A Wild Summer for the Turkish Police

Nothing quite makes me want to commit a violent crime like an encounter with the Turkish police.

I need about two months extra on my residence permit here, so that I can both pick up my first salary and get in and out of the country to attain legal working status from the consulate in London. This is a laborious process as it is. The problem is, that the ability to do this rests on one gentleman in Bakırköy police station who sees it as his mission to annoy every single foreigner within his jurisdiction into seeking residence elsewhere.

The guy in line in front of me screamed a beautiful, heart-rendering array of Turkish insults at the officer, as he and his Kazakh wife had been waiting for three hours, before they were told to come back another day.

With a shrug of the shoulders the officer said “What do you want me to do? I can't do anything”, “I’m going to come back with a friend” the other man implored, “give me you name and surname.” Without a care in the world the officer said “It’s my right not to give you my name or surname, go get your friend and see what happens,” and as he continued to defend his position to the other officers in room, the poor man who had been waiting could be heard slamming several doors, each echoing louder than the other as he left the station in a rage.

My own process has gone on for several days now, being hampered at every single turn. The officer refused to give me a day over one month despite a call to my university and anyone else who can prove how completely kosher my stay will be in return for just six weeks. "Why are you making this hard for me?" he keeps imploring.

The criminal thoughts have only increased. Whilst waiting in the lobby between small chats, I frequently consider whether being in a cell for the night for having defenestrated an office type-writer or nipple-twisted a uniformed clerk would harm my application, or be treated by a separate department unaware of my pending trial.

Apparently, I’m not the only one with such thoughts, but I’ve learnt to restrain myself after reading this holiday’s bunch of police scandals. It had been a particularly eventful summer for the police even before I went down to Izmir to see some old friends for Eid, so I was frustrated I wasn’t able to write about all this sooner.

No matter however. For bloggers with a knack for complaining about state violence, the Turkish police are the gift that keeps giving. In the last month or so there have been several scandals involving police brutality, which Hürriyet journalist Emre Kızılkaya says has “become a norm for the AKP government”. I’m not convinced brutality hasn’t been a norm under previous governments either, considering Jitem and the post-coup era. This view is echoed by social affairs blogger Gözde Görür, who states that although it is widely viewed as increasing, police brutality has always been there.

Comparisons aside, the police are certainly enjoying immunity and freedom under the government’s tutelage.

Firstly, Kurdish protests have gone from being tolerated as a matter of maintaining order, to becoming full-blown battles on the streets of Diyarbakır when so much as a child throws a stone at by-standing police, already loading their tear gas grenades. “We have to protect ourselves”, one policeman I spoke to who was serving in Diyarbakır cried, when I doubted the wisdom of trying such minors as ‘terrorists’ under draconian laws.

Impunity is the main watchword when one talk about the police. Especially within the bracket of citizens I unfortunately fall in to – the suspicious, probably up-to-no-good, twenty-something-year-old males. With this in mind, one major exception stood out in July, when the son of the deputy for Hatay got into an argument with a cop at a police station in that city.

Ömer Uzun, who is also the head of the AK party’s local youth wing, threatened to have the officer “exiled” when a deputy inspector intervened telling him not to speak to a police officer like that. One thing lead to another, as it tends to do, and by the end of the day in a remarkable scene, several officers were lined-up before Uzun and the ‘offending’ officers identified. Both officers were reassigned to different districts after being laid off for a number of days.

Satirical comic Le Man had a field day with this story. On the front page (pictured) it shows a number of frightened police in a line-up, wondering what the charges against them were. The first cop says “I confess! Yesterday I hospitalised three protesters!”, the second cop: “Me too, I killed a youth in custody”, the third one adds that he “used undue force against a couple of marching students and fired tear gas at them inducing an asthma attack on both”. The officer in charge barks “Shut up all of you! We’re here to identify who had an argument with the AKP governor’s kid!”.

There is no doubt that Uzun’s connections enabled him to do this. When one looks at what happened in a suburb of Izmir a few weeks later, one sees all too clearly how helpless the rest of the general public are in the face of the police when issues far more serious than a dining-hall argument occur.

It was the 13th August when Emrah Barlak accidentally knocked their car into a traffic police vehicle. The police officers began filing a report (as though it was a crime and not a simple matter of insurance damage), however Emre’s case probably wasn’t helped by the fact he didn’t have his licence on him. Izmir’s police are particularly famous for their obstinacy, and I experienced this several times first hand when I lived in the city, so I can imagine how rude and difficult they were, especially judging from Emre and his three passenger friends’ reaction – he went to throw a chair at the officer.

Watch the video below. It is difficult, just to warn you, but it is important to see first hand. There was not a split second between Emre’s raising of the chair and the officers – yes, that is a plural – decision to release four rounds that would kill him and injure three others, some of whom can be seen running to calm him down before things before the first bullet was fired. One by-stander shouts “he didn’t even fucking do anything” at the police, standing calmly by whilst others cry for an ambulance.

I was staying with my adopted Izmirli family at their holiday home in Çeşme that week. The home is in a small village for middle-class urbanites on their summer breaks. As it was Eid, all the local families took it in turns to do the rounds of the village and pop in for tea at each other's houses swapping “Bayram mübarek olsun”s. One gentlemen came onto the porch with his family and a series of the usual cheek-kissing formalities ensued. With the appropriated self-censorship of an Izmirli, one of my family whispered to me, “He works in Iran as a security attache for the government. He used to be the police chief of Erzincan”. At that point because it was a holy day, I decided to keep my trap shut about the events I’d read. Luckily, however, it wasn’t me that brought up the shootings.

“The media is always completely biased against us”, He said, “Take another example – this gentleman who blew his own brains out [ah yes, another thing – a mentally ill man who tried to stab his neighbour and was subsequently arrested, managed to take a cop’s gun into his cell and shoot himself in the head], not one of the newspapers mentioned he had tried to stab a cop in the leg – in my opinion that’s suicide”.

That’s what I heard him say. I don’t know whether the death was suspicious or just the result of negligence – who is to say if that is even a question, in any case, the attitude is the same: the media are against us, it’s not our fault. Although that was an informal gathering, many officers even higher in rank have felt free to lend support to Izmir’s boys in blue in more public ways.

A few days after the incident, the Antalya chief of police wrote a message on Facebook saying “Helal olsun. Sokak ortasında dayak yiyip de üniformayı rezil etmediniz. Ölen ve yaralanan köpeklere Allah'tan rahmet dilemiyorum”, in other words, “God bless you. You didn’t shame your uniform in the middle of the street. I don’t wish God’s mercy on those dead or injured dogs [that you killed or injured]”.

According to Kızılkaya, “there were hundreds of reader comments in Turkish news websites to support the police and not the victim. These reactions may also have roots in the latest Usual Suspects Incident". The perception that the police are ‘having a hard time of it’evidently finds some sympathisers, amongst those both pro and anti government.

But the point is, one blogger puts it, “If the police are here to protect us from harm, who is to protect us from the police?”

I have to go back to the station tomorrow. I certainly won’t be throwing any staplers around, knowing what I know – but if my views are just a microcosm of what the rest of the country is feeling, then things are going to get worse, and the police are going to run out of excuses.

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