Maybe Central Europe Does Policing Better …

If you’ve ever shared your travel plans to Barcelona or Paris around the holiday dinner table, you’ve probably experienced that zany, overcautious relative warning about local pickpockets. “Carry your wallet in your front pocket!” they suggest. “Wear your backpack the other way around!”

Fear might lead some vacationers to buy decidedly unhip little passport bags to hide under their shirts. But for those who are truly concerned, here’s another suggestion: Head further east for your European jaunt. That’s because police-recorded robberies appear to be far less common along the European Union’s eastern border than in Western Europe. In fact … 

You’re statistically 15 times more likely to be robbed in Belgium, France or Spain than in Slovenia, Slovakia or Hungary.

At least that’s the idea you’d get looking at recent figures from Eurostat, the bloc’s official statistics agency. Slovakia and Hungary both averaged nine robberies per 100,000 habitants in 2017, while Slovenia registered 12. But cops in Belgium, France and Spain clocked 167, 150 and 144 such offenses, respectively, per 100,000 people. That’s still lower than the 210 per 100,000 in the U.S. in 2018, but a lot higher than the 1.8 per 100,000 robberies recorded in Japan in 2016. Does that mean post-communist countries are simply better at police work?

Policemen watch Slovakia's national foot

Policemen watch Slovakia’s national football team’s training session.

Source Getty Images

It’s not so simple, says Christian Mouhanna, a crime and law enforcement researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research. He suggests the results actually highlight the relative competence of French law enforcement, noting that a higher level of trust among a comparably more affluent population — which, frankly speaking, has more to be stolen — leads to a greater number of police reports. “The more police are efficient, the more they record crimes,” he says. There’s also the thorny issue of overreporting robberies to meet clearance quotas.

But that’s not to say Western Europe doesn’t have a thing or two to learn from its former socialist friends.

Take Slovenia, for instance, where cops have increasingly pursued an inclusive community policing strategy since the 1990s. According to Gorazd Meško, a criminology professor at the University of Maribor, nearly every Slovenian municipality has a security council, consisting of both authorities and members of civil society, that acts as an advisory body to the local mayor. That’s in addition to a requirement that local law enforcement is required to adopt and publish a safety plan each year. 

As a result, Meško says, locals live confidently there too. “The police enjoy a high level of trust by residents which, in my opinion, could influence people’s willingness to report crime.” He says that’s led to a drop in reported crime from around 90,000 offenses per year before 2014 to around 60,000 today.

In nearby Slovakia, officials attribute a recent decrease in robberies to preventive police work. According to Michal Slivka, the spokesman for the country’s police force, they’ve played a more visible role in the media and on social networks alerting the public to the risks of such crimes. Police have also convinced banks to carry less cash at local branches and boost the quality of their CCTV surveillance systems.

Besides, no matter which way you look at it — or which country you’re sitting in — there’s hopeful news for Europe more broadly. Overall, Eurostat found, robberies were down 24 percent between 2011 and 2017, to around 396,000. That’s in contrast to a 4 percent increase between 2008 and 2011.

So pack that suitcase with confidence and head wherever the wind blows.

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