Swiss police have raised the alarm over deteriorating working conditions, taking their protest to the streets and refusing to hand out fines for traffic offences.
The law enforcement officers are under increasing pressure in their daily jobs, suffering the impact of understaffing in their ranks, and they often do not receive the public recognition they deserve, experts say.
Last week marked the official end of a 90-day strike by police in Zurich who had refused to hand out fines for minor traffic offences.
At the same time their colleagues in the French-speaking part of the country took to the streets of Lausanne in a labour protest, threatening further measures in August, while in Geneva the cantonal government announced an eagerly awaited and far-reaching reform package.
This would include the creation of about 250 jobs as well as a complete reorganisation of the forces and hopes to put an end to complaints from within police ranks and the general population.
The national federation of police officers has come out in favour of the protests in general but stopped short of giving its explicit backing to the different actions.
“We have reached our limits. Stepping up the protest could help bring about the necessary changes,” said the federation’s secretary-general, Max Hofmann.
Strikes and industrial action are extremely rare in Switzerland and, even more so in the public service sector, as observers point out.
There is a real possibility of additional public funds being made available to hire more personnel in Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city.
The local councillor in charge of police matters, Daniel Leupi, has acknowledged that calls for reinforcements are justified.
Police are definitely understaffed given the increasing number of sports events and incidents with hooligans at weekends, according to Leupi.
“I hope the local parliament will eventually agree the extra jobs,” he told a news conference.
But police federation official Hofmann warns against too much optimism. He says similar political moves were underway in Bern but failed to win approval.
“We are short of about 3,000 police officers in Switzerland. For years we have been calling for additional posts but to no avail,” Hofmann said.
Consultant Peter Arbenz also urges the authorities to boost the number of police officers.
He was mandated by the Zurich city government to organise talks with police trade unions and successfully mediated a deal. It foresees setting up a working group to reduce the workload of local police, notably their administrative tasks.
“Political parties often tend to raise their profile at the expense of state employees, downplaying the merits of their work,” said Arbenz, a former senior government official.
Police officers do not get enough public recognition although they have above average school education or professional training, he added.
These observations are in line with those of Frédéric Maillard, who teaches at the police academy and is the co-author of a book on police work.
“There is a feeling of discontent which damages the reputation of the police profession,” he said.
Maillard says the vast majority of 900 police officers he interviewed on the issue felt let down.
One problem is that the recruitment of new police officers focuses almost entirely on physical fitness. But early on in their careers they face difficulties of another kind and find themselves out of touch with reality.
“They have to deal with people from different cultural backgrounds and be able to develop analytical skills without having had the necessary training,” Maillard said.
Far from dismissing the problem of understaffing and overtime, Maillard still believes that members of a police force in Switzerland are privileged compared with their colleagues in other countries.
This is a conclusion Hofmann does not share. “Switzerland is ranked in the lower half of a table showing the number of police officers per residents,” Hofmann explained.
Maillard complains that over the years the police forces have adopted too much of military style and isolated themselves although they are “fully exposed to social changes”.
He says until very recently there was a reluctance to include topics including sociology, philosophy and criminology in the curriculum of the police academy.
“I still hear complaints by police officers who say they are social workers,” said Maillard.
In a bid to recruit fresh candidates the authorities regularly launch publicity campaigns showing pictures of smiling and dynamic young people helping and protecting citizens.
But the shortage of personnel persists in many cantonal police forces. This is not a salary issue as such, reckons Hofmann.
Instead he puts it down to labour conditions, working three out of four weekends, or concern that overtime is not compensated adequately.
Foreigners and women
Some cantons have now granted access to the police academy to non-Swiss candidates provided they are holders of the necessary residence permit. But they have to obtain Swiss citizenship before taking the oath.
Experts point out that women are clearly underrepresented in the Swiss police forces although there is enough evidence to suggest that mixed-gender police patrols are particularly successful.
“The rate of female officers is stagnating at 11 to 15 per cent,” said Hofmann.
For Maillard it is crucial to open up the police profession to people of different age groups and different walks of life.
“Law enforcement officers have a very important role in society. They are a last resort and the only ones who can intervene when other efforts by representatives of civil society have failed,” Maillard said.
Law enforcement in Switzerland is mainly the responsibility of the 26 cantons which have their own police agencies.
The federal government provides specialised services and is responsible for the protection of the Swiss border.
The federation of police officers has about 23,000 members.
The federation has called for an additional 3,000 staff for daily duty service and backup units for special tasks.
About 2,000 extra staff are needed to compensate police officers for the long duty hours they have accumulated over the years.
The federation has also complained about increasing violence against police officers.end of infobox
Police training in Switzerland was standardised only in 2003 following 13 years of discussions among the different cantons, says Max Hofmann of the federation of police officers.
A curriculum was approved by the heads of the cantonal police departments in 2004.
The training lasts 12 months and includes human rights and psychology as well as intervention tactics and neighbourhood policing.
A federal diploma is required at lower management level within a police force. Special courses are in preparation for high-rank positions, including police commanders.end of infobox
(Adapted from French by Urs Geiser) , swissinfo.ch