THE Guardia Civil officer tells me the crime I am reporting is hardly worth the trouble. The sum being taken from my bank account is trivial, he says.
I raise my voice, struggling to be heard over his wall of words: “It’s not trivial to me. It’s a day’s work and I would like to report it so that I can be reimbursed.”
It takes at least 20 minutes to persuade the officer to entertain my request for a report to hand to the bank. Finally, he pulls up the website that has taken my money, as if his decision hinges on what he will see there. The site, however, is in English.
“Look. I don’t know what this says,” he tells me crossly.
“Didn’t you learn English at school?” I ask.
And there it is; the question that is swiftly interpreted as an offence, punishable by a fine of up to €600.
After all, who do I think I am addressing? Have I forgotten that the attempted coup d’état against Spain’s fledgling democracy in 1981 was undertaken by 200 officers from the Guardia Civil?
“I learned other things at school,” the officer tells me grimly. He draws up the report in silence and, handing it to me, says “You’ll see. I’m going to report you and, instead of getting your money back, it will be you paying. You’ll be €600 out of pocket,” he ends in stony triumph.
“Really?” I say, taken aback. “What for?”
“Lack of respect.”
I tell him sorry. I shrink back into my chair as he reels off all the things he can do. How he’s the best police officer ever. How everyone at the station respects his work.
I play dumb. But at the same time I can’t help recalling that, at the start of my visit there, he broadcast to the waiting room in his booming voice that the boy opposite me was on medication for mental health issues.
No matter. He turns out to be sensitive when it comes to his own issues and I have touched a nerve. But, as inappropriate as my question was, could his threat really hold water?
According to the Citizens Security law, also known as the gag law, that was introduced in 2015 by the conservative Popular Party, whoever is deemed to disrespect a police officer in the course of duty can be fined €6 a day for between one and three months and will be given a police record.
Apparently, between 2015 and 2018, the police issued 47,980 fines for a lack of respect – 48 a day or, in other words, one every 30 minutes. During the state of emergency, these figures were even higher, while fines for perceived disobedience and failure to show identification rose to 243,001 in 2020 from 12,645 in 2019.
I am clearly not the only one who has had this kind of baffling brush with the law.
Asking around, I find an English neighbour who accompanied her husband down to the bins during the 2020 lockdown was not only threatened with a fine for breaking the rules of confinement but also with another for daring to question the wisdom of charging two people who share a bed for venturing out together.
Further investigation throws up an instance of an acquaintance threatened with a fine for smirking when an officer tripped.
But the threats are not always empty. One man calling a police officer ‘mate’ during an alcohol test was actually made to pay.
Would this happen elsewhere in the West?
In Germany, insulting a police officer is punishable but so is insulting a civilian. In the US, however, what is known as ‘contempt of cop’ is not considered a punishable offence while in the UK, a civilian can swear at a police officer without consequences and also refuse to stop and answer their questions.
So who defines a lack of respect when it comes to our attitude towards the police?
According to the current gag law in Spain, the officers’ word is gospel. No need for proof. The individual is guilty unless they can prove otherwise. It’s called presumption of credibility.
When passed, the gag law was criticised by the New York Times for its curbs on freedom of speech and the right to peaceful demonstration. It was, said the newspaper, a throwback to the Franco era while the European Council of Human Rights, the UN, Amnesty International and Spain’s Ombudsman Office all flagged up its anti-democratic nature.
Fortunately, after seven long years, this ominous law is finally being reformed, much to the consternation of the security forces, and politicians on the right.
But will the reforms go far enough?
Not according to No Somos Delito – we are not a crime – an umbrella platform for 100 human rights collectives which has dubbed the proposed changes ‘cosmetic’.
“We’ re demanding that the government fulfils its electoral promise,” Sara Lopez Martín tells the Olive Press.
“It’s incredible that the two offences – lack of respect and disobedience – are not under review. Of all the offences, these are the ones the police penalise most.”
Meanwhile, Amnesty International spokesman, Carlos Escaño, tells the Olive Press, “We are pushing for the elimination of certain articles of law, such as disobedience and lack of respect that we believe are open to abuse, as well as the modification of others to avoid arbitrary interpretations.”
Escaño also points out that it is ‘surprising’ that there is no proposal addressing the lack of a mechanism to control the abuse of power.
Meanwhile, the police are up in arms over the reforms, staging a protest and arguing that they will not only undermine their authority, but lead to an increase in lawlessness.
“This is like giving a free rein to those who are anti-system,” Augustín Leal, spokesman for the police association JUCIL tells the Olive Press.
“The reforms will make it easy to ignite protest on the streets if there is political change next year. And there will be more squatting and more drug trafficking. If we can’t do our job, what do you want us for?”
For now, it looks as though Leal and his fellow officers have less to fear than they imagine. Recent nationwide protests for more ambitious reform might push the government to draw up what No Somos un Delito calls a more ‘courageous’ list of proposals, but the 13 seats won by the ultra-right party Vox in the Castilla y Leon region and their demands for the vice-presidency from the winning conservatives looks set to usher in an era in which such reforms will be short-lived.
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