where they don't have the right to work in private security for five years," noted Dusan Davidovic, an analyst at the Institute for Criminological and Sociological Research, a Belgrade-based think tank.

Although the problem is widely acknowledged, no Serbian policeman has been penalised for moonlighting in the security business, a former chief of the police’s internal control department told a conference earlier this year.

Zlatko Nikolic, a widely respected criminologist based in Belgrade, said it was time for the authorities to get serious about tackling the issue. Low public sector salaries were no excuse for police officers taking other jobs, he said.

"This is tolerated because these poor people don't get paid much," he said. "But then what should doctors do? And should government ministers work as bar managers?"

 

Dragana Peco is an investigative reporter at the Centre for Investigative Journalism of Serbia and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. 

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