Ján Vitko, a former police officer, is engaging young people in the democratization process currently underway in the in the former communist countries of Central Europe. His program allows them to actively address the growing crime problem in the region, learn how to engage with law enforcement agencies, and become more community-oriented.
The New Idea
Through his own firsthand experience as a law enforcement officer, Ján Vitko became convinced that the law enforcement agencies of Central and Eastern Europe will not be able to effectively address the problem of rapidly growing crime rates in the region until two things change. First, the relationship dynamic between the police and the general populace must change from an adversarial relationship to one of mutual cooperation and trust. Second, communities must learn to take a more active role in crime prevention.Ján recognizes that the process of changing societal attitudes can sometimes take generations. That is why he has decided to focus his efforts on young people. In Ján's opinion, young people who did not have to adapt to the former social system are much more receptive to change than older people. However, he knows that for a youth-oriented project to succeed, young people must feel that they are active participants in shaping the desired social change. Thus Ján has developed a two-pronged program that engages youth in community crime prevention, while, at the same time, it teaches them about public institutions and about skills they can use to affect change from within those institutions. He is seizing a real opening within police departments in Slovakia that thus far has not been taken advantage of by other community activists. Under the new administrative system that was introduced in 1990, local police departments are now under the direct jurisdiction of local governments. Thus police departments in Slovakia are no longer burdened by burdensome regulations imposed by the central government, and they now have greater capacity to service the community. Unfortunately, the police departments have not changed very much since the end of the communist era nor has the citizenry yet demanded that they do so.
Crime is one of the most pressing social problems in the Central European post-communist countries. In Slovakia the crime rate has tripled since 1989. Criminal behavior has reached a level where more than one third of respondents in a national opinion poll consider crime the single most important current problem in Slovakia.
Although the root of this problem is complex and is likely related to anomie that followed the collapse of the communist social order in 1989, there are other factors that have contributed to the epidemic growth of crime. While other social institutions underwent profound reforms, the police and the judicial system, in general, have not changed. Moreover, the old stereotypes in behavior of both the police and the public remain. The police often exercise power as it used to in past when it served the communist regime. The public does not respect and does not trust the police or the judicial system. According to Ján, surveys have found that the police represent one of the least trustworthy institutions, mistrusted by over 80 percent of the public.
Ján is building an organization which at its core is a network of youth leaders who are interested in police work. These young people between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, from all parts of the country, undergo an intensive three weeks of training focused on several topics. First, they learn about crime, drugs, violence, and abuse and how they can bring some change. Second, they discuss different models of society and social institutions such as police, justice, self-government, schools, and the third sector; and they critically analyze the model they experience. Finally, they are trained in diverse practical skills from first aid to public speaking.
When the members of the core group return home they organize meetings and presentations for their schoolmates. They speak to their peers in the language they understand and about things other children are interested in. They create small working groups and initiate local crime prevention projects. In these projects they collaborate with local community police and local governments.
The organization also creates groups of adult supporters to back the local youth groups. They consist of parents, police officers, local officials, sponsors, and teachers. These groups are additional channels for communicating the idea of crime prevention.
The core group of young police "venturers" travel to other regions and make public presentations for their peers in order to identify new members. They also work with mass media in order to cover the crime prevention topic and mobilize public support for their activity.
Born in 1961, Ján studied mining engineering despite his interest in the humanities. (During the communist regime students were not free to select their major.) He worked in coal mines and a geological survey firm. He always started from the beginning and soon achieved senior management positions because of his obsession with improvement and innovation. However, he never felt fulfilled and looked for a more satisfying job. In 1991, when local governments started to create their own community police departments according to the newly enacted legislation, he applied for a job in the community police department of Spisska Nova Ves, a small town in eastern Slovakia. In one year he became the police chief. He also became an active member of the Association of Chiefs of Community Police (SANMOP), the professional organization that aims to improve the quality of community police work and increase public awareness of it.
In 1994 Ján attended training in the United States and Canadian metropolitan police forces. He was inspired by the community based policing approaches focused on crime prevention and cooperation with public. He started to implement such principles in his town and trained other policemen in the floating police academy backed by the SANMOP. Soon Ján's radical changes, such as establishing citizens' committees for controlling police operations, disconcerted some of the local politicians, and, consequently, he was forced to leave his position.
The experience that community-based policing faces many obstacles in the current political settings led Ján to work with young people. He organized training for the first group of children in Canada in 1995. Since then he has been developing the program as a volunteering director.