Foreign crime victims lack faith in police

  • 2001-11-01
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - Thousands of foreigners have become victims of crime in the Baltic states so far this year, according to police figures. Due to Tallinn's position as the main crime hotspot in the region, 1,326 crimes against foreigners have been committed in Estonia, over half of them against visiting Finns, and few are likely to call the police.

More than 600 foreigners have fallen prey to criminals in Latvia in 2001. The real figure could be much greater, however, since many foreigners here are averse to calling the police. Some say they have not been sure whether a crime situation has been made better or worse when the police show up.

Frenchman Bernard Larane, co-owner of a bakery on the edge of Riga's Old Town, has been living in Latvia for eight years. He has had his fair share of troubles, but on the whole, he says, Latvia is a safe country to be in.

"I was robbed two years ago in the Old Town when a guy asked me for some change. I opened my wallet and he grabbed it and ran," Larane said. "I caught him and then called the police, but he didn't have my wallet. We went to the station. The police found my wallet in the street."

But instead of giving Larane his money back, which was eventually found in one of the thief's pockets, the police decided to keep it as "evidence." They told Larane he should return the next day to collect it.

"But, of course, when I came back they said they had made a mistake and given my money to the thief. They did more wrong to me than the thief. From now on, I'll only call the police in case of violence."

Krists Leiskalns, a spokesman for the state police, said it is regretful that foreigners lack faith in the police here.

"Crime statistics may be on the rise, but more and more crimes are solved, so I believe that people have greater trust in the police," he said.

Estonian is statistically the most dangerous country in the Baltic states for foreigners. Finns are clearly the preferred victims.

Kadri Palta, a spokeswoman for the Estonian state police, said information brochures in foreign languages about general safety issues exist, but she could not say where they could be found.

Foreigners tell stories of police insufficiency in Estonia, too.

Jason Barry, a British marketing specialist living and working in Tallinn, told The Baltic Times that although local police have always been very friendly with him, they are generally more interested in paperwork and getting traffic fines.

"I understand the police are underfunded, but from a foreigner's point of view the lack of police presence in the Old Town in the evenings is surprising, since so many crimes take place there," Barry said.

Estonian police statistics say nine of 10 crimes against foreigners actually took place on the same street - Viru - during the first half of this year.

Barry said his car had been broken into several times. He keeps going back to the police, but only in order to claim insurance compensation.

"We don't keep such statistics in Lithuania. Victims of all nationalities and criminals of all nationalities are just victims and criminals," Danute Daunoraviciute, a police spokeswoman, said. "Foreigners make up for a very small percentage of victims and criminals here."

Foreigners in Lithuania are not as reluctant as they are in Latvia to contact the police when they are in trouble.

Mexican business student Arturo Soto Gonzalez said, "If I was a crime victim I would report it to the police without any doubt. I think the police here try to be especially helpful toward foreigners because they are afraid a foreigner could complain, either to the press or to his country's embassy."

Kurt Sveilis, working in the advertising industry in Latvia, also has a positive opinion about crime and the police. He has never been the victim of a serious crime during his seven years in Latvia.

"I would call the police just to get a record of it, than later maybe they can put two and two together," he said. "I don't think the crime rate is higher here compared with any other major city. There are parts of many cities where you just don't walk at night. There aren't many of those in Riga."

Latvian crime statistics show that robbery, theft and drug-related crimes have risen dramatically over the years, but crimes involving weapons and explosives have gone down.

It can become clear to foreigners where their stolen gods end up - at the flea market.

Andres Hernandez, a Newsweek photographer from the Philippines living in Lithuania, has had his car stereos stolen.

"My car windows have been smashed many times and I've had three car stereos taken. I've reported every incident, but the last time instead of buying a new stereo I went to Gariunai market to buy a second-hand one. I was shocked to see that what were obviously stolen car stereos, used and without boxes, were being sold in the open."

If police want to put an end to this dirty business, Hernandez added, they should go for the people making a profit from it.

Many crimes against foreigners take place after dark, around closing time.

"Most foreign crime victims are tourists or business travelers staying just for a few days," Leiskalns said. "A lot of crimes against them take place in bars and nightclubs. Big spenders attract criminals."