Don's Diary

July 26, 1996

Thursday. There are some perks in attending a conference organised by the police. As I emerge from the umbilical corridor joining plane and airport at Warsaw, three Polish police officers whisk me through immigration to a waiting car. I am on my way to Wroclaw to attend an international conference on policewomen. I had not appreciated that the venue is a six-and-a-half hour train ride from the capital. One of my chaperones speaks English and advises against giving money to the Romanian beggars at the station because it is widely believed that the unfortunate begging women or boys are run in Faginesque fashion.

The landscape from the train is drained of colour, the only splashes of reds and yellows provided by flowers in little cemeteries fringing the villages. The buildings are grey or sand-coloured, covered in a moss verdigris. Conversation is limited as we have lost the English speaker but I am offered coffee in the buffet car. I refuse what I think is sugar to discover that it was powdered milk, making the paint-stripping qualities of the coffee even more pronounced.

Another police escort to the grandly named, but unstarred Savoy Hotel where I meet the conference organisers and other delegates. Two Polish policewomen persuaded the general commanding the Polish police, the regional commander and the Polish Police Union to support an international meeting to discuss issues relating to women in policing. I have been invited to present my findings on stress among police officers. Two Dutch women and I are the only Western Europeans, the others coming from Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine and Poland. English is the common language with an interesting reluctance to use Russian. Eastern European countries are reinventing themselves following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the police are a fascinating microcosm of the problems involved. I am told that the police in Poland were subjected to the policy of "czyste rece" or "clean hands" which had purged senior officials tainted by their association with the previous regime. Women's emergent role in a reconstructed police service has potential symbolic value.

Friday. The head of the national police of Poland, Jezhy Stanchik, opens the conference. In his speech there are elements of the paternalism that seeks to protect women from the rough and dirty side of policing . Such attitudes and subsequent papers reprise the process of establishing equal opportunities in the British force. It is still not customary for Polish policewomen to serve as street patrol officers. One presenter commented on the marginal role experienced by women who are sometimes treated as "decorative office material" and that "in a skirt and on high heels it is difficult to get on a bus so that pursuing a criminal is out of the question". A second paper outlines the growing role of policewomen in crime prevention, a significant problem in the new free-wheeling market economy. The final paper of the morning session describes "Project La Strada", a four-country co-operative programme to prevent the trafficking of women within Central and Eastern Europe which has increased hugely. An irony here is that women were introduced into the Polish police as a consequence of the activities of the Association for Moral and Social Hygiene, campaigning against rises in prostitution after the first world war. The afternoon involves a sight-seeing tour taking in the Panorama Raclawicka, a huge circular painting of an earlier fight for independence. The museum houses an exhibition of pictures of the city in previous reincarnation, Breslaw, when administered by Germany, and shows the colossal damage inflicted on it during the bombardments of the second world war.

Saturday. My presentation, workshops, and discussions. There is much lively debate between the women who are divided on their preferred methods to progress the role of policewomen: a more radical line which follows a woman-defined agenda and a more softly-softly accommodation with male models of policing. Again, this is strikingly reminiscent of police pioneers in Britain. Social events include a spit-roasted pig supper at Zamek Gorka, an 11th century monastery-cum-castle. A more picturesque fairy tale could not have been ordered: wedding cake spires, covered in a light icing of snow.

Sunday. An agreed final declaration includes a commitment to fight discrimination; undertake research into women in the police; combat violence against women in society; support women police officers. An officer from the drugs squad takes me for a walking tour around the city. A further graphic example of the conflict between past and present is the rather grim looking complex of police and court buildings, previously the Gestapo's headquarters.

Monday. Trip home begins at midnight. While I wait for my police escort to the station, I run some DIY repairs on the plumbing in my room and stow away the dilapidated divan-settee that made up my bed. The ladies of the night ply their trade near the hotel and I am left with mixed impressions of optimism that life can be made better and pessimism that the democratic balance is fragile.

JENNIFER BROWN Principal lecturer at the Institute of Police and Criminological Studies, University of Portsmouth.

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