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Slovakia: Enlisting Help From Above To Raise Police Morale, Improve Conduct

The image of Slovakia's police force has taken a beating this year from a damaging spate of drunk-driving incidents involving officers. Drunken cops have caused more than 15 crashes -- some of them deadly. That's despite a series of measures introduced by the Interior Ministry earlier this year designed to tackle the problem. Now, for the first time, priests are to be brought into the force under an agreement signed with the Vatican. Officials hope the chaplains will raise morale and have a sobering effect on the country's cops.

Prague, 27 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A story from earlier this month has become all too familiar: Two Slovak police officers, apparently under the influence of alcohol, caused two separate car accidents on the same night.

They were the latest in a series of incidents in which drunken officers have climbed behind the wheel and caused road accidents.

In January, Slovak Interior Minister Ivan Simko unveiled a package of measures designed to tackle the problem. There would be lectures and random breath tests, superiors would be made responsible for the actions of their officers, and errant cops would be sacked immediately.

Yet the accidents keep happening. There have been at least 15 this year alone, leaving six people dead and four injured.

Interior Ministry spokesman Jozef Sitar told RFE/RL there has been at least one improvement since January: The officers causing the accidents were not on duty at the time.

But the public apparently does not share Sitar's optimistic outlook. A survey published this month by the Slovak Statistics Office showed that three out of four Slovaks have no confidence in the police. Other incidents have not helped the officers' image. Police officers have been implicated this year in an armed robbery and in the beating of a group of Roma, to name but two.

Now, the government in Bratislava has unveiled a new weapon to fight the vices sullying the force's image, police chaplains.

Last week, the government signed an agreement with the Vatican's representative in Bratislava that covers chaplains serving in the armed forces and police. A new "military bishop" will oversee their work.

The Slovak armed forces and prisons have had chaplains for six years, but it's a new development for the country's police force. Around 10 police chaplains will serve in total, one in each of the seven regional police divisions, plus two or three more for the police schools and police presidium.

Interior Ministry officials say the chaplains are not being brought in as a direct reaction to the drunk-driving accidents. They say the groundwork was laid two years ago in a separate agreement. But the hope is the chaplains will raise morale and have a sobering influence on the country's cops.

Tibor Ujlacky is a Defense Ministry official who helped draft the Vatican agreement. "We have very well-trained and relatively well-equipped police, but the one thing Slovak police lack is a certain moral standard. [The] idea is that the chaplains will help overcome these shortcomings in some way. Because experience tells us that people in the armed forces are put in tense, crisis situations or in difficult times, in which they have to cope with stress, the responsibilities of their duty, the lack of time for their own families and also fear for their lives. They are able really to get close to these chaplains, [to] find a way to them. They can communicate with them, and in the hardest times, they get close enough that they're then able and willing to accept some guidance from the chaplain. That's why [Interior] Minister Simko is hopeful that the [chaplains] will help get rid of a certain drop in morality or of moral shortcomings," Ujlacky said.

Not everyone is convinced the chaplains will help where earlier efforts have failed. Milan Stanislav is the deputy editor in chief of the daily "Pravda." "Despite these [earlier] measures, policemen are still crashing cars under the influence of alcohol. Introducing these clergy is comparable with those measures from January when they introduced talks on psychology and other things. I think it's the whole system of how they choose future police officers: The rehabilitation must begin at the point that they're selected and [involve] the stabilizing of the police leadership," Stanislav said.

Stanislav said the chaplains might help improve the cops' image. But he said confidence will grow only when people begin to believe the police are enforcing, rather than abusing, the laws.

When the police chaplains finally start work, Slovakia will join company with some 30 other countries that have similar agreements with the Vatican, including the U.S., the U.K., and Poland.

Retired police officer Stuart Nelson is assistant executive director of the International Conference of Police Chaplains, based in Destin, Florida, in the United States. He said chaplains can help officers deal with the pressures that build up in such a stressful job, pressures that can sometimes spill over and lead to problem drinking. "Sometimes it's difficult for policemen to write a parking ticket and their next call might be putting a 7-year-old girl in a body bag who's just been run over and killed by a garbage truck, or going to tell someone that their loved one isn't coming home again," Nelson said.

The Slovak Defense Ministry's Ujlacky said improvement "won't happen overnight," but he's hopeful the chaplains' presence will bear fruit in time. He said other churches in Slovakia are also interested in providing army and police chaplains and are expected to sign a similar agreement with the government soon.