Living throughout Europe, Roma and Sinti communities are among the continent's most vulnerable minority groups. Historically marginalized, they suffer widespread abuse and discrimination, often at the hands of the authorities, including the police.
The OSCE - through co-operation between its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and Strategic Police Matters Unit (SPMU) - has been taking steps to help put an end to such abuse by building trust and understanding between Roma and Sinti communities and the police forces that serve them.
"What we need to do is to find ways to bring the Roma and police closer together," says Kevin Carty, Senior Police Adviser to the OSCE Secretary General. "There is no doubt that police forces need to understand the difficulties experienced by the Roma and Sinti communities. The police and Roma and Sinti need to work together to develop mutual trust and understanding."
Discrimination and mistrust
Just how serious and common those difficulties are can be found in the numerous reports about issues related to Roma published by the OSCE and other organizations over the past two decades, many of which are filled with examples of abuse and discrimination at the hands of the police.
One widely reported recent case of police abuse comes from the city of Kosice in eastern Slovakia, where, in March 2009, six adolescent Roma boys were forced by police to strip naked and hit one another. Several of them also suffered bite wounds when the police set dogs on them. A video recording of the incident made by one of the officers involved later became public and has circulated on the Internet. Seven police officers were charged with abuse of power following the incident.
"The disproportionate use of force by the police against Roma, including against minors, is a major problem," says Andrzej Mirga, ODIHR's Senior Adviser on Roma and Sinti Issues. "We see this time and again, especially in cases of forced evictions or raids on Roma communities."
One example of such raids comes from the town of Piatra Neamt, Romania, where the Romani Center for Social Intervention and Surveys, a non-governmental organization, reported that six Roma were injured by police during a raid in July of last year, and a further 20 people, including children and the elderly, suffered negative effects from tear-gas inhalation during the raid.
"These are just two examples out of many," says ODIHR's Mirga. "But the issues extend beyond outright violence. We have also seen plenty of cases where Roma and Sinti are subjected to ethnic profiling and cases where the police refuse to intervene or investigate when Roma and Sinti are the victims of crimes or racist violence."
The result is that the attitude of many in Roma and Sinti communities towards the police is one of either suspicion or mistrust.
Building trust and understanding
Over the past several years, ODIHR and the SPMU have been collecting information on efforts undertaken by participating States aimed at breaking down the barriers of distrust and forging positive links between Roma and Sinti communities and police forces. These were published in April 2010 in a comprehensive publication called Police and Roma and Sinti: Good Practices in Building Trust and Understanding.
The main purpose of the book is to share with all OSCE states examples of practices that have worked in improving relations between the police and Roma and Sinti communities.
For example, the publication outlines a number of practices that have been used to establish channels of communication between police and Roma and Sinti. In the town of Grocka, Serbia, the police and representatives of the local Roma community undertook a project to improve communication and increase police availability in an effort to provide better protection for Roma, as well as to develop a working system for issuing identity cards, thus promoting social integration. In Finland, advisory boards on Roma affairs have been established at national, regional and local levels in order to address the problem of discrimination, promote Roma culture, and create opportunities for Roma to participate in public life.
Another method that has proven successful has been the recruitment of Roma and Sinti police officers and the promotion of policing as a viable career.
In Hungary, for example, the Interior Ministry organizes law-enforcement career-orientation camps for Roma high-school students. In the city of Brno in the Czech Republic, police officers take part in activities with Roma schoolchildren between the ages of 7 and 10 in an effort to raise the children's interest in police work and also to encourage them to continue their education. In Romania, the police have begun to allocate places specifically for Roma at the Police Academy and in various police schools. And in the United Kingdom, the Cambridgeshire Constabulary provided the local Roma community with a CD in the Romani language in an effort to increase trust in the police and to encourage Roma to join the police force.
According to the OSCE's Carty, the recruitment of Roma and Sinti police officers has a positive impact on the relationships between the police and Roma and Sinti communities by breaking down barriers that may exist, and it provides the police with a range of knowledge and skills required for working in an ethnically diverse environment.
"Members of the Roma and Sinti community serving as police officers help to overcome existing prejudices and stereotypes within the police and provide a valuable connection to enhance relationships and eliminate mistrust."
The above-mentioned publication is going to serve as the starting point for a number of follow-up activities. To begin with, ODIHR is planning to translate the book into several languages in order to ensure that the good practices it outlines are able to reach as broad an audience as possible.
In addition, ODIHR and the SPMU plan to organize a series of roundtables to facilitate discussions among law-enforcement institutions, local authorities and Roma representatives and organizations. These meetings will focus on finding ways to adapt these good practices to local contexts in order to contribute to building trust and understanding between the police and Roma communities.
Finally, ODIHR and the SPMU are planning to make their expertise available to police academies requesting assistance in incorporating these practices into their training curriculum.