by Diana Oncioiu and Vlad Stoicescu
photographs by Silviu Panaite and Zora Iuga
There are four police stations in the 5th District of Bucharest. In charge with public safety and order in Ferentari is Police Division 24, established in the neighborhood in 1999.
At first, the unit consisted of just two policemen whose activity took place in a single room. Afterwards, it gradually expanded. Along with the expansion came the label of “disciplinary battalion”. A place where you get sent either to serve a sentence or for a professional motivation that cannot be explained to others.
A video shared on the Internet featuring an officer of Division 24, shows how such a work philosophy ends up by dividing citizens into first-class and second-class categories. Upon being confronted with footage that fuels – under the indirect patronage of the Romanian Police uniform – all the negative labels about Ferentari, the Chief Commissioner of Division 24 dismissed the controversy with some paradoxical explanations.
Meanwhile, domestic violence is rampant in the neighborhood’s ghettos with the police guided by the belief that „they fight and then kiss and make up.”
As part of the series #FerentariLux, Dela0.ro investigates the level, quality and efficiency of public services in the neighborhood. In the third episode we take a look at safety and order – the first dealt with education services, the second with health services.
The first slap
In a classroom of a school in Ferentari a group of women talk about domestic violence. Two ladies explain to the wives and mothers of Ferentari how quarrels between parents may affect the little ones. Gradually the women muster up the courage to speak.
The first to speak is Adriana. She left her husband who used to beat her. She took her children and left. Now, all three of them are living in a studio in Ferentari. Nobody has helped her. „I do not get beaten anymore, but there are days when I don’t have any food to give to my children,” says Adriana outraged.
Bianca is the next one to speak. She still lives with her violent husband. She left him once, but came back to him because she had no other option and did not want to leave the children with him. If she had a place to go to, she would leave tomorrow. Until then, she continues to sit under the same roof with an alcoholic husband who beats her.
Bianca recalls her husband didn’t use to be violent. For four years he didn’t slap her once. And then the first slap came. She got it because the child was crying which for her husband ment she did something wrong. That’s how things used to work in their house.
After the first slap, came he second one, then the third. Slaps were followed by punches. „He would beat me for no reason. He would come home, turn the music on and start hitting me. He would beat me in front of the children, “Bianca recalls. In fact, she asked us not to disclose her real name. She called the police several times, but each time the situation was solved in between the four walls of their home. Her husband had connections with the police, so each phone call would be solved with just a reprimand at the scene and nothing else.
She went to the hospital just once. „He hit me, I knocked my head against the wall and broke it. I didn’t feel pain, but my scalp felt as if it were on fire. My aunt took me to the hospital. I spent about two hours there, in the hallways. I left eventually.”
Bianca’s eldest daughter lives next to her. She has a little daughter and a violent husband, as well. The walls are thin. She can hear each scandal. Bianca’s sister lives across the street. The last time her husband beat her, she almost got disfigured. Neither Bianca, nor her sister, nor her daughter ever filed a complaint to the police. They have found refuge to a neighbor or a relative, but afterwards returned under the same roof with the aggressor.
The 5th district of Bucharest does not have a temporary shelter for victims of domestic violence, despite the frequency of this phenomenon. The nearest center of the kind is located in District 4.
According to law, in the absence of a shelter the only services that can be provided by the General Directorate of Social Assistance are „legal advice, psychological counseling, social benefits, exceptional financial and material assistance, information on the elements of social support that can provide assistance and specialized help for victims of domestic violence.”
As the Directorate’s district 5 statistics show, they have managed 15 cases of domestic violence over the past five years. Out of these, three cases were from Ferentari.
The commissary's bombastic speech
There are four police stations in the 5th District of Bucharest. In charge with the public safety and order in Ferentari is Police Division 24, established in the neighborhood in 1999. Alexandru Găitan has been a policeman in this unit since 2000. At first, there were only two policemen in Ferentari, recalls Găitan. The entire division was functioning in a single room. When he requested to be transferred to the 5th District, the top officers did not understand why he wanted to go to the „disciplinary battalion.”
That’s how the division was known in the beginning, explains Găitan; and that is because they used to transfer here police officers from all other districts of the capital. Among policemen, however, this name had another meaning – Division 24 battalion was also a place where one was sent to serve a sentence. Wearing the uniform here was considered less of a profession and more of a purgatory. When you see things from such a perspective, you can easily slide towards treating those you are supposed to serve as if they were second-class citizens. Did this happen?
After 16 years of working in the neighborhood, Găitan says things are much better now. First of all, there are more than two police officers in Ferentari and the police is more present in the neighborhood. 10-15 years ago, they would patrol inside the buildings too, but it is no longer necessary now, says the policeman. In terms of consumption of prohibited substances Găitan believes that „sale and consumption of drugs have become very, very restricted”.
His judgments are supported by the Chief of Division 24, Mihai Vîja. He is convinced that „the drug story” on Livezilor Street is a myth since „consumption is not reaching alarming levels”. However, on Livezilor ever since garbage was collected and trash containers were placed between buildings, one can easily see the used syringes. On a day in October, only two blocks behind the container and 10 meters from the park, one can easily count 40-50 of them. In addition, there are also those left in the park, in the buildings staircases and on the street.
When he arrived at Division 24 in 2007, Mihai Vîja was faced with the label of „disciplinary battalion” and the prejudice – he used exactly this word – that in Ferentari „you enter if you want and you get out if you can.” However, Vîja believes that the results achieved in the past decade, which translates into increased safety for citizens, can fight such labels and prejudice.
„We try to show that Ferentari is not a black spot on the map of Bucharest,” Mihai Vîja says emphatically, dressed in a suit, in this October morning when Dela0.ro reporters visit him in his office.
He continues: „It’s a neighborhood where good and bad people live together. It is not really an area that should frighten those who come here.”
We do not reveal to the Chief Commissioner that we have been coming to Ferentari for the past six months in order to document our feature stories. We let him reassure us on the neighborhood’s safety and put himself in a favorable light, leading the charge to fight the bad image of the area.
A united team
According to the Chief Commissioner, large part of the criminal activity in the neighborhood consists of threats, light beatings and property damage. Then come car thefts, home thefts and yard thefts. „Crime is low because they live here. Usually they go and steal elsewhere. Here we see thefts between neighbors,” Găitan adds.
Cases of domestic violence account for a small percentage, Vîja assures us. In such situations, his officers „exercise the counseling prerogative”, they notify the victim on the protective order, while victims are even counseled as to how to obtain the order, claims the Chief Commissioner. After such an intervention „women happen to complain”, says Vîja, trying to dodge the issue. He also has an explanation for the low number of reported cases of domestic violence: „Timely and firm intervention prevents domestic violence from continuing, so stabbings are avoided.”
Nevertheless, the talks our reporters had with Ferentari women contradict the Chief Commissioner. Following the principle „they fight and then kiss and make up” a mother from Ferentari was even threatened by the policemen that if she continued to call 112 when she got beaten by her husband, the policeman would fine her.
Bianca did not get stabbed by her husband. He beat her countless times, injured her head and face. Her sister got almost disfigured by her husband. Bianca’s husband received just a verbal reprimand from a policeman. Bianca found out about the protective order and the necessary documents to get such order from a meeting with NGOs, not from the police officers who have come repeatedly to her home.
Chief Commissioner Vîja is satisfied with his team, a united group that works well on the ground. This is what the official evaluation sounds like. He acknowledges that there were situations when citizens complained about abuse of power. But such situations are extremely rare, ensures Vîja. Up to ten cases a year.
Each of these cases was treated as a criminal complaint and sent for settlement to the Prosecutor’s Office of the 5th District Court. In such situations, the department caries out an administrative procedure in order to establish whether the intervention procedures were respected. However, the policeman in question gets suspended only upon prosecution. Usually, the administrative procedure does not reach any conclusion until the prosecutor investigation is completed – otherwise „it would mean there is a pre-judgment on our side, the division”; this is the paradoxical explanation of the Chief Commissioner.
Throughout almost ten years of leading the District 24, Vîja has not dealt with any suspension of subordinate officers, on grounds of abuse of power. In other words, no complaint filed during this period reached the court. All of them ended with “no start of criminal prosecution”.
According to Bucharest Police, the crime rate in District 5 is <low> compared with Districts 1 and 2, where the crime rate is <average> and Districts 3, 4 and 6 where it is <high>.
With a low crime rate in the district, with statistics showing that thefts have decreased in Ferentari houses and shops, with prevention actions against drug use and violence in schools, the chief of Division 24 hopes to fight prejudice over the district he protects.
While Vîja displays all figures and arguments in favor of Ferentari, supporting the professional fairness and effectiveness of his department, a video of the Pro Lex Police Union is circulating on the Internet; the main character is Alexandru Găitan, presented as „Texas ranger” in „Ferentexas”.
This picture of Ferentari as portrayed by Găitan in the Pro Lex video (released in January 2016) is not quite the same with the one presented in Division 24 office. For Găitan – the video character, wearing the Romanian Police uniform, all inhabitants on Livezilor Street ghetto are thieves: „Maybe only 10% of them are O.K”.
For more than 40 minutes (Ed. – in the full version) the policeman is the main character in a story promoting the idea that the true face of Ferentari is represented by thieves, drug addicts and prostitutes. The very image that Chief Commissioner Vîja claims they are fighting against.
Confronted with the perspective rendered by the Pro Lex video and the statements of officer Găitan, the Chief of Division 24 thinks that everyone, including policemen, is entitled to an opinion. With respect to the word used to describe the district that he defended throughout a one-hour conversation, Vîja says: „it depends on what the meaning of Ferentexas is”.
„If we refer to the sanitation, the standard of living, the culture, we could look at it that way” says the Commissioner, trying to do a pirouette. He ignores the fact that the label used in the video is linked to the prejudice that Ferentari is a misdeed place. A prejudice fueled, with the police logo on their arms, precisely by the Division 24 officers who ensure public order and safety in the neighborhood.
The producer of Pro Lex, Oana Costea, says that „Ferentexas” is a jargon term that they decided to use as the title of the video. She admits it was an unfortunate choice since you cannot put that label on the entire neighborhood; she knows “there are also good areas there”. With respect to such a term reinforcing prejudice, Oana Costea defends herself: „We went with the police in ill-famed areas. It is better not to go to places such as Pângăraţi and Livezilor. It is and will be a dangerous zone. „
Faced with the assurances given by the Chief of Division 24 that Ferentari is a safe place, Oana Costea says without hesitation: „It is bullshit. What could have changed since we made the video? Ferentari remains a dangerous neighborhood,” she concludes, contradicting her initial position and confirming indirectly that the label Ferentexas was not quite a mistake, but a conscious choice, as a result of the way the district is perceived by those who provide public service there.
People like Tudorița and Alexandru live on Livezilor Street, in the ghetto. They both work for a public cleaning company in District 4. Their daughter Alina will go to School 136 starting this fall. In the same ghetto live Elena Vidroi and her two children. For over 13 years they have been living without electricity. But throughout these 13 years they did not steal electricity.
Ioana Constantin a health mediator also lives in the ghetto on Livezilor Street. Most women who go to the Mother’s Club to look for a change in their community come from the ghetto.
All the stereotypes and labels do not take such people into account, although policemen such as Vija and Găitan claim that Ferentari is not really similar to the wild west – the law enforcement functions, i.e “ we do our job”.
However, we are left with footage showing a policeman walking through the hell of Ferentari, fueling even a greater bias towards the area. Despite explanations provided by the officers, the video does not show a „Texas garbage collector in Ferentexas” or „a Texas teacher in Ferentexas” or „a Texas intellectual in Ferentexas”.
„To serve and protect” is just a nice phrase on paper. Travelling the outskirts of Bucharest the principles acknowledged at the level of discourse get lost on the way and the Romanian Police uniform resembles the wardrobe of a man with hat, boots and ranger gun belt serving not in a community of citizens, but downright the Bucharest Wild South.