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Portuguese police good at clearing up crime but let down by lack of experience

Original Source: TIMES: 29 MAY 2007
Thomas Catan From The Times May 29, 2007

Hard-pressed officers are not used to dealing with the media’s unrelenting attention

Britons have been aghast to learn that it took Portuguese police more than three weeks to release a description of a man seen carrying a little blonde girl away from the flat where Madeleine McCann was abducted — and then only after the intervention of Gordon Brown.

The abilities of Portuguese police have been doubted almost from the day the investigation began. But despite the confusion surrounding the search for the 4-year-old girl, experts say that Portugal has a good record in clearing up crime.

The greatest difference between Portuguese and British police is that “Scotland Yard is technologically much more geared-up”, says Francisco Moita Flores, a Portuguese law enforcement expert. “Aside from this, the English police work in a country with a massive amount of crime, [while] Portugal is one of the safest places in Europe.”

Portugal does have one of the lowest crime rates in Europe, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. But the country also has a series of overlapping police agencies, which can be confusing for foreigners.

The body investigating Madeleine’s disappearance, the Policia Judiciaria (PJ), is the main police agency and is broadly equivalent to Scotland Yard. The Guarda Nacional Republicana (GNR), a semi-militarised force operating mainly in rural areas, has featured heavily in the television coverage of the case, but is in fact merely playing a supporting role, guarding the crime scene and handling sniffer dogs. The PolicÍa de Segurança Pública (PSP) provides uniformed police officers for town and city work — the “bobbies on the beat” — while an alphabet-soup of other agencies have specialised functions, such as fighting terrorism or drug trafficking.

While the PJ has a good record in solving crimes, experts say it is often hampered by organisational problems.

“The PJ is as good as Scotland Yard or the FBI,” said José Vegar, a crime reporter. “The problem is that they don’t have any coordination with other police forces and they don’t share intelligence. They also lack the state-of-the art tools that police have in Britain.”

When accused of being uncooperative, Portuguese police often point to a law that theoretically prevents them from divulging any information about a case. Journalists say that the lack of official information is more a matter of style and that they have to rely on leaks from police contacts for information. One only half-joked when he said: “You know when the information you have printed is correct, because the police threaten to take action against you. Otherwise, rumours are almost never confirmed or denied.”

Portuguese police are unaccustomed to such intense and extended public scrutiny, much less from the international media. “You have to remember that the police in Portugal have only about ten years’ experience dealing with the media,” Mr Vegar said. “They are still not very good at it. They also aren’t used to the way the British media works.”

At a recent press conference, one television reporter asked how police could justify dedicating such a large part of their resources to the hunt for Madeleine when there were Portuguese children missing. The families of two such children — Rui Pedro Mendonça and Rui Pereira — have expressed frustration that their cases did not receive the same attention from police.

The PJ is under enormous pressure to solve the crime, which is seen by Portugal’s Government as a potential threat to their tourism industry. The British Ambassador in Lisbon, John Buck, has spoken directly with ministers and now Gordon Brown has become involved.

The officers at the centre of the investigation are certainly feeling the heat. An attendant at a car park in Portimão pointed to a car driven by one of the officers directing the case and said that it had not moved for days. “They sleep at the police station now,” he said.

Portuguese detectives have said that criticism of their work is prompted by ignorance of their methods. “It’s not going to affect our work,” said Chief Inspector Olegario de Sousa. “It’s natural for our officers to feel hurt by these criticisms, but it has just made us more determined. We shall work, remain calm and keep a cool head.”

Detection rates compared

— Portuguese police solved 22.4 per cent of all cases in 2000; in England and Wales the rate was 25 per cent

— English police are marginally better at solving rape cases (54 per cent compared with 46.3 per cent) and serious assault (66 per cent against 60.4 per cent)

— Only in murder cases are English police significantly more successful than Portuguese — they solve 90 per cent of killings, compared with 56.6 per cent


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