Image: Chief of the Croatian Criminal Police and Deputy Chief Director of the Croatian Police Antonio Gerovac. Credit: HINA/ Damir SENČAR - Photo: 2023

Beyond the ‘Blue Curtain of Secrecy’ in Croatia

Conversation with the Head of the Croatian Criminal Police

By Aurora Weiss

VIENNA (IDN) — The esprit de corps, the misunderstood sense of togetherness, means that the police officers cover for one another. In such a culture, valuing loyalty over integrity facilitates misconduct by keeping it concealed. That’s why The United Nations Convention against Corruption calls for independent bodies or persons specialized in combating corruption through law enforcement that can “carry out their functions effectively and without any undue influence”.

We met with the head of the Croatian Criminal Police and assistant to the chief director of the police, Antonio Gerovac, in his office. He is one of the most experienced inspectors in the Croatian police, where he has been working for more than 22 years. He has led some of the most demanding investigations and in one of them, investigated his own colleague. Armed with modesty, he speaks about the results and achievements and emphasizes that the system in which the police works can always be improved.

“I believe, for most honest police officers, it is a painful realization that a colleague, whether from your immediate or distant environment, is suspected of having any criminal connection with someone we are investigating. That is already a terrible realization. I believe that there is no police force in the world that is immune from colleagues who, at some point, cross over, put it figuratively, to the dark side,” Gerovac explained.

In 2016, the police leadership entrusted Gerovac with a very sensitive investigation. It was about the perpetrators of a major robbery in the Police Department Zagreb in Heinzelova Street. After only three weeks of investigation into the disappearance of two kilograms of gold and 280,000 euros from the police Treasure, the working group suspected an inspector, Zeljko Dolecki, then head of the organized crime in the Police Department Zagreb.

What was it for Gerovac like to investigate his colleague?

“I knew the colleague, he. . .was respected in the system. It was not pleasant. It’s never pleasant when you have to investigate your co-worker. Because knowing that your co-worker may have ‘switched to the other side’ causes disappointment and bitterness. Personally, the very knowledge that such a thing was even possible forced me to work even more. Looking at it from the human side, a criminal deals with a crime – that’s his job. We deal with the detection of crime and illegal activities.

“. . . But the worst thing is when someone from your ranks helps the person who did an illegal act. That case was handled in the way I have just described. So, the director of the police formed a special team that I led. Therefore, the Zagreb Police Department was excluded from all decision-making on anything, and not a single colleague from his environment could work in that working group. We did all this in coordination with The Office for the Suppression of Corruption and Organised Crime (USKOK), and ultimately, it turned out that we confirmed our suspicions,” explained Gerovac.

Dolecki was sentenced to six years in prison. That judgment was not subject to revision. And he is serving his sentence, and according to the legislative framework, he can never work in the police again.

However, when conducting criminal investigations due to the suspicion that one of the police employees has committed a crime, there are several, to call them colloquially, “control mechanisms” that allow such investigations to take place independently and impartially.

With that in view, in 2014, the term “institutional independence in the conduct of criminal investigations” was introduced into the Law on Police Duties and Powers. This means in practice following in practice that when a police officer is suspected of having committed a criminal offence that is being prosecuted officially, his organizational unit cannot conduct a criminal investigation, it is handed over to another organizational unit.

Also, according to Gerovac, the law or by-laws provide the possibility of forming expert teams that are established by the decision of the head of the police department or the director general of the police.

“Furthermore, when we talk about control mechanisms, in cases where, for example, there is a suspicion that a police officer has committed a corruption crime, the police are obliged to report such suspicions to the specialized prosecutor’s office immediately; in this particular case, the Office for Suppression of Corruption and Organized Crime (USKOK) which then takes over supervision of the investigation in terms of ordering specific actions to be carried out by a specialized unit in the police in coordination with USKOK.”

The police, said Gerovac,  are obliged to report back on any action taken on the order of USKOK. Therefore, care is taken in every possible way to avoid contact with the environment we are investigating and to ensure absolute impartiality in the matter of what actions will be taken next. Police investigators who do this must be independent and impartial, they shouldn’t be influenced, and their actions are under the supervision of someone who is not from the police system.

As a partner of USKOK, there is also the National Police Office for Suppression of Corruption and Organized Crime (PNUSKOK), which investigates cases of corruption, for example. “How we will investigate this is a matter of tactics and methodology”, maintains Gerovac, who has specialized in blood and sexual crimes during his professional career.

He also mentioned, in this context, the Internal Control Service, which is organized at the regional and national levels.

Worldwide, studies have detected examples including the distribution of official data, falsification of police statements and evidence by not just one individual but an entire team, and abuse of position and authority.

We asked Gerovac what mechanisms are necessary to ensure protection against corruption within the police. He said that a perfect system of protection does not exist. Even if a perfect technical protection system is created, there will always be technically well-versed people who would violate the relevant laws or by-laws.

“However, there is one thing you can never influence, and that is the human factor,” explains Gerovac. “There have been examples of great policemen who, for some reason, unfortunately, whether pressed by life’s problems or what other reason, gave up to do the right thing at some point. You can’t influence that!’’

On the issue of general improvement of police work, Gerovac is clear and up-to-date: “The very fact that crime is changing means that the police must change accordingly.” He pointed out that the system can always be made even better and that is what the police strive for.

“The fact that we have stepped far into the digital age, the investigation processes within the police have become digital. There is no more paperwork but a click. All this leaves room for manipulation or abuse and also some room for progress,” concluded Gerovac. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 January 2023]

Image: Chief of the Croatian Criminal Police and Deputy Chief Director of the Croatian Police Antonio Gerovac. Credit: HINA/ Damir SENČAR

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