The Unraveling of Turkey’s Police Department

An unpleasant reality sinks in after the purge of some 30,000 police officers. Crooks and inept officers filled the vacuum.

Several years ago when the Turkish authorities set out a sweeping purge in Turkey’s national police department, unprecedented in republican history, they presented it as an indispensable and essential measure to cleanse the police force of non-loyalists and government “enemies.” In the context of its particular semantic reference, the “public enemy of people” infamously referred to Gulen sympathizers within the police force. The phrase, however, was a euphemism; it rather meant officers of any stripes who do not submissively toe the line of the government.

Five years after the first initial phases of the purge within the police, what emerged was an unpleasant reality, something that sooner or later the authorities must come to terms with. A Washington-based Turkish journalist shared some tiny statistics about serious crimes in which police officers involved. Crimes, the journalist noted with reservation, do not include the ones such as mistreatment of inmates in detention, torture, bribery and other big types. As expectedly, his tweet sparked as much sensation and indignation as any observer of Turkey’s most recent affairs can conceive. It also generated an impassioned debate over how things went astray this much and how quickly in the past few years.

According to the tweet, the crimes committed by police officers over the past several months are as follows (Some of them were edited and given in context for clarity):

October 15, 2018, Istanbul — Five police officers who seized the money of bookmakers were detained.

November 22, 2018, Ankara — It has been found that a police officer who (allegedly) found a Ponzi scheme killed a non-commissioned military officer.

November 23, 2018, Istanbul — A police officer was arrested over the charge of extorting three young people in Istanbul.

November 30, 2018, Adana — A female police officer faces 5 years in prison over forcing her female colleagues to prostitution.

December 6, 2018, Eskisehir — A police officer, suspect of extortion and pickpocketing, had been sentenced to 16 years in prison.

December 12, 2018, Rize — Rize Provincial police chief was shot dead by a low-ranking police officer after a quarrel when the latter demanded a new assignment to a new post.

December 21, 2018, Zonguldak — Caycuma district police officer was arrested on the charge of historical artifact smuggling.

December 27, 2018, Istanbul — Prosecutors sought a 12-year prison sentence for a police officer accused of raping a woman in a police car in Istanbul’s Beylikduzu district.

January 9, 2018, Izmir — A police officer killed a transgender person in Izmir.

January 20, 2018, Istanbul — Two police officers raped a woman in a police car after intercepting a taxi and taking the female passenger (victim) out. Both police officers were suspended from duty and the legal probe is still underway.

January 20, 2018, Sanliurfa — Siverek District Police Chief and four other police officers were arrested on charges of historical artifact smuggling.

Surely, the list of stomach-turning and shocking crimes continues longer in other media news. But the upshot of the matter is that Turkey’s police forces face a rapid deterioration in institutional ethics, rude and insolent personnel behaviors, poor training, eroding professionalism, weakening respect for individual rights and law. The dereliction of duty is augmented by a sense that their crimes would not be prosecuted as long as they have, personal or ideological, affiliation with the government. The impersonal character and notion of professional police force seem to have been irrevocably shattered.

This corrupted view of duty did not come out of the blues. The government passed a decree, granting a form of immunity from prosecution to the police officers for crimes they might have committed for the sake of country’s interests during the state of emergency. The loose interpretation of that opaque decree certainly falls on individuals, differing from context to context, thus enabling many officers to take whatever meaning they can conceive of it.

Against this backdrop, people who opined their feelings and thoughts in response to the tweet noted with a consensus that this was not surprising altogether. According to the shared conviction, the recent predicament of the police force was the government’s own making. It was a natural outcome of the purge of devoted, professional and experienced police chiefs. When these experienced and law-abiding police officers, numbered over 30,000, were dismissed and the majority of them landed in jail, inept and incompetent officers filled the vacuum. Political loyalty trumped meritocracy and ideological outlook overcame professional and personal success. The result is a near-complete breakdown of public trust in police and law enforcement agencies.

The current bleak picture does not portend a bright future. Every day people share new videos featuring citizens’ grumblings and lamentations about worrying signs of increasingly dysfunctional state institutions. When adding to that a slumping economy and soaring inflation, the central pillars of social cohesion and political order appear to be at great peril, more than ever in recent memory.

The Return of the Mob

The treatment of the resurgent mob leaders by authorities would be a revealing indication of how things turned upside down in Turkey. Sedat Peker, the infamous nationalist mob leader, has no scruples over publicly threatening President Erdogan’s discontents. His threats, when brought to court, are regarded by a new breed of prosecutors within the scope of free expression. Charges against him were dropped even before making it to a court hearing. This comes as a shock given that this same liberty is spared from professors and journalists who were shunned out as heretics even for the mildest form of criticism against authorities (read Erdogan). This dispiriting and increasingly unnerving new socio-political outlook is, however, not without historical precedents. During the dark, long 1990s, there was a notorious web of tangled relations between mob, politicians and law enforcement officials. Peker belongs to that generation and he was spotted along with governors, even some generals and other government figures, not to speak of famous figures from celebrity world, including former Turkish Football Federation head Haluk Ulusoy and some fashion models.

Peker, who represents the breakdown in Turkey’s state structure in the 1990s along with other dark figures, is back on the beat with renewed gusto. He appeared several times along with President Erdogan, former President Abdullah Gul, leaders of religious orders and police chiefs. His active presence in the streets and politics is regarded as a return to the era of the 1990s when the Turkish government resorted to illegal measures to silence critics, Kurdish political activists and Kurdish businessmen amid a deadlocked war between the security forces and the outlawed Kurdish militants in southeastern Turkey.

The wheel of history in Turkey’s modern era, unfortunately, rolls forward and backward in a cyclical form. Progress and reforms are followed by heartbreaking setbacks. After novel EU reforms of the 2000s, there was a positive public mood. But after 2013, when then-Prime Minister Erdogan and his cabinet members were ensnarled in a graft scandal, things went awry. The government has rolled back all those EU reforms and set Turkey on uncharted territory, more perilous than the level when it came to power in 2002. The country lurched into one crisis after another in the past few years. The coup in 2016 became a defining element of a systemic change amid transformation of the political system last year. With executive presidency in place, pillars and tenets of de jure one-man rule have been inexorably set out. Last year, Turkey moved to a new system after the presidential election.

The Fish and Corrupted View of Work Ethics

There is an anonymous proverb in Turkish culture to describe the nature of corruption in the bureaucracy. The fish, the folk saying emphasizes in simplified terms, begins to stink from the head, down to the body. It means that if the head of the state shows no regard for the rule of law, then nobody does. If a government head, a prime minister or a president, crosses the bounds of official propriety too often, then other public servants feel less committed to abide by the law or norms. The head of state, in the eyes of the public, then sets the precedent, good or bad, and the law of the land. Everything Turkey has experienced over the past few years unequivocally vindicates this centuries-old folk saying. Consider a country where a president repeatedly shows contempt not just for court rulings, but also for the Constitutional Court decisions which are final and binding for every other court and government institution. His show of contempt extends to binding ECtHR rulings as well. In this political context where the judiciary has been shredded, where every known law and norms are trampled without any regard, where prosecutors and judges have been imprisoned en masse, why does an ordinary public worker give any shred of respect for the law?

Why does a police officer, if thinks he has the backing of the government, fear the prospect of prosecution for alleged wrongdoing? If a public worker, a governor, a mayor or a police chief has a belief with a conviction that the government would shield him from a probe, why does then he bother to respect laws and norms? This point has relevance and pertinence to all things that shape our daily political debate in the public domain. Yet, the naive and misplaced optimism still haunts some mid-level officials. Regardless of one’s affiliation with the ruling party, the depraved nature of wrongdoing somehow places many officials at the heart of a legal investigation.

It would be an overstretch of the reasoning to deduce from all discussed above that Turkey’s police forces are on the brink of a total institutional collapse. It is not. But evident signs of incompetence and fraying at the structural and individual level conjures up, beyond any dispute, the impression of a teetering department in all aspects. More alarming, perhaps above all, is that an emerging culture of violating institutional rules and the disregard for the law have contagiously swept through many layers of security bureaucracy like an epidemic. Individual freewheeling, arbitrary interpretation of the law, contextual implementation of certain rules, insolent and reckless practices, elements that now define the major contours of policing in Turkey.

No doubt, all of this bodes ill for the integrity of institutions and for public trust in government. Both are in short supply after all that happened. The journalist’s evergreen tweet is little more than a footnote to a broad set of misgivings and setbacks that characterize Turkey’s fracturing public service and law enforcement after the post-coup purge. If anyone is curious to see what happened to Turkey’s police force, it would suffice to look at that summarizing tweet. It bears witness to all that went wrong. And it is far from over, seemingly not yet.