Why does public rrder and safety cost so much in Slovakia?

The Slovak government has managed to enrage many this summer with its desperate attempts at keeping the public deficit under control. In July, it proposed to cut benefits for those women on maternity leave who have any kind of alternative income. In a country where maternity leave benefits are already extremely low, this move led to protests and the government backtracked quickly. Last month, it suggested cutting funding for the already seriously cash-strapped Academy of Sciences by a third. This too has run up against a chorus of protest. As the budget battles are set to continue in the coming weeks, this article takes a look at one area of public expenditure where cuts would be easy to make: the country’s oversized and inefficient police.

Foto: Creative Commons/ Andre Gustavo Stumpf

Strangely, Slovakia’s internal security apparatus has so far been immune to cuts. The country maintains one of Europe’s largest police forces on a per capita basis; only 6 countries in the European Union have more police officers per inhabitant. In fact, Slovakia’s public expenditure on public order and safety measured as a proportion of its GDP is the highest in the European Union.

This is true despite the fact that both crime rates and the rate of traffic accidents have been traditionally very low. Although plenty of money is available, when we measure the effectiveness of the country’s internal security and justice apparatus in terms of the case clearance rate and the public’s trust, both fail to deliver adequate results.

No room for across-the-board spending cuts

Compared to other European countries, the Slovak public sector is relatively small. Last year, public expenditure measured as a share of the economy reached 37.4% of GDP, one of the lowest figures in the European Union. The room for cuts in public spending is thus significantly smaller compared to countries where the public sector makes up more than half of the economy (See Graph 1).

Graph 1, Source: Public expenditure in EU countries – Eurostat, government finance statistics

The government should not, therefore, aim to cut spending across the board, but should focus only on those areas where there is room for cuts. Using Eurostat data, we can compare Slovakia with the EU average in different categories of public spending. The most recent data comes from 2010 (See Graph 2).

Graph 2, Source: Eurostat, General government expenditure: Analysis by detailed economic function

As we can see, spending on some public services in Slovakia, such as education, is significantly lower compared to the European average. These areas are definitely not suitable for cuts. Slovakia’s public spending on social welfare is far below average as well. The only area in which public spending in Slovakia exceeds the European average, is spending on public order and safety (2.7% of GDP in Slovakia compared to 1.9% of GDP in the EU). This category of public expenditure includes spending on the police, firefighters, courts, prisons and other institutions responsible for maintaining public order and safety. In fact, spending on public order and safety in Slovakia exceeds that of all other EU states (See Graph 3).

Graph 3, Source: Public expenditure on public order and safety, 2010

Exactly which areas of public order spending could potentially be reduced?  Well, the entire Slovak court system (excluding the Highest Court and the Constitutional Court) costs Slovak taxpayers just 150 million euro annually, or 0.2% of GDP, a number similar to many other European states. As there doesn’t seem to be much room in the court system, let’s take a look at the police.

Slovakia is a true police power

The Ministry of Interior is responsible for the police in Slovakia. Its annual budget in 2013 was roughly 900 million euro ( or 1.2% of GDP), almost three times the budget of the Ministry of Justice, with a total staff of around 36 thousand people for a country with a population of 5.4 million, making it the largest of all Slovak ministries. In comparison, the Austrian Interior Ministry only employs slightly more than 31 thousand people on a budget of 0.8% of GDP for a population of 8.4 million.

The largest chunk of the Slovak Interior Ministry’s budget is spent on the country’s police force. According to Eurostat, in 2010 the total number of police officers in Slovakia was 24,054. On a per capita basis, this makes the Slovak police force one of the largest in the European Union (See Graph 4).

Graph 4, Source: Eurostat wiki (Statistics explained)

The number of police officers in Slovakia has risen by 10% since 2009. A fact that has made headlines in the Slovak media, and which prompted the Interior Ministry to immediately question the accuracy of the statistics.

Are gendarmes police or military personnel? 

One of the arguments that the Slovak Interior Ministry uses to question the validity of EU statistics is the fact that some countries have military forces doing police work. Countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece have large gendarmeries in addition to regular police forces. The most notable example is, of course, Italy, which manages to have the largest police force in the entire European Union. With total personnel of 276,000, Italy has more police officers than Germany but only 75% of the population.

Most of Italy’s extensive police force belongs to one of its two main branches – the state police (Polizia di Stato) and the gendarmerie (Carabinieri). The two branches are roughly equal in size, but they differ in their function. The state police are responsible for large cities, the Carabinieri work in the countryside. However, the Carabinieri also work as military police and are regularly stationed with Italian soldiers during the military’s peacekeeping operations. The Carabinieri are considered one of the four branches of the Italian armed forces, its other three being the army, the navy and the air force.

As for Slovakia, there is no separate gendarmerie.  There is, though, a separate military police. But unlike the Carabinieri, the Slovak military police are not included in European statistics as regular police. So, ironically, if the Slovak Interior Ministry uses the inclusion of gendarmes as an argument against the validity of statistical comparisons of police staff, they actually reinforce the point that Slovak police numbers are too high. Simply put, if the statistics were to include Slovak military police, because gendarmes are not included at present, the reported number of police officers in Slovakia would only rise further.

 Just how high is the crime rate in Slovakia?

As there are so many police officers, one might ask whether this capacity is really justified by the incidence of crime. One has to be careful when using international comparisons of crime rates, as practices in reporting crime can vary from one country to another, there might be major differences in penal codes, and the share of unreported crime can also vary. Direct comparisons between crime rates across countries only have approximate value. However, even when we bear these differences in mind, we can say that the crime rate in Slovakia is among the lowest in the European Union (See Graph 5).

Graph 5, Source: Crime recorded by the police in 2012 per 1000 inhabitants

It is improbable that differences in penal codes or the number of unreported crimes explains why Slovakia’s crime rate is so low. Slovakia has generally low crime rates even in the most precisely defined categories. In Finland, a country of similar population, the number of reported violent crimes is five times higher. The number of homicides in Finland exceeded that of Slovakia by 27%, the number of armed robberies also by 27%, and the number of home burglaries was three times that of Slovakia’s. Yet Finland only has a third of the police force of Slovakia. Even with this significantly lower number of police, the overall crime clearance rate is actually higher in Finland than Slovakia (60% vs. 50%), and specifically the homicide clearance rate in Finland is between 80-90%, whereas in Slovakia it hovers around 60-70%.

These glaring differences might not be caused by differences in efficiency alone; there may also be differences in law enforcement traditions. But thus far, the statistics seem to paint a rather embarrassing picture of Slovakia’s police force.

 Do more police officers lead to less crime?

Playing with causality, one might argue, as many have, that crime in Slovakia is low precisely because there are so many police officers. However, academic studies have so far failed to show any evidence that increases in the number of police officers generally lead to lower crime rates. In the United Kingdom there was a 27% fall in crime in the period 2003-2009 despite the fact that the number of police stayed almost the same. In Sweden, by contrast, crime rose by 12% in the same period despite a rise in police numbers.

The Slovak police itself is not very generous when it comes to providing analyses of its own efficiency. The only numbers that the police occasionally make public on their webpage are statistics that show reductions in crime rates and traffic accidents. The most laughable aspect, though, is the interpretative spin the Ministry puts on these statistics. The police claim that every year the total clearance rate is getting higher, which is presented as proof of rising police efficiency. However, if you take a closer look, you’ll see that what makes the clearance rate rise every year is not higher efficiency, but simple arithmetic. The number of crimes cleared stays roughly the same every year. But because the number of crimes reported to the police is falling, the clearance rate is rising. The reduction of crime that is reported to the police every year does not necessarily have anything to do with police activity; it may be caused by economic and social factors, or by a larger share of crimes going unreported (e.g. corruption).

The police also boast that they have achieved the historically lowest number of deadly traffic accidents. But when you look at the statistics of other European countries, you’ll see that this is simply a general trend in all of Europe that probably has more to do with improvements in vehicle safety standards than with improvements in policing strategies. However, the Slovak police tend to attribute every positive development as a direct result of their efforts, with statements such as “the Police of the Slovak Republic decreased the total number of burglaries reported by an annual 12%” being commonplace.

How dangerous is road traffic in Slovakia?

Another important function of the police is to secure and oversee safe and steady road traffic. Here, a high number of police officers would be required if the road traffic in Slovakia was particularly heavy or dangerous. In reality, few nations in Europe have a lower number of cars per capita than Slovakia (See Graph 6).

Graph 6, Source:  Eurostat, transport statistics

So the number of cars in Slovakia is relatively low. But what if Slovak drivers are less disciplined and careful than others? Are there perhaps more road accidents in Slovakia than elsewhere? Well, as the next graph makes clear, the answer is no (See Graph 7).

Graph 7, Source: Police of SR, national statistical offices

Nor does it appear that Slovak roads are any less safe when we look at accidents on a per-automobile basis  (See Graph 8).

Graph 8, Source: Police of SR, national statistical offices

Let’s make spending more proportionate

Unfortunately, the Slovak Ministry of Interior is planning to acquire even more money and responsibilities. Under the codename “Project ESO”, the government is reorganizing the public service on the grounds of increasing savings and improving public services. As part of the plan, the Interior Ministry will take over regional school offices, which formerly functioned under the Education Ministry. The EdMin’s function had been to oversee and fund lower education in Slovakia, and the schools had been financed by the Education Ministry.

Now the money and power will be concentrated in a centralized system of regional offices working under the Interior Ministry. The government claims that the concentration is merely an optical illusion as all the money will still flow into education; it claims the new system will bring savings in public spending and better services to citizens.  One way or another, one thing is sure: after the reorganization, the Slovak Ministry of Interior will become the second largest Interior Ministry in the European Union, as far as budgets are concerned. It will also be the only Interior Ministry in the EU with a budget to fund a significant part of the public education system (See Graph 9).

Graph 9, Source: European ministries of finance and ministries of interior

The opposition claims that the new system is only meant to concentrate power in the hands of the Interior Minister, whom many see as a likely successor to the current Prime Minster Robert Fico.

In fact, several Interior Ministers in succession have been political heavyweights successful at protecting their ministry from cuts that have affected most others. In the second cabinet of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda, 2002-2006, the ministry was headed by Vladimír Palko, a Christian conservative politician well-known for his views on things like same sex marriage, euthanasia, and the role of Islam in Europe, who also liked to cultivate a tough-on-crime image as a fighter against organized crime.

In the cabinet of Iveta Radičová of 2010-2012, the Interior Minister Daniel Lipšic was another conservative politician bent on maintaining a tough guy image. Famously, after a lone shooter went on a rampage in 2010 killing 7 people, Lipšic ordered the police to carry automatic rifles on the streets. This continued for several months, resulting in embarrassing incidents where the police on patrol would forget their automatic rifles at petrol stations. Eventually, the policy was discontinued.

In the same vein, today the Interior Ministry is headed, unlike the Education or the Social Ministry, by an influential politician. Mr. Kaliňák finds it easy to shield his territory from cuts even when, after years of inefficiency and low accountability, it would actually be one of the prime candidates for a major shakeup.

It’s time to separate the fact from the fiction

The problem in Slovak politics is that very few reforms are backed up by robust analysis. The Interior Ministry never presented to the public the case for taking over the management of parts of the education system, which it is now doing. The government just insists that the new public sector structure will be more efficient and will result in savings, but there is no analysis in the public domain to prove these assertions.

Moreover, as this article has made clear, the Ministry cannot even enter into an informed or credible discussion on its current efficiency and functions. When asked about the extraordinarily high number of policemen, officials respond dismissively by casting doubt on the reliability of the data without ever presenting their own evidence to back up their claims to the contrary.  Hopefully, this article will be seen not just as a criticism of a particular ministry’s policy, but as a call for more evidence-based policy-making. Without more analyses, policies will continue to be driven by the political power of their sponsors, and not by the real needs of the country.

Tomáš Meravý

Tomáš Meravý

served as junior adviser to former finance minister Ivan Mikloš in 2011-2012 and Head of the Economics, Finance and Business section of SDKÚ-DS, a Slovak centre-right opposition party (2012).