But the public is to blame as well, experts say, calling for better pay for the policemen and development of a ‘driving culture’
Police officers issuing fines against traffic violators in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Thanh District.
When two teenagers were ordered to pull over by traffic police in Da Nang City last Friday for driving a motorbike in the wrong direction on a one-way street without wearing crash helmets, they did not oblige.
In the ensuing chase, Vo Duy Quang, 18 and Pham Duy Linh, 19, fell down on a section of Hoang Dieu Street. But neither of them was scared or repentant.
Instead they began to swear at and accuse the policemen of beating them up. They also called up relatives and friends to rush to the place and prevent the police from seizing the bike. Furthermore, they blocked traffic and attempted to instigate the public into opposing the officers.
The incident, which happened at around 9 a.m., seriously disrupted traffic on the street.
It was the latest among several recent incidents where drivers have openly defied traffic cops despite having violated the law.
Experts say the increasing tendency to oppose the police stems from an antipathy rooted in the widespread perception that the latter are thoroughly corrupt.
On Tuesday, Da Nang police said they will ask prosecutors to file charges of causing public disorder against eight people involved, including the two teenage drivers.
Senior Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Hai Thuan of the Da Nang Police Department said preliminary investigations have found several people involved in the dispute were in no way connected to Quang and Linh.
Truong Hoa Binh, director of the Center for Public Opinion Poll (CPOP) under the Institute of Sociology, said the increase in negative responses to traffic policemen on duty was a problem of image.
“We cannot say that the public image of a Vietnamese traffic police officer is that he is immoral or unethical, but, at the same time, the perception is also not one of an honest person,” he told Vietweek.
“Recent fights between police officials and drivers have deepened the negative perception,” he said.
In a recent case, a traffic cop in Ninh Binh Province was suspended after a video on the internet showed him beating a truck driver until his club broke.
The police officer was identified as major Hoang Van Trong of Ninh Binh Police Department’s Traffic Police Division.
In another case, police in the northern province of Lang Son have arrested a man who threatened to assault two traffic police officers with a broken bottle on June 7.
A video posted on YouTube showed that the young man who was stopped for not wearing a helmet used foul language against the police, and threatening them with a glass bottle that he broke. He also managed to get an iron chain from a local’s house as an additional weapon to threaten the cops with. More than 10 people were watching the drama as it unfolded in Dong Dang Town.
One of the police officers called for support, but the man left on his motorbike before reinforcements arrived.
The case of the policeman beating a driver has attracted more comments from readers than the one in which the cops were on the receiving end.
Binh of CPOP said government officials like traffic policemen must know they are under constant public scrutiny are should not engage in any wrongdoing.
“Repeated wrongdoings by some officials will give a bad reputation to the entire police force,” he said.
In the Da Nang case, he said everybody was aware that the two motorbike drivers were drunk, but they focused on finding wrongdoings on the part of traffic police officers.
According to the World Bank's Vietnam Development Report 2006, companies perceived traffic police as the most corrupt institution in Vietnam.
Four years later, Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer once again found that the Vietnamese police force considered to be the most corrupt public institution in the country.
Former deputy minister of Public Security Le The Tiem has said: “I don’t know why anyone [traffic cop] would ask to be assigned there.” He was referring to the fact that many traffic policemen prefer patrolling and pulling over vehicles to performing administrative duties.
At a National Assembly meeting on June 14, Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang said only “a certain number” of traffic police have violated the force’s core values and violated laws. He said a majority of traffic police officers refused bribes despite facing many pressures in their working environment.
Binh said Quang’s assessment did not reflect the actual situation of traffic cops receiving bribes.
“It is difficult for him to admit the truth. Anyway, it’s good that he did admit to the fact that bribery exists in the police force and pledged to correct it.”
Binh and other experts said the traffic police were not solely to blame for corruption.
“In their working environment, traffic police are always being offered bribes. Drivers violating laws are willing to give bribes because they don’t want their vehicles seized. Sometimes, the bribe is lower than a fine which also requires complicated procedures. So it is the easiest way out.”
“A traffic police officer’s salary is low. Violations are abundant and bribes certainly help augment their income,” he said, saying the need is for “a more transparent society with motorists not colluding with the police in the bribery act.”
He said the public cannot be held blameless. “Vietnamese people do not like strict regulations and violators always try to defend or shift the blame to others. They have a bad response to law enforcement in general.”
Many people do not obey the law because they think it is not enforced fairly or equally. There are those who think they can go scot-free by asking for help from influential people, Binh said.
Henry Hollinger, a retired Canadian policeman who works as a consultant based in Canada and Vietnam, said that traffic police in the country do have a bad reputation.
“But for corruption to work it needs two parties, namely a corruptor and a corruptee… Most motorists feel they just get jacked up by the police for money/bribes. The system in traffic enforcement is very complicated and has to be changed,” he told Vietweek.
“The system should be that all police can do is only issue a ticket and are not allowed to take money. If they take money and are found out, they have to be punished very hard and quickly, lose their job and go to jail,” he said.
Hollinger also said there has to be an independent system where the public can complain about police conduct.
Alan McCain, an expatriate who has been working in HCMC for ten years, said that corruption cannot be blamed on the policemen.
He said it was a vicious cycle, where the police take bribes because of low salaries, which leads to loss of public respect, reinforces bribe giving and taking, and eventually leads to violent confrontations. The situation needs changes in the law enforcement system and the development of “a driving culture,” he said.
He said salaries of policemen need to be increased because “low salaries are a disincentive to law enforcement and perhaps the main reason why they are willing to pocket fines.”
McCain said compliance with traffic laws should not be based on fear of being fined, but because it is the socially responsible and safe thing to do. He said the road culture or driving culture that would make people “too embarrassed to shamelessly run red lights etc” does not exist in Vietnam at present.
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By Khanh An, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the June 22nd issue of our print edition, Vietweek)