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Police force in Serbia is primarily defined as a state administration body within the Ministry of Interior. However, certain aspects of policing are specialised to a degree that separates them from other state authorities.

 By Bogdan Urošević (associate of the BCSP) / Photo: Srbija Danas

A short history of policing in Serbia

The first institutions that were granted police-like powers, both administrative and executive, emerged at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A modern system of police organisation was developed largely during the Constitutionalist era (1838-1858), when the first Ministry of Internal Affairs was established. The first professional titles for police officers were adopted in 1872 and the first uniforms were adopted in 1885.

The territorial division of the police organisation came about during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. A “people’s militia” was set up at the second session of AVNOJ (the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia) and became part of the Ministry of Interior after the war. The principle characteristic of the development of police organisation in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was its progressive decentralisation, which peaked during the era of workers’ self-management. The service was known as a ‘militia’ until the very end of the 20th century.

Today the Ministry of Interior employs more than 45,000 people, which is around a third of those employed in category known as state administration, defence and compulsory social security. This is also around 190 times the number employed by the police when it was founded nearly two hundred years ago. The current crop of MoI employees is dominated by those with only a secondary education (71.1%) and more than 70 percent of employees have been in their jobs for more than ten years.

Introducing police in Serbia

Police force is primarily defined as a state administration body within the Ministry of Interior (MoI), which carries out certain administrative tasks and, in so doing, complies with the standard principles regulated by the Law on State Administration, such as autonomy, legality, professionalism, impartiality, political neutrality, effectiveness, proportionality and transparency. However, certain aspects of policing are specialised to a degree that separates them from other state authorities. These aspects of the police are regulated by the Law on the Police adopted in 2005.

In order to carry out all of the functions the police are responsible for, the MoI employs more than 45 thousand personnel, of which more than 27 thousand are police officers in uniform.

Table 1: Number of employees at the Serbian Ministry of Interior
Table 1 - Number of employees at the Serbian MoI
The police service is a significant instrument in the hands of the state authorities that can serve a variety of functions:

  • Policing – the protection of the rights and freedoms of all citizens,
  • Ensuring and supporting the rule of law,
  • Maintaining public security in accordance with the law.

In addition the usual provision of security, the police force is also tasked with undertaking urgent measures to prevent direct threats to lives and property, participating in rescue operations, providing first aid and also assisting other state bodies in carrying out their functions in the event that there is an attempt to prevent or resist these functions.

List 1: Types of police work according to the Law on the Police (Article 10)

  1. Protecting the life, rights, freedoms and integrity of citizens and upholding the rule of law.
  2. Protecting property.
  3. Preventing, detecting and solving misdemeanours, felonies and other violations, fighting organised crime and other crimes.
  4. Finding and apprehending the perpetrators of criminal offences, as well as other persons wanted by the authorities, and bringing them before the proper authorities.
  5. Maintaining public order, assisting in emergencies and providing other forms of protective assistance to those in need.
  6. Regulating, monitoring and assisting road traffic.
  7. Providing security for certain public gatherings, individuals, government bodies, buildings and facilities.
  8. Monitoring and guarding the national borders, controlling border crossings, enforcing border regulations and resolving border incidents and other violations of the national boundaries.
  9. Performing activities defined by regulations on foreign nationals.
  10. Performing other tasks as established by laws and by-laws deriving from the law.

Organization of the police

The police force is a body within the Ministry of Interior, which in effect places it within the state administration. It is accountable to the Ministry as the hierarchically higher body and also, ultimately, to the Serbian Government. This forms a direct line of responsibility to the executive branch of government. In spite of its historical ties to the armed forces, the current position of the police within the system of government clearly defines it as a civilian authority. The police force is only one element of the Ministry and, as such, carries out only a part of the functions that fall under the purview of internal affairs.

Figure 1: Organisational chart of the Ministry of Interior

Figure 1 - Organisational chart of the Ministry of Interior

The General Police Directorate is allocated the highest formal legal status within the Ministry of Interior. The law states that it is formed in order to cover all police activities within the MoI. It is clear from the organisational structure of the Ministry that the General Police Directorate is a body within the Ministry itself while all other organisational units are defined as sectors (e.g. the Sector for Finance, Human Resources and Common Affairs or the Sector for Emergency Management). The Directorate is headed by the Police Director, which in the Serbian civil service indicated a far greater level of autonomy relative to the head of an internal organisational unit and implies direct accountability to the relevant minister.

In spite of the fact that the General Police Directorate has the independence within the Ministry, it does seem that the existing capacities of the police extend beyond its organisational framework. There are, within the Ministry, certain organisational units that are connected to the police but do not fall within the purview of the General Police Directorate. Good examples of this are the Internal Affairs Sector and the Directorate for Education, Training, Professional Development and Science within the Sector for Finance, Human Resources and Common Affairs.
In organisational terms, the General Police Directorate is a very complex body. It spreads across a large number of narrower organisational units, whose aims amount to the effective implementation of various police activities covering the whole country. To this end the General Police Directorate is divided along operational and territorial lines, with various organisational units classified according to these criteria.

Figure 2: Organizational structure of the General Police Directorate

Figure 2 - Organizational structure of the General Police Directorate

In terms of the territorial division of the General Police Directorate, it is key to first distinguish between those organisational units that established within the headquarters of the Directorate and those that fall outside of its purview. In addition to those fourteen organisational units within the General Police Directorate outlined above, there are also the City of Belgrade Police Directorate and a number of smaller organisational units.

Regional Police Directorates are responsible for policing beyond the territorial scope of the General Police Directorate, though in organisational terms they are still subordinate to it. As there are 27 regional directorates (not counting Kosovo and Metohija) and the territory they cover is large, there is a need for further delegation of police responsibilities. This is why there are several police stations within each regional directorate – one for each municipality. In certain cases, this principle of subordination can be extended further by the establishment of a police sub-station as an extension of a police station.

List 2: Regional police directorates in Serbia

1. City of Belgrade Police Directorate
2. Novi Sad Police Directorate
3. Kikinda Police Directorate
4. Pančevo Police Directorate
5. Sremska Mitrovica Police Directorate
6. Zrenjanin Police Directorate
7. Subotica Police Directorate
8. Sombor Police Directorate
9. Bor Police Directorate
10. Vranje Police Directorate
11. Valjevo Police Directorate
12. Zaječar Police Directorate
13. Jagodina Police Directorate
14. Kragujevac Police Directorate
15. Kruševac Police Directorate
16. Kraljevo Police Directorate
17. Leskovac Police Directorate
18. Novi Pazar Police Directorate
19. Niš Police Directorate
20. Požarevac Police Directorate
21. Pirot Police Directorate
22. Prijepolje Police Directorate
23. Prokuplje Police Directorate
24. Smederevo Police Directorate
25. Užice Police Directorate
26. Čačak Police Directorate
27. Šabac Police Directorate

Regional police directorates are commanded by police chiefs and police stations by commanders.

Figure 3: Basic territorial organisational structure of the police and the respective heads thereof

Figure 3 - Basic territorial organisational structure

Accountability and oversight of the police

In accordance with the Law on the Police, control and oversight of policing can be internal (when carried out by a body from within the police) or external (when oversight is conducted by other state authorities). According to Development Strategy of the Ministry of Interior 2011-2016, development of internal control and external oversight coupled with improvements in the transparency of policing is a fundamental direction for MoI development during the proposed period.

Internal control

The Internal Affairs Sector is tasked with internal control of police. Additionally, there are two other bodies within the organisational structure that are responsible for internal oversight – the Department for Legality Oversight of Policing and the Section for Legality Monitoring and Oversight in the Gendarmerie. The result being that responsibility for this critical area is rather unclearly divided among multiple bodies.

Internal oversight of policing within the Ministry of Interior is the ‘first line of defence’ against the challenges of illegality and negligent conduct. This type of oversight can take a number of different forms. The most basic of these is hierarchical oversight, which rests on the fact that each officer answers to their superior and which somewhat resembles a military chain of command. This form of accountability is not insignificant as officers of any rank depend, to an extent, on their immediate superiors. This form of oversight can also act across the boundaries of the General Police Directorate and extend as far as the Minister of Interior, to whom the General Police Director is answerable.

The possibility of oversight through complaint procedures derives from the administrative nature of the police and the possibility of submitting a complaint against the ruling of a lower-level police authority. While this form of oversight does not strictly fall under internal forms of oversight, it is worth mentioning the possibility of submitting a complaint of a relevant nature to the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection. Specifically, in such cases the Commissioner acts as an appeal authority and can overrule or revoke the decision of a lower police authority. The Internal Affairs Sector has been established within the Ministry of Interior as a special organisational unit designed to act as the internal control body. A degree of autonomy, necessary for any internal supervisory body, has been achieved by positioning the Sector outside the General Police Directorate.

By their very nature, internal oversight bodies are somewhat limited because they are always ultimately responsible to the relevant minister, who is likely to be reluctant to report negligent behaviour to the government. The autonomy and independence of Internal Affairs Sector is also questionable due to the sweeping discretionary powers of the Minister, who has the authority to revoke any case being investigated by the Internal Affairs Sector and assign it to another body.

External oversight

The Law on the Police (Article 170) proscribes the bodies tasked with external oversight. They include the National Assembly, the Government, and relevant judicial authorities, state authorities tasked with oversight of specific fields and other legally empowered authorities and bodies. In this sense, even a member of the public can find themselves exercising a form of oversight over police activities when they submit a request for information of public importance that is held by the police.

External oversight can take various forms and can be implemented by both governmental and non-governmental actors. There are a number of basic frameworks for its implementation.

Parliamentary oversight – The National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia has the power to monitor policing as part of its oversight, legislative and elective functions. It is, for example, the National Assembly that selects the Government and is, therefore, responsible for appointing the Minister of Interior who is in turn responsible for policing. The National Assembly also passes and controls the content of the Law on the Police, the principal legislative act regulating policing. Furthermore, legislators annually pass a budget bill that directly dictates the resources the Ministry of Interior and the General Police Directorate will have at their disposal. The Minister of Interior is also duty bound to submit an annual report to the National Assembly, outlining the Ministry’s activities and the security situation in the country. The report is submitted at the request of the National Assembly working body responsible for security matters . Finally, the National Assembly conducts its most significant oversight functions through permanent or temporary working bodies (boards, committees, inquiries), which may exercise oversight of policing.

Oversight by the Government and external oversight by other bodies of the executive branch (and are not part of the Ministry of Interior). The Government is the ultimate institution to which hierarchical transfer of responsibility can be passed and the minister in charge of policing is accountable to this, the highest institution of the executive branch. The Government also passes regulations that can affect police work as well as documents such as the National Security Strategy of the Republic of Serbia, with which policing must be aligned.

Judicial oversight – The judiciary is inextricably linked with the police and their areas of responsibility are mutually reinforcing. Many of activities conducted by the police, such as arrest and searches, are not possible without a prior warrant issues by the courts. In criminal proceedings, the courts can assess police work and can arbitrate on police work if it has been the subject of a complaint or litigation.

Oversight by independent bodies – The most significant bodies in this category are the Protector of Citizens (Ombudsman) and the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection (the Commissioner). The Ombudsman is an independent state institution tasked with protecting civil rights and overseeing the work of public authorities. Policing comes under scrutiny by the Ombudsman since the police is a public administrative body but also because police work has the potential to affect civil liberties. Oversight by the Commissioner covers a narrower field but is no less significant as the police frequently come into contact with and retain personal, sensitive and confidential information. A unique feature of police oversight conducted by the Commissioner is that in areas within its field of responsibility this institution can act as a body superior to the police and can pass rulings that are binding for the police as a public administration body.

Oversight by non-governmental actors – This category describes oversight by various actors, such as civil society organisations, members of the public, expert think-tanks and the media. These actors can exercise oversight of policing through direct contact with the police or by shaping public opinion. Professional associations and non-governmental organisations can provide guidelines to suggest improvements or combat shortcomings in police work and ordinary members of the public (and their organisations, including political parties) can exert political pressure on decision-makers who are in turn able to conduct more direct oversight of policing.

Police powers

An employee of the Ministry of Interior and a police officer are not one and the same. According to the Law on the Police, are officials who exercise law-enforcement powers – i.e. those employees of the Ministry who apply police powers.

These powers encompass certain tasks only permitted to police officers, provided conditions for their implementation have been met. These conditions include legality, respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the Police Ethics Code. Furthermore, officers must adhere to the principle of proportionality when exercising of these powers. Additional requirements include such due care as wearing a uniform in the proscribed manner and identifying oneself as a law-enforcement official prior to exercising police powers.

List 3: Police powers according to the Law on the Police (Article 30)

  1. Warnings and orders.
  2. Checking and establishing the identity of persons and objects.
  3. Summons.
  4.  Transporting.
  5. Detention and temporarily restricting freedom of movement.
  6. Requesting information.
  7. Temporary seizure of objects.
  8. Search of premises and facilities, inspection of documents, and anti-terrorist search.
  9. Stopping and searching persons, objects and vehicles.
  10. Securing and searching crimes scenes.
  11. Requisitioning vehicles and communications equipment.
  12. Receiving reports of offences.
  13. Issuing rewards.
  14. Audio and video recording and photographing in public places.
  15. Polygraph testing.
  16. Police surveillance.
  17. Searching for persons and objects.
  18. Protection of victims and other persons.
  19. Collecting, processing and using personal data.
  20. Targeted search measures.
  21. Use of enforcement measures.

Police officers can also be Ministry of Interior employees whose work is closely related to police work. This group of activities includes fire-fighting, issuing firearms and some other jobs pertaining to security or the functions of which are classified.

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