Friday, October 13, 2006

Do The Cop Shop Bop

Indonesian policemen, noble upholders of the law, with their voluminous peaked caps and their epaulettes the size of telephone directories. Love them or loathe them, you are bound to run into the medium-length arm of Indonesian law enforcement sooner or later.

By far the most common encounters between the hapless bule and the Indo cop occur on the bustling public highways of Jakarta. The boys in blue (brown actually) can often be found, of an evening, trying to supplement their meager incomes by stopping cars, taxis and bikes and the asking for ID. If you don't have any on you (and contrary to what they may tell you, a photocopy is sufficient) 50,000 rupiahs worth of palm grease should see you safely on your way again. Its highway robbery, basically, although I guess you’re less likely to be knifed in the kidneys than you are during a real hold-up. Should you be on a motorbike, you might be tempted to try and burn past the officer who is attempting to pull you over. However, there will undoubtedly be another cop stationed 50 yards down the road and you will really be in trouble when he finally gets hold of you.

Strangely, for the Western motorist, these highway (patrol) men are usually utterly indifferent to how much you have had to drink. You won't have to blow into any bags, you won't have to slur incoherently "But I haven't had a c**t all night drinkstable!!" They will only want to see your documents. You could be swigging a bottle of Scotch and projectile vomiting onto the dashboard for all they care. An Australian friend of mine was once pulled over while drunk as lord behind the wheel of his Kijang. He didn't have any ID on him or any cash whatsoever after a night on the booze. His Polri cop nemesis simply refused to believe that he didn't have any bribe money on him, however, and after about half an hour of being pestered for a “present” my colleague disembarked from his car in an alcoholic rage and proceeded to strip off all his clothes in the street in order to prove the lack of funds about his person. His inebriated state was never an issue though, and he was eventually allowed to continue driving home.

Should you have the misfortune to be taken into police custody in Indonesia, you might find yourself incarcerated in somewhat less than Alcatraz-like conditions. On the two occasions that I've been hauled into the Cop shop, I was allowed to amble freely around the station doing exactly as I pleased. One time, some friends and I were driven to a police station near the port of Merak after being stopped at a police roadblock (well, we won't open that can of worms now). We slept the night on the office floor after an interrogation which involved us being made to play guitars, answer questions about our love lives and have matey photos taken with the on duty officers. The next day, our spirits flagging, the nice chaps down at the station even let a couple of us out to go out to McDonald's and buy some burgers for the other two in our group. Now that's what I call policing.

I guess an incident such as this highlights the other side of the police force here. Indonesians are generally a friendly lot and if the police are not just looking at you, at any given moment, as a walking ATM machine, then they can be some of the most acquiescent cops on the planet and will try to genuinely help you if they can. We all saw the TV pictures of Bali bomber Amrozi laughing and joking with the officers who were interrogating him. This footage caused great offence to watching Australians. Westerners, I guess, are used to their policemen putting a certain amount of moral distance between themselves and the suspects in their charge. This doesn't seem to happen in Indonesia, however. The cops here will laugh and joke with the crooks they haul in. They will also beat the living crap out of them as well, of course. Other countries like to sweep incidents of police brutality under the carpet whereas here they are broadcast on TV every morning on reality Crimewatch shows.

If you should meet a policeman on your travels through the archipelago just remember the golden rule: keep smiling, difficult as this may be sometimes.

Simon Pitchforth