Police in foreign countries – really trustworthy?
What are the challenges when dealing with local police during a business trip or as expat? This report provides answers based on practical experience.
"That is prohibited here," says the customs officer at Port Harcourt Airport (Nigeria), pointing to the spray of mosquito repellent in the suitcase shortly after the author of this report got off the plane. In this case, it seems that the police are not only the executive power, but also the legislative power. The law against mosquito repellent is created within seconds in the mind of the officer and serves as an attempt to extort a little cash.
If you live in an industrialised and democratic country, police officers are trustworthy. But what about when you travel abroad - outside of rule-of-law nations? In this report, you will read real-life case examples and get recommendations on how to mitigate the risk of official abuse and corruption attempts.
Some examples from different regions
In Johannesburg in spring 2021, two South African police officers were arrested for being actively involved in kidnappings and extortions.
In Jakarta, the Indonesian police arrested four of their colleagues in 2019 for kidnapping a British citizen and demanding a ransom.
In the Philippines, police officers kidnapped a South Korean citizen and killed him shortly after the crime. Almost two weeks later, they demanded a ransom from the wife. She paid without first insisting on proof of life.
In Mexico, three Italian citizens who were on a business trip disappeared. Mexican police officers from a small town arrested them and sold them to the notorious CJNG cartel for the equivalent of USD 53. To this day, there is no trace of the three Italians.
Corruption and poor level of training
The problem for many travellers is that their perception of the police has been shaped in Western states governed by the rule of law, but the police at the travel destination appear differently and operate in legal systems in which there is hardly any control of police actions. Corruption is a widespread problem.
A police officer in Mexico earns an average of 200 USD per month, in Nigeria less than 150 USD per month. In some countries, police officers wait several months for their salaries. The temptation to abuse one's position and power is great. The quality of training is also different than in Europe - which can lead to further risks, such as an unintentional discharge of a firearm or an excessive use of force.
In Germany, 82 percent of citizens have a high level of trust in the police. In Mexico City, for example, it is the other way round. 70 percent of the people surveyed said they did not trust the police at all and 88 percent of crimes are not even reported for this reason.
After one kidnapping, the former hostages told the author, who was a kidnap response consultant for the case, that the kidnappers had bought their Kalashnikovs from local Nigerian police officers.
The greatest risk of corruption is during entry and exit as well as during journeys at checkpoints. The author experienced that corruption among police officers also increases with distance from the capital.
Not only a problem in developing countries
Even if the majority of police officers act correctly, there are examples of abuse of power and corruption in Western democracies - albeit at a much lower level of intensity.
In Munich (Germany) in 2020, investigations and charges were initiated against 26 police officers in the context of a cocaine scandal. Among other things, they had initiated proceedings against innocent people and ensured that drug dealers were able to operate with impunity.
Six US police officers from an anti-drug unit in Philadelphia were arrested a few years ago for corruption, kidnapping, intimidation and extortion.
Interaction with police officers when travelling abroad
Some recommendations by the author on how to deal with the local police:
- Be informed about the corruption and reliability of the police at your destination. Country databases, such as those from SmartRiskSolutions, contain information on this.
- Keep in mind that there are different police forces in a country, from municipal to state to federal. The level of training, salary and susceptibility to corruption varies. In addition, some countries have military police that are deployed in the interior.
- Often, the municipal police are generally considered more corrupt than the federal police. In many African countries, the police are more corrupt than the local military.
- A pick-up at the airport by a local service provider with good airport contacts can help keep corruption attempts against the traveller at bay.
- Be confident but polite when interacting with the police - don't be an easy victim. Do not provoke the police officers. Do not question their authority and remember that your counterpart should save his face.
- Remember that even though they are in uniform and are real police officers, they may be doing their criminal "side job".
- If the police want to take you to the police station, try to notify someone else if possible and mention details such as the license plate number of the patrol car and where you are to be taken.
- Remember that at later hours of the day, police officers may also be under the influence of alcohol or drugs - this is especially true in Africa.
- Attend safety training courses where you will also practice how to behave in such situations using role plays. This will make it easier for you to deal with police officers abroad and you will know the appropriate procedure.
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