Vienna’s Police: A Thankless Job

Rising crime statistics may reflect society’s disdain for law enforcement

I have nothing but praise for those police in Vienna with whom I have had dealings throughout nearly 30 years of residence here.

The time I ran out of petrol (yes, I know…!!!) on the Tangente (the ring road round Vienna) and just managed to roll outside the tunnel, the patrol who just happened to be passing and stopped to help a borderline hysterical young woman were polite and practical. I received no word of reproach and if they did think “women drivers!” they didn’t say it. They took me to a petrol station to get a can of petrol and back to the car, where they helped me pour it into the tank, wished me well and sped on their way in true knights-in-shining-armour style.

The time I stopped on a street corner to pick up some food for the five tired and hungry children in the back (two were my own), the patrol (this time including a female police officer) who stopped to find five screaming children abandoned in an illegally parked car, were courtesy personified as I hurried up, hot and flustered, heaving two overflowing carrier bags, and started to explain my predicament. They calmly checked my papers, the car and the state of the children (none had actually died from starvation, dehydration or neglect), announced that my road tax disc had expired and suggested I get it renewed, the car away from the corner and the children fed – and all pretty pronto, if I didn’t mind. No, I didn’t get a ticket, no, they didn’t caution me, use abusive or even sarcastic language, but were, instead, sympathetic and considerate.

The time my fairly new flat was burgled, all the police I had dealings with, both at the scene of the crime and subsequently at the police station, were kind, empathetic and sensitive to my distraught state, and although they could not undo the traumatic experience I was going through (nor, subsequently, recover the stolen goods, which were largely family objects), they could at least not exacerbate the situation.

The list could be longer, but these examples of professional service and client orientation will suffice. Yet the reputation of the police force is tainted by scandals (e.g. the Kampusch botch-up, or was it a cover-up) and poor (i.e. rising) crime statistics, and the general attitude towards their members is one of distance, if not suspicion and animosity.

Police officers are rather like teachers – no-one really wants them, but everyone needs them. Just like teachers, our society has devalued this profession until we have reached a level of aloof disdain and non-interest. Which is why the decline in results (similar, again, to those obtained by teachers in apparently producing pupils who can not pass let alone star in PISA tests) should not be surprising.

When the parameters for results are constantly shifted and societal values are undermined, failures are pre-ordained. Of course we need more police out there on the streets; and we especially need more understanding for the work they do. We just may also need a bit more community spirit, however old-fashioned that might seem. We will certainly need to review the remunerations for the police force, in order to attract more applicants, who will need good (or better?) training and equipment.

Interestingly, as the real-life image of the local cop has declined, at the same time the TV image has been enhanced. Surf the Austrian, German and British (BBC Prime) channels any school night and you can not avoid the half dozen cop movies and series with locations ranging from Beverly Hills to Manchester, from Bad Toelz to Kitzbühel. These TV cop heroes combine bravado with chap-next-door ordinariness, brand-name good looks with suspiciously clichéd weaknesses (just love my dog, just want to love my mom) and a propensity for stunning car acrobatics with homely qualities. And they always catch the bad guy!

So how can we bridge the gap between these escapist illusions and the real cops on the beat? Appreciating what they do and talking about it would be a start.

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