The Hungary Diaries: Police Academy in Miskolc | Not in Our Town

The Hungary Diaries: Police Academy in Miskolc

In April, Not In Our Town Executive Producer Patrice O’Neill traveled to Hungary to introduce the Not In Our Town story and offer a model of community reconciliation and hate crime prevention in the face of pervasive anti-Roma bigotry and rising anti-Semitism.
The tour included seven workshops with local media, community members, police recruits, teachers, students and filmmakers, and was sponsored by Central European University and the U.S. and Norwegian embassies. This is Part 2 in the Hungary Diaries. See Part 1 here.
After a two-hour drive east out of Budapest across the Hungarian countryside, our two-van traveling team of 14 arrived at the Miskolc Police Academy. About 50 cadets were in the yard, chanting “HUT, HUT, HUT,” as they practiced crowd control maneuvers.
CEU professor and organizer of the NIOT tour Ellen Hume was first to greet the Director of the Academy Istvan Bagi and through our translator introduced me and the work of the Not In Our Town project. When she explained that we worked with law enforcement in the U.S. and were involved in a project with the U.S. Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Service, there was visible relief on the director’s face. He greeted us warmly and took us to the cafeteria for lunch while our film teams (including my husband, cameraman Gary Mercer) went to film the cadets in the yard.
Our incredible translators, who were sponsored by the Norwegian Embassy, went to set up their booth in the back of the room and to distribute the 100 headsets for our team and the audience. The director warned me as had others, that getting the cadets, or any Hungarians for that matter, to speak up in a group conversation would be a challenge, but that I should start by talking about something funny. I felt more prepared after the positive conversation at lunch.
In the meantime, the rest of the team was trying to manage a formidable tech challenge. We discovered that, in addition to technical incompatibilities, the hall was lit by a massive skylight that made the film almost unviewable. As we showed the first clip of the Billings story—and prepared to show Light in the Darkness—we realized that we were going to have to make the presentation without the film. It was hard to think of something funny.
I’m a storyteller and my presentation was based on the stories in the films. Luckily there were also two amazing storytellers with us, Roma Police Officer Gyorgy Makula and BBC Hungary Correspondent Nick Thorpe, who helped draw the crowd into a meaningful interaction about how police interact with Roma Hungarians.
I summarized the story of Light in the Darkness, where seven teenagers were accused in the hate crime killing of a 37-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant. I asked the question, “What can you do as police officers to prevent these kinds of attacks in your communities?”
Nick Thorpe, who speaks fluent Hungarian and is raising five sons in Budapest with his Hungarian wife, moved into the audience and started a conversation about the meaning of hate crimes. He later told us he was deeply worried that no one would break the silence. Two clipped comments were followed by a woman cadet who said that the way to prevent hate crimes was to get to know people in the community so they would feel safe in going to the police when something happened. Then, another cadet challenged us with the question, “What do I do if I am following a petty criminal and pull him over and they say, ‘You are only pulling me over because I am Roma’?”  
At this moment, a deeply experienced member of our team then took the lead in the conversation. I had sat next to Gyorgy Makula  a few nights before at the launch dinner for the Not In Our Town tour hosted by Ellen and her husband, human rights leader and CEU President John Shattuck. We talked a little about Gyorgy’s work and why he thought a television program on the life of a Roma police officer would be a good way to let his fellow citizens see the Roma in a new way.
Gyorgy took the microphone from Nick and said to the cadet, “I have some experience with this myself.  A few weeks ago, I was getting off work at the police headquarters and was driving my father’s old car, and a police officer pulled me over. I wasn’t speeding so when I was stopped, I wondered if I was pulled over because I am Roma. So, I see it from both sides.  As a police officer, it is my duty to investigate crimes and protect everyone.”

Gyorgy’s experience and story cracked open the conversation, and provided a memorable interaction between these future police officers and a peer Roma leader discussing the day-to-day interactions and the prejudice that can divide communities. After a discussion about hate groups operating on the internet, the director took the microphone to close out the event.

He thanked our team for coming, and told the audience that what we had presented was of great value to them as they entered a career in law enforcement. “I am not either for Roma or against Roma. But I am an officer who must treat all people the same, and protect all people in the same way. Remember that this is your duty as professional police officers,” Commander Bagi said.

I agree with Gyorgy. I’d love to see a TV show about  Roma police officers, to replace all the shows that still carry the stereotypes that crime is “in the gypsies blood” and that they aren’t aspiring to be upstanding members of Hungarian society. 

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