Litigating Police Raids Strategically: Code-100 in Slovakia
08 July 2015
“There can be two types of racism in the police. The first type relates to the attitudes, behaviours and beliefs of police officers. The second type is inherent to rules and regulations which are applied by the police and is commonly defined as institutional racism. […] Institutional racism does not mean that all officers working in the institution have racist behaviour, but that racism lies in the procedures and culture of the institution.”1
In early morning hours of 2 April 2015, a Roma settlement in Vrbnica (East Slovakia) was raided by police forces, who entered the homes of people living there, used excessive force and verbally abused them. In spite of the fact that nobody offered resistance, many people were injured during the incident. Some of the victims described the brutality of the action: “They put pistols to our heads, I had to hide my children under the bed," said one of them. "They took us out into a field and told us they were going to shoot all the Gypsies," another victim reported.
In the last few years, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) has monitored several incidents of police harassment against Roma in Slovakia, and the Vrbnica raid is a copy-paste of earlier actions.
The Vrbnica police action most resembles the raid which took place in Moldava nad Bodvou two years ago; and we at ERRC have invested a lot of resources in the follow-up. The ERRC’s traditional approach has been to support the victims of these incidents in the criminal proceedings against the police. In the past, pursuing criminal complaints against the police yielded results, such as the judgment in Nachova and others v Bulgaria. But that judgment was ten years ago, and Roma in Slovakia and elsewhere are rightfully wondering what such an approach can do for them now. In 2012, police commandos raided three villages in the District of Kežmarok: Stráne pod Tatrami, Huncovce and Podhorany, physically and verbally abusing Roma living there including minors and persons with disabilities. Years have passed since those incidents took place, yet still none of them have reached the trial stage. Not a single charge has been brought against the perpetrators.
The victims could probably quite easily win a new Nachova-type case, but what difference would that make?
Or a new approach?
All the police actions mentioned above including the one in Vrbnica were carried out within the so-called “Code-Action 100”. It is a code name for a series of police actions aimed at searching for people escaping justice, or items obtained by criminal means or used for perpetrating criminal acts. According to statements made by the Košice Regional Police Chief, Vrbnica was one of 46 ‘problematic’ localities in which the Code-Action, involving 139 police officers, took place during the Easter holidays in 2015.
Is Code-Action 100 code for anti-Roma raids? After the ERRC learned about the raid from the media, we asked the police in what localities the Code-Action 100 had been carried out. The Police Presidium response was that they do not record the locations in which such actions are carried out. This is suspicious to say the least; Košice Regional Police Chief Juraj Leško said at the time that: "The action was deliberately carried out in this period because we know that people return home for holidays. Especially those who permanently reside abroad and a search may have been ordered to find them. During this region-wide action totally 46 problematic sites were searched according to information that some people against whom arrest warrants have been issued might stay there.” How can you count the number of places where the actions took place if you have no records on them? In my last blog, I have elaborated on the ongoing investigation of the raid in Moldava nad Bodvou. The harassment of the community started with the raid (and Code-Action 100). However, it has not stopped – it continues during the lengthy investigation and the re-victimization by investigators.
Moldava nad Bodvou has been the last straw for us. Criminal law in Slovakia does not work as an efficient tool to combat police harassment against Roma. It is most effective in exposing institutional racism within those agencies responsible for investigating police violence, but cannot be effectively used to target institutional racism within the police itself.
What is the strategic solution? Based on our own methods of strategic litigation, we need to identify first the discriminatory structure we are attacking. It is institutional racism within the police, expressing itself in violent raids under what appears to be a discriminatory operation code. The behaviour change we want is within the police: to end a culture of violence against Roma carried out with impunity. The judgment we want needs to point to that culture clearly, not just in an individual case but more generally, and by way of remedy to order a change in policing culture (through training and better oversight).
The kind of complaint here will be somewhere in the upper portion of our strategic litigation plane, midway between left and right: a civil action against the police for discrimination. In civil proceedings, victims are not dependent on the investigating police officer to collect evidence and thus they have a stronger role. Indeed ‘victims’ are not victims at all but plaintiffs, proactively challenging the racist conduct of police in terms that they formulate. Proceedings are led by the court which is a big difference compared to initial stage of criminal proceedings in which police officers (from the inspectorate) investigate police officers (alleged perpetrators). However, most importantly, civil proceedings can result in finding of discrimination, using a much easier burden of proof.
In proceedings conducted according to civil and anti-discrimination law one can (unlike under criminal law) point out and prove existing institutional racism and harassment. If they are proved successfully and found by court, the decision can have effect not only on parties to the proceedings but also huge impact on others finding themselves in similar situation. Moreover, considerable compensation awarded by the court has a significant deterrent effect. Racial minorities in the United States and Great Britain regularly take these kinds of cases; they are less common in the countries where we work, but can be just as effective.
Tackling institutional racism in the police is a long-distance run. However, it is important to learn lessons and adjust a strategy that’s no longer working. The ERRC is done using one bad cop to police another. The problem is not any one individual raid but rather a culture of harassment, and there is a better way to attack it. Watch this space to see how we get on!
- See Tackling racism in the police, Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, 10 January 2014, p. 6, available at: http://www.assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-DocDetails-EN.asp?FileID=20325&Lang=EN