The project involved independent civil monitoring of police detention facilities to ensure the protection of human rights. The long-term goal was to promote transparency and accountability in police work, while enhancing the confidence of local communities in the police.
Problems and Purpose
The main problem addressed by the project was the human rights violations in police custody, frequently reported by human rights protection NGOs. The introduction of independent civil monitoring of police detention facilities and prisoner conditions establish a means by which to monitor and report on the extent to which legal provisions are being implemented and human rights are being protected. In the long run, the project was seen as a way of promoting the principles of transparency and accountability in police work, as well as enhancing the confidence of local communities in the police.
Background History and Context
Leading up to the implementation of the project, there were many problems identified with the policing system and detention facilities:
- There was very little public information available for the operation and management of the police precinct.
- Civil participation in the management of the overall police management was very limited.
- There was a high level of public distrust in police (according to EUROSTAT - 25% for 2007).
- Top management of the Nation Police Service lacked feedback from mid-level in the command chain about the effectiveness of the implemented reform measures.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The project was a joint initiative of the Open Society Institute, Sofia; the Chief Police Directorate; the Sofia Police Directorate; and the Municipality of Sofia. It was part of the Community Policing Strategy of the Bulgarian MoI which aims to reform the law enforcement system in order to make it more accountable, transparent and closer to the local communities. Providing essential information about the police detention facilities and conditions from an impartial point of view, the project brings constant input into the broader reform agenda of the MoI.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The project made the necessary effort to include as volunteers representatives of different social groups - senior citizens, representatives of the Roma community, and people with disabilities. Invitations were sent to NGOs dealing with the integration of the Roma community in Bulgaria and worked with the Roma program of OSI in order to reach this disadvantaged group. In the forthcoming stage of the project, organizers committed to including a Roma NGO as a local coordinator in order to attract more volunteers with Roma background. Regarding people with disabilities, contacts were made with an MP who had a campaign for removing the architectural barriers in the public space. Bulgarian newspapers with elderly readers were also contacted in order to attract senior citizens.
The demographic breakdown of participants was as follows:
- 8 participants form the management of the project
- 6 participants from the National consultative body of the project
- 30 participants form the Regional consultative bodies of the project
- 6339 policemen in the police precincts (Sofia - 3255, Varna -1059, Plovdiv - 576, Bourgas - 1201, Pleven - 248)
- 5 experts
- 120 municipal counsellors in the city halls of Sofia, Varna, Bourgas, Pleven and Plovdiv
- 5 NGOs that manage the project on local level
Methods and Tools Used
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What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The project promotes and establishes the practice of unannounced visits of citizens to police precincts; the custody visitors who work as volunteers then examine detention facilities, service premises and the offices of operational officers. They conduct confidential interviews with detainees and police officers. Volunteers have access to documents and registries kept by the Ministry of Interior units that have a bearing on the purposes of custody visiting. After each visit, custody visitors write team reports, which document facts established during the visits. Consolidated reports are complied each month and a copy of them is submitted to the Director of the Regional Police Directorate, as well as to the custody visitors. Analytical reports are produced every three months and in the end of every project phase and publicized through the website of the Open Society Institute.
The volunteers who wish to work as independent custody visitors go through a special selection process, which includes pre-selection based on submitted documents, an interview and a background check by the police. Applicants who have successfully passed the interviews undergo training in several modules: Introduction to Custody Visiting, Introduction to Police Activities and Communication Skills. Each custody visitor is issued an official identity card, which he or she must carry at all times when visiting the police precincts. Custody visitors conduct regular visits to police precincts (2-3 times per month per police precinct). Visits are made by teams consisting of two custody visitors. Teams decide independently on the time of the visit. Visits are conducted according to a pre-agreed schedule that is known only to the persons involved in the project; police officers are not informed in advance.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The project contributed to the following areas:
- Improvement of the human rights protection
- Empowerment of citizens' participation in the operation and functioning of the police force
- Prevention of violent abuse of force
- Increased trust of citizens in the police service
- Increased transparency (more public data available about the National Police)
- Effective feedback to the top management for the operation of police precincts outside working hours that empowers them to take informed decisions about the management and the discipline of the policemen
- Rationalization of the established practices for processing the documentation in the police precincts
- Establishment of mechanism for food provision to the detainees
- Statutory regulation of the practice in the "Instruction on the Rules of Activities of Police Authorities in Connection with Detention of Persons at the MOI Structural Units and on Equipment, and Order at MOI Detention Facilities" (published in the state gazette, 9th issue, January 26th, 2007).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The project contributed to the enhancement of fundamental values in police work as respect for human life and dignity. It promoted a culture of transparency, accountability and tolerance - essential elements of the democratic capacities. It also helped establish a culture of public participation and community volunteering in particular. The participation of policemen has also been strengthened through the establishment of an effective feedback mechanism to the top management for the operation of police precincts outside working hours and through the constant exchange of best policing practises throughout the police system. When Bulgaria ratified the OPCAT (the UN's Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment), the custody visiting practice provided the democratic structure necessary to become a National Preventive Mechanism.
Website of the Open Society Insitute - Sofia
Independent Custody Visiting in Police Detention Facilities 2007-2008 Report
The original version of this case study first appeared on Vitalizing Democracy in 2010 and was a contestant for the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize. It was originally submitted by Zvezda Vankova.