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Crime Wave Crashes Through All Social Strata

Since fall of communism a decade ago, car thefts are up 600%, and no neighborhood is considered safe.

July 16, 1999|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — Poland's largest-circulation newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, recently caught the mood of many people here in a bluntly worded commentary on crime.

"The mother of a boy who was beaten up is advised at the police station not to file a report because the perpetrator might seek revenge," the newspaper complained. "Drug dealers almost openly sell drugs in schools. Car owners don't even bother to report a broken window anymore."

Auto theft is at epidemic levels, with one incident occurring every 40 minutes in Warsaw. And there is a disturbing explosion of youth crime, with a jump in cases of older teenagers robbing children of watches, bicycles and even their clothes.

Crime hits all levels of society much more evenly here than in the United States, boosting its psychological impact on middle-class Poles, experts say.

"In the U.S. and Western Europe, there are parts of the city you can hardly enter and some parts that are very safe, but in Warsaw you can be victimized on [the main commercial strip of] Marszalkowska Street," said Andrzej Siemaszko, director of the Institute of Justice, a quasi-governmental think tank.

From media outlets such as Gazeta Wyborcza to new crime-prevention programs run by the police, efforts are being made to fight the trend. But experts here say that as Poland continues the difficult transition from communism to a market economy, social disruptions are likely to bring a continued worsening of crime rates.

"Normal people don't feel safe in their houses or on the street," said Agnieszka Gutkowska, editor of the Home section of Gazeta Wyborcza. "I live in a section of town, in a housing estate, which seems like a nice one, with green trees and residents you could call intellectuals, and I had my car stolen twice. The police are completely helpless. The rate of solving such crimes as car theft, stealing a bicycle from a child [and] break-ins is almost zero."

The changing shape of crime in Poland is reflected in statistics showing that from 1996 to 1998, robberies jumped to 34,225 from 26,257--an increase of 30%--and property thefts rose 34% to 211,651 from 157,479, while murders fell slightly to 1,072 from 1,134. In the first six months of this year, robberies jumped an additional 32%, according to the national police, while murders continued to decline.

Car thefts are now running at seven times the level in 1989, the year the communist system fell.

The real crime rate is higher than official statistics show, Siemaszko said, because many crimes are never reported. He noted that his own car has been broken into 17 times in the past five years, but he reported the break-ins to the police only the first two times, giving up after receiving prepared forms telling him the cases were unsolvable.

Crime by juveniles 13 to 17 is soaring. From 1990 to 1997, according to Institute of Justice statistics, the share of robberies committed by these teens jumped from one in 11 to one in three; the share of fights or beatings from one in 20 to one in eight; the share of rapes from one in 17 to one in nine; and the share of burglaries from one in 15 to one in 11.

Ewa Budzisz-Walicka, a crime-prevention specialist with the national police, blamed the leap in youth crime on the stresses of Poland's transition from communism.

"Suddenly now, having money, or being rich, is something that many people consider the most important thing," she said. "And to become rich, there can be very primitive methods."

Budzisz-Walicka added that in the past two months, her own son was robbed twice on buses by other teenagers, once losing some cash and the second time a mobile phone.

Last month Gazeta Wyborcza, together with the private radio station Radio Z, launched a "Let's Not Give In" campaign in which the newspaper and radio are providing crime-fighting tips and urging readers or listeners to organize neighborhood watch programs.

Media coverage and prizes, sponsored by a German insurance firm, will be given to the most innovative neighborhood groups, Gutkowska said.

Reader response has been strong, she said, but not always in the way the newspaper hoped.

"People start calling and say: 'Great idea! Wonderful!' " Gutkowska explained. "But when I ask them, 'Have you done anything? Have you talked to your neighbors? Have you talked to the police?' they say: 'No, it is very difficult. This is not really up to us.' "

Given the social factors behind crime, "it's definitely too much for Gazeta to change the trend," Gutkowska said. "But if readers can make a difference in their own community, that's a success. If we can overcome this inertia and feeling of helplessness . . . that's success. Our goal is to show people the situation is not so hopeless that we have to simply accept it."

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