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Ethics training for police called into question

Unhappy hour: five members of Zurich's vice squad are accused of corruption Keystone

A corruption scandal in Zurich has put the spotlight on police ethics training. Five members of the city’s vice squad have been arrested and accused of receiving sexual favours from prostitutes in return for confidential information.

This content was published on November 28, 2013 - 11:00
Arian Gigon in Zurich, swissinfo.ch

More than half of the 16-member vice squad are suspected of being involved in, or aware of, incidents of corruption which saw confidential information – notably about inspection dates – provided to bar and club managers in return for free drinks and sex.

Such cases are rare in Switzerland, which repeatedly ranks among the best performers on Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index.

Certainly there have been problems, but rarely among the police. Max Hoffmann, secretary-general of the Swiss Police Federation, says he has not seen a case of police corruption in his 13 years in the job.

“It is important to note that, in Zurich, the police force itself works because the affair was uncovered from within,” he said.

According to initial reports, the deputy director of the squad and another police officer are among those arrested, suspected of having turned a blind eye to the actions of their colleagues.

The Zurich affair

In mid-November, the Zurich prosecutor’s office revealed the arrest and detention of 14 people, including five members of the police vice squad, for corruption in a case involving prostitution in the city of Zurich.

In exchange for sexual favours, drinks and meals, the police arrested are believed to have provided confidential information to people in “the scene”, such as alerting them to upcoming inspections and dropping certain complaints.

Another aspect of the case concerns credit card fraud (cards used for services not provided), of which bar patrons were victims. A bar manager is being held in remand.

Three officers have been released because collusion was not deemed to be a risk. They remain suspects, although the presumption of innocence stands.

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‘Preventative pessimism’

But the Zurich police are not the only ones with problems. In Lucerne, an investigation is underway after police were caught on camera violently kicking a suspected burglar.

The incidents raise questions about the training of police, whose functions afford them particular rights that others don’t have, such as the use of force and the deprivation of liberty. Are they sufficiently aware of the risks and responsibilities associated with the job, in particular when it comes to receiving bribes?

Frédéric Maillard, a police analyst and expert on human rights training for police, is not sure. Over nine years, he has studied the practices of some 2,000 police officers in several different forces.

“Corruption barely exists in the Swiss police force, mainly because police are well paid,” he says. “But each case gives us the occasion to once again question how our police forces function. I prefer to think in terms of preventative pessimism.”

‘Bitter pill’

According to Maillard, police training still places too much emphasis on physical qualities and too little on the ethical aspects of the job.

“Unfortunately, ethics and human rights training often serve as a back-up,” he says. “They swallow it like a bitter pill. Human rights courses in Geneva amount to 16 hours over the nine months – or a year if you count the practical internships – of basic training. With ethics and continued education, it does not exceed 40 hours.”

He adds: “Methods that favour virility and submission ensure that the individual is strongly assimilated into the group. Pressure prevents him from positioning himself against the group when it turns in one direction, for example. In such cases, the strength of the group wins out over the courage of the individual.”

Pius Valier, director of the Swiss Police Institute, the umbrella organisation responsible for ongoing police training and federal examinations and diplomas, disagrees.

“Of course we can always do more in terms of training, but the course as it stands is well rounded,” he says, adding that cognitive and social skills are very important when recruiting police officers.

“We don’t want Rambos – and the evaluation procedures are very advanced. Physical qualities are just one part of the basic criteria and training, but they are necessary.”

Valier, who has headed the local police in St Gallen for 16 years, says training ensures police have the tools necessary to be able to resist illegal advances. “But what matters is a person’s stability, his entourage and his financial situation.”

Other elements also play a role in safe-guarding police against temptation.

“You need to cultivate confidence in the hierarchy and also to have a good culture of reporting errors. That’s to say the possibility of reporting an incident without fear of being reprimanded,” Valier says. “Also, police patrol in pairs, which ensures there is mutual control.”

Police training in Switzerland

Police training in Switzerland lasts one year, including on-the-job training, and is sanctioned by a federal certificate.

Four schools cover French-speaking Switzerland: Colombier in the Jura, Fribourg, Geneva and St Maurice for Vaud and Valais. There are three schools in German-speaking Switzerland: Hitzkirch in canton Lucerne for north-west Switzerland, Amriswil for western Switzerland and Zurich.

A project for a Romansch school is again being discussed, following the breakdown of talks in the 2000s.

Basic training incorporates several modules, including a course on “ethics and human rights”. Others focus on intervention techniques, police psychology, local policing, general culture and sport. All sections are the subject of official examination.

The Swiss Police Institute in Neuchâtel undertakes training of level 1 and 2 police officers (non-commissioned and senior non-commissioned officers). Together with the Institute of the Jura Arch and the Lausanne Institute, it has created the Certificate of Advanced Studies for the training of level 3 officers.

There are more than 80 police forces in Switzerland, comprising local, regional and cantonal forces. For Frédéric Maillard, this is an advantage. “By overstating the point, we can say that if one is dysfunctional, there is another one 30 kilometres away to call it to order!”

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Lausanne example

Some police forces have gone further. Lausanne police force has created a Code of Ethics and, according to Maillard, “undertaken a long process of reflection and voluntary ethics training following scandals and incidents of violence by the chiefs and members of its emergency unit in the late 1990s”.

In a programme that has received European recognition, “enablers” who hold a university certificate in applied ethics are charged with applying the principles of ethics to everyday police work.

“In reality, according to about 30 people who I have spoken to, it seems that it actually doesn’t work that well in itself,” says Maillard. “The organisation is still the same, military and strict. The police on the ground who are faced daily with a number of constraints view ethics as an extra weight, more surveillance.”

For his part, Valier says it’s not enough to rattle off good principles.

“You also have to live them. The best prevention of corruption is the behaviour of the police command,” he says.

In Zurich, the chief of police and police magistrate remain cautious, saying they prefer to wait for the outcome of the investigation before taking a firm position – something which could take several months.

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