I was born into a poor family in central Hungary, in an environment with little opportunities. Thankfully I was supported by the Open Society Foundations with financial aid to complete my high school diploma. If I hadn’t managed this, I don’t know where I would be today. At the age of 21, I enrolled at a police academy in Budapest and immediately declared my Roma heritage.
Some of my colleagues were also Roma, but I was the only one who defined myself accordingly. Although this occasionally caused some friction and distance within the department, I never experienced serious problems. On the contrary, some of my senior officers respected me for my confidence. After a short time I rose to the rank of detective.
During my patrols around Budapest, I noticed that there was one Roma police officer in the 8th District and one in the neighboring 9th, both quite deprived areas with a large Roma population, but neither of them knew each other. Hence I decided to establish a support network for Roma police, and I became a Roma liaison officer to act as a point of contact between the police and the Roma community.
Sometimes Roma fear speaking to the police or distrust them, because of previous ill treatment or discrimination, so having someone who understands their background and identity can help them to feel more comfortable. In addition, for other Hungarians, they can use our liaison officers to better understand Roma and acknowledge why certain problems may be occurring.
In 2005 I had the opportunity to travel to the United States to take part in the State Department’s International Visitors’ Leadership Program. I realized that discrimination and integration issues for African-Americans in the police force in the 1970s were the same as in Hungary today, and that the National Black Police Association could serve as an instructive model for FAERLEO.
When I went to Britain to meet with colleagues, I was amazed to see so many ethnic minorities represented in the police force, and not just officers, but lieutenants and captains. I accompanied them on their patrols and attended diversity trainings, a concept which still barely exists in Hungary, and realized that there is potential to represent all Hungarian minorities in law enforcement.
My task was not easy; talking about race and ethnicity is still very much a taboo in Hungary. We were criticized by some for establishing our organization. People accused us of segregating, but in fact we are like a club or a union. Anyone in law enforcement can join, and we have many non-Roma members. Stringent data protection legislation means that we cannot be sure how many Roma police officers there are, but we hope that more will be inspired and encouraged to join.
In addition to the symbolic power, being a policeman also presents a viable career path: You have job security, health insurance, and the ability to obtain credit to buy a house—all things that are out of the reach of most Roma. But mainly, for a Hungarian citizen to see a Roma patrolling or responding to a crime, it sends a powerful message that not all Roma are criminals. We too want to be safe and to help protect the safety of all Hungarians.
Visitors from other countries in Eastern Europe may witness this and change some of their perceptions toward Hungary and toward Roma. In the meantime, FEARELO continues to expand its links with other police forces and Roma liaison officers across Europe, with the hope of establishing better standards and true community policing by consent.