BYDGOSZCZ, Poland — Police Sgt. Henryk Wrobel was working the day shift when the call came.
The owner of a wholesale warehouse on the outskirts of town was frantic. A band of thieves had broken into the building. They were walking off with thousands of dollars' worth of tools.
Wrobel is a 14-year veteran cop. He still gets a rush from a good bust. But when he got to this crime scene, the place was already cleaned out.
Small wonder. Wrobel had to take the bus.
"It was actually two buses, because we changed once," he explained. "It took us 1 1/2 hours to get there."
The problem was as simple as it was demeaning. Strapped authorities here cannot afford to keep the precinct squad cars tanked up. Competition for vehicles with gas is so fierce that a cop working the burglary detail doesn't stand a chance.
The previous time he had to respond to a call, Wrobel used the family car. Before that, he hitched a ride with the caller reporting the crime. He has also been known to walk.
These are not good times for police in this unkempt industrial crossroads in northwestern Poland. It is not unlike many towns across Central and Eastern Europe.
The collapse of communism five years ago brought an end to the privileged status of law enforcement in most of the former East Bloc countries. Police states and government monopolies are out. Shoestring budgets and private security are in.
Keeping up with the changes has not been easy for crime fighters from Bydgoszcz in the north to Bulgaria in the south. Many fed-up officers have quit. Police work is so objectionable in some big cities that authorities have resorted to recruiting unemployed farmers.
"If I had known 14 years ago that the police would undergo such a deep crisis, I would never have taken this job," Wrobel said.
The predicament has had profound consequences. Crime rates in Eastern Europe are still well below those in the West, but they have risen astronomically. Residents speak with nostalgia about the feeling of personal security they enjoyed under Communism. Some demand a restoration, at least in part, of the once-loathed police powers of the former regimes.
Even former dissidents are beginning to agree. Polish Interior Minister Andrzej Milczanowski, an underground Solidarity activist in the 1980s, wants to give police new authority to tap telphones and intercept mail in bribery, counterfeiting and drug cases. He complains criminals have become too adept at exploiting newfound freedoms, while police have been stripped of resources and authority.
"Police need powers appropriate to the dangers facing society," he said.
Capitalism was expected to bring competition to former Communist countries. But few thought it would mean police competing for money to keep precinct lights burning, radios transmitting and cars running.
So far, the police have little to show for their early forays into budget politics. Mostly they have joined retirees, teachers and doctors in the long line of tax-funded groups bemoaning the shrinking handouts that democracy has given them.
"We have police stations where they can't pay the electrical bill because they are so poor," said Andras Zsinka, a personnel administrator for the Hungarian national police. "The trend has been for governments to focus their attention on developing the private sector. Hopefully, now we will begin looking at better balancing the public and private spheres."
The average Bydgoszcz cop earns $250 a month, what a private English teacher or a Warsaw taxi driver can pocket in a week. He receives no overtime pay and is allotted enough gas to drive fewer than 25 miles a day. To save money, officials want to replace the precinct telephones with pay phones. One busy downtown station has been so neglected that it was declared structurally unsafe.
Meanwhile, crime in the Bydgoszcz metropolitan area of 1 million has doubled since 1989. Criminals have begun shooting back at police. More than one-third of the city's 237 squad cars are in a perpetual state of disrepair. Many of the 2,700 police officers feel so let down that they are helping organize a national demonstration to be held on the steps of the Polish Parliament.
Two hundred miles southeast, in Warsaw, low pay, tough working conditions and plummeting job prestige have made recruitment so difficult that the capital's police department has 2,000 vacancies it cannot fill. In the Czech Republic, there are 3,000 vacancies; in Hungary, 1,200.
"I actually have the money to hire them, but I just don't get the applicants," said Warsaw Police Chief Jerzy Stanczyk. "All I can offer them is a dangerous job, where they have to work at night and get poor pay."