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The Strong Arm of the Law: The Bulgarian Police

One of my first recollections about Bulgaria was that it was a “police state,” police officers seem to line every corner and are numerous on each highway across the country. Everyone who lives or spends time in Bulgaria has contact with the Bulgarian police – usually in the form of an officer in a luminous jacket jumping out in front of your car waving a baton akin to a large lollipop. Bulgaria has the highest number of police officers in the European Union. This legacy from the days of Communism remains, but do high numbers means effective policing? QBG takes a look at life in the police state.

The People’s Militia

During the Communist regime, the police force was known as the People's Militia and they were controlled and organized by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The police force was seen as another arm of the controlling Communist party and much of their work involved ensuring that citizens remained loyal to the government. The People's Militia was subdivided into various divisions with each one responsible for a particular sector e.g. the Territorial Militia was responsible for local area law enforcement, whilst the Road Militia upheld the law on the highways. In essence, there were divisions investigating and upholding the law for every sector of society and organization – “Big Brother” was always watching.
Indeed, police offers had to be members of the Communist Party, but after the breakdown of the Communist regime, reforms were introduced to improve the police image. Membership of a political party became incompatible with the policeman’s role, training programmes were introduced and a legal definition of the police role in society was drawn up. The police force also changed its name from "militia" to "police."

The National Police Service

Today, the police force acts under guidance from the Ministry of Interior, but is essentially an independent body, which works in collaboration with Bulgarian citizens (both foreign and indigenous) and government organizations. Its main duties are to uphold public order, prevent, detect and investigate crimes, counteract criminal activities organized crime rings both locally and cross-border, guard the state borders to fight illegal migration and human traffic, prevent acts of terrorism and to prevent untoward gatherings by terrorist and diversion groups and to control the administrative procedures related to the residence of foreigners in Bulgaria.

Whilst the average Bulgarian police officer looks like a common thug dressed in casual navy shirts and trousers tucked into Doc Martin bovver boots, they are actually highly effective and helpful particularly if you have mastered a little of the language. Bulgaria has an extremely low crime rate particularly where random acts of violence and abduction are concerned, however crimes like theft do occur as they would no matter which country you lived in. In the three years I have lived in Bulgaria I have been burgled once – part my own fault, I left my house unattended for a month without an alarm system. The local police force attended the scene of the crime with great efficiency, fingerprints were taken, shoe imprints made, statements written and the crime scene thoroughly photographed. When the same event had occurred previously in the UK, the police force had attended the crime scene promptly and taken a statement but over a mug of tea, they informed me that crimes like this were rarely solved because of their high volume. A few months later in Bulgaria, however the police called round with the person who had robbed my house! They took photos of the man pointing to his point of entry and then asked me to meet them at the police station to go through the case. They showed and explained all of the documents relating to my case and said that the man would attend trial and that he would have to pay back money in lieu of the goods he stole. I was totally amazed at the efficiency and professionalism – they even had a translator in-house to explain everything to me.
About two years later my sons’ bicycles were stolen from our garden. They had left our gate open and as we were not insured for this kind of crime, I did not report matters to the police. Imagine my amazement when a police officer turned up and said that they had found the bikes! Not only had they located my family at our new address, they knew that the bikes belonged to us. In all incidences with the police here I have been treated with the utmost respect and professionalism. Other friends who have been involved with the police for various reasons have also received the same good service.

KAT - The Traffic Police

My dealings with the traffic police known here as KAT, have never been as pleasant, mainly because I like most Bulgarians find it incredibly hard to stick to the constant fluctuations in the speed limits. Just as I launch into the chorus of my favourite song, a cop jumps out from nowhere wielding his lollipop. In days gone by it was possible to slip 20 lv. into your document wallet in order to get away scot free, however with the EU clampdown on bribery and corruption, this is too risky a trick to try and most police officers now are extremely law abiding. The days of speaking in a babble of English and getting away with a speeding offence are also disappearing as the police training now includes lessons in English. If you are stopped by the traffic police, you may not have committed an offence and they may only wish to check that you are carrying all of the correct documentation. You must produce your driving licence, your car ownership talon and your insurance documents. You must also ensure that you have displayed your insurance badge on your windscreen along with your Vignette, which is required to drive on all major roads.
The speed limits in Bulgaria are 120 km/hr on motorways, 80 km/hr on all other roads in non-built up areas (although most of these roads will have speed limit signs as ridiculous as 40 km/h) and 50 km/hr in built up areas. Talking on a mobile phone while driving is forbidden although everyone seems to do this, also forbidden is driving without a seat belt and driving under the influence of more than 0.5/1000 of alcohol. If you are caught driving 30 km over the speed limit you will lose your driving licence for a month. If you are caught on the phone or without a seatbelt you could receive a 50 lv. on-the-spot fine. Drunk drivers lose their licence for a year and must pay hefty fines. Recent changes to the traffic laws now mean that there are more police on the roads in an attempt to combat the high accident rate caused by crazy Bulgarian drivers. There have also been substantial increases to the fines now imposed and you must be given a receipt even for the on-the-spot fines. Drivers risk the loss of their licence if they refuse to pay the fines or do not pay on time. Increases in the fine rates have proved lucrative; between August and the end of September 2007, Sofia’s traffic police collected around one million Leva alone and if this trend continues the Sofia force are likely to earn around 12 million Leva a year.

All in all, the police are there to serve and protect and their image as corrupt officials out to make as much as they can has changed dramatically over the last two years. If you need help from the police just dial 166 and you will be connected with your local police authority. Whilst they look surly and sometimes threatening, they are extremely good at their jobs, helpful and very fair.