The norm of brutality - policing in Poland
By Jacek Jędrus
Igor Stachowiak died on 15th May 2016 in police custody. He was mistakenly identified as Mariusz Frontczak, a 22-year old fugitive who escaped an arrest attempt two days prior.
CCTV shows that Stachowiak was approached by the police as he was coming back from a party on an early Sunday morning. He was beaten, choked, forced into a vehicle, and taken to a nearby police station. There, he was repeatedly tased, beaten and choked. He stopped breathing soon after.
The case shocked a lot of Poles. But for many, it was just a confirmation of what they already knew – the police cannot be trusted.
Let us examine the complicated relationship between the Polish society, the police and politics. We will look at three cases from recent years – the 2016 murder of Igor Stachowiak, the 2021 shooting of a 39-year-old man in Poznań and the 2020 Strajk Kobiet. Along the way, we will try to answer the question – can the police be trusted?
The brutal proceedings around Stachowiak’s murder were hidden from the public until a year later, when Wojciech Bojanowski, a Polish video journalist and reporter put out an entire segment on the case. In it, he reached out to witnesses and obtained never-before-seen footage from a police taser used during the tortures.
The report caused an uproar. The media covered the case extensively with many other cases of torture in police custody coming to light. Bojanowski himself won several awards for his journalistic grit. With all of this, a question comes to mind – why was Stachowiak’s death only talked about a year after his passing? As it turns out, it was deliberate.
As Bojanowski’s segment shows, right after Stachowiak was taken from the streets of Wrocław, the police attempted to chase down witnesses who recorded the affair. They only managed to capture two. An informer taking part in report claimed that the policemen either did this to punish those who tried to help by recording the proceedings, or they were trying to cover their tracks, as they were aware they overstepped their conduct.
The policemen involved with the murder were removed from the force, but no further action was taken against them. The Provincial Police Commander, his deputy, the City Commander and the City Commander in service when Stachowiak’s murder took place went on a medical leave immediately after Bojanowski’s segment. It was followed by retirement. According to official police handbooks, a retirement of a police officer blocks any internal disciplinary action that may have been commenced against them, as only an active officer may be subject to such proceedings. The Provincial Police Commander was also receiving his full salary long after the incident. The fallout of Stachowiak’s case was in accordance with regulations. The higher-up officers that were involved, avoided responsibility because of the system that was put in place.
How did all of this happen? It is not like Polish police started off on the wrong foot. After 1989, the force was adapted to international standards, with a new code of conduct largely limiting what officers could and could not do. This was a welcome change after the many cases of beatings, murder, and political repression from our Soviet-satellite-state past.
Igor Stachowiak’s case kind of broke that illusion. Here we have a man whose only blame was that he looked like another person. He was taken into custody, tortured, and murdered. Results? A dead man and nine cops out of work, some of which were still salaried, none facing any legal consequences.
There is an interesting piece of data that follows Stachowiak’s passing. In a survey done by Rzeczpospolita in October 2016, 70.4% of responders declared their trust in the police. Only a year later, it dropped to 62.4%.
“I’m afraid of Americans” …
…sang David Bowie. That statement could definitely refer to the American police. With a long and horrible track record of murder and unlawful arrest, it is hard not to see some worrying parallels between that institution and the Polish police.
On 3rd June 2021, a distressed mother looking for her 39-year-old son called 112. She was worried as her son was suffering from schizophrenia and had a history of attempts at his own life. He was found walking around Antoninek, a district of Poznań, reportedly bleeding and mumbling. The police who arrived on the scene opened fire on him, with five bullets hitting his leg and torso.
Go to any comment section under any article covering this event. It will be filled with statements expressing not just disillusionment, but also an acknowledgement that this is what policing in Poland can look like. It seems like officers simply did not know how to handle a case where the solution was not right in front of them. But why? Let us look at the training.
The US police force has long been accused of not giving its officers enough training. But what is it like in Poland? During the pandemic, the basic training lasted a mere 64 days. Since 19 October 2021, with an official decision by the Chief of Police, it had returned to a pre-pandemic level of 144 days (around 4,5 months). Still, compared to the duration of basic training in other European countries, it is fair to suggest that Polish police forces are not trained enough. German policemen train for 3 years, French between 10 months and 2 years, and British – 18 months with a 6-month-long evaluation period before they are given a badge.
Would the Antoninek event turn out differently if it had happened in any of the other countries, seems like a question worth asking. Would the 39-old man have been shot five times?
It is also not like the policemen involved in the shooting were inexperienced. Quite the contrary - a TVN24 report of the event claims they have been on the force for between 5 to 20 years. They claimed to have opened fire because they did not have the time to put their guns away and take out less lethal tools for incapacitation, such as batons. The potentially fatal event combined with relative seniority of officers involved can make one second guess whether the police are qualified to do their jobs properly. What does the incident say about their ability to recognise actual threats and picking appropriate responses when they shoot a man experiencing a mental crisis?
A blast from the past
One more thing happened after 1989 concerning the police. It felt like along with a fresh political start, the police force would reflect that. That is, it would stop being a political tool and instead, become a side-less law enforcement agency. That illusion was also cracked.
Strajk Kobiet emerged in October 2020, quickly after the decision of the Constitutional Tribunal to ratify an almost total ban on legal abortion as following the Polish Constitution. In response, streets of hundreds of Polish cities saw thousands walk out in a sustained protest.
Naturally, the police have been called to oversee the protests. What occurred was active suppression, brutality and illegal deeds, reported not just by numerous media outlets, but more importantly, in countless Instagram stories. The police would not reveal their identity when asked, they assaulted MPs and journalists, beat, gassed, arrested protesters, and kept them encircled. Many activists were kept in custody, threatened, or taken outside of the city borders. What was to be a peaceful and legal protest, turned into a police assault often involving illegal actions. Professor Monika Płatek, involved in Strajk Kobiet called the actions of the police ‘a training ground on peaceful citizens, reminiscent of the treatment during the martial law’. What is more, none of the officers engaging in those illegal acts, or any forms of conduct offences have been punished, with the prosecution discontinuing all legal cases against them.
I still remember the infographics being shared all over social media detailing how to dress, what to do and what to have on you when you are going to protests. All those pieces of advice were in fact preventive measures against police brutality – write a legal advice agency number on your hand with a sharpie, wear black, hide any tattoos, have milk on you in case of a pepper spray attack – and many, many more. This brutal police response can be traced back to years of political baiting and creating a citizen vs. them notion. During Strajk Kobiet, the police eagerly took to enforcing not law, but the political will of the ruling party. It sure did feel a lot like martial law, even for those who only know it from tales. And with the mass character of the protests, it has also shown the scale of police brutality that was met with no consequence.
The image of the police suffered a lot as a result of Strajk Kobiet. In a survey organised by OKO Press in February 2021, 24% of people declared that their trust in the police decreased. 35% said it has decreased significantly. Only 25% have admitted having an increased trust in the police. That is a significant blow, but perhaps a well-deserved one. By its very nature, the police will always be a body that reflects the current political power structure and will work in its interest. With sharp definitions of who is the enemy of the state, so prevalent in our current politics, we need to raise a question – is the police too dangerous for the wellbeing of Polish citizens to be kept in operation? What other illegal atrocities will the police use if we slip deeper into authoritarianism and give more space to fascist and nationalist tendencies in Polish politics? Add to that insufficient training and a systemic ease to avoid responsibility and you have got yourself a very dangerous, possibly lethal mix.