Security services, a booming part of economy, leave some Czechs feeling insecure

December 20, 1992|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia -- During Czechoslovakia's 1989 revolution, Prague's Wenceslas Square brimmed with protesters braving the fearsome gaze of the hated secret police.

Today, the square is still brimming -- but as often as not the people are German, Italian or U.S. tourists bargaining for trinkets, crystal and sausages under the bored stares of newly hired private security guards.

Three years after the "Velvet Revolution" that toppled communism here, private security services are booming -- to the delight of the service providers and many merchants, but to the concern of some government officials.

Supermarkets, boutiques and discos all hire guards armed with weapons ranging from truncheons to electric cattle prods to sawed-off shotguns.

"We need a guard. He's like a symbol of order," says Alexei Popovich, manager of a Wenceslas Square art gallery. "When people see the guard has a gun, it's like they understand they should behave themselves correctly."

Correct behavior is certainly desirable, says Martin Fendrych, deputy interior minister in the Czech Republic, but the way of ensuring it is not necessarily by armed private security guards.

Mr. Fendrych says he has asked Parliament for laws controlling both private security services and guards' right to carry weapons. Currently, getting a license to open a security service is about the same as getting one to open a pizzeria.

"The Interior Ministry, as the guarantor of the security of the state, doesn't have any say in how, when and where security services can be provided, and that's not right," he says.

Prague's phone directory lists more than 40 companies that provide security. The biggest has grown from eight employees to nearly 2,000 in just two years. Indeed, the growth of the market even surprises many of the companies themselves.

"You see them everywhere. Even if you go to a bar, for instance, the doorman will be a guard," says Robert Pretto, a Canadian who manages the Prague branch of Pinkerton, which employs some 200 guards.

"I wouldn't say it's a fad per se. But everyone sees guards, and I guess there's a snowball effect, 'Oh, maybe I need a guard.' "

Crime in Czechoslovakia has grown since the revolution, perhaps even as fast as the security services industry. Reported crimes are up 18 percent this year over 1991, police figures show, and since 1989 overall crime has grown by some 150 percent -- which makes Czechs feel they are living in the Wild West or Al Capone's Chicago, although Prague's crime rate stands at less than half that of Washington.

The Institute for Public Opinion Research says that of a dozen social problems facing the country, Czechs find the crime rate to be the most disturbing.

And for shop owners, the rising crime rate coupled with a less-than-adequate protection from city police is doubly disturbing. Marie Hejna, who owns a crystal shop on Wenceslas Square, says she hired a guard to watch out for pickpockets who preyed on her customers, mostly foreign tourists.

"Gangs would come in and go through the crowd," Ms. Hejna says. "The public police couldn't catch them, so we had to do what we could and pay for a private security guard."

For many merchants, the guards also serve to keep an eye on employees. New company managers, who unlike their socialist-era predecessors closely watch the bottom line, want to reduce theft among employees.

"Security guards give employees of a company a sense of discipline, which didn't exist before the revolution," says Petr Klima, of the Prague subsidiary of the Netherlands-based Group 4 Securitas, a company that has been so successful that it is expanding into Ukraine and Bulgaria and is looking for opportunities else where in the East.

"Under communism it was always said that everything belongs to the working class," says Mr. Klima. "So it was in everybody's mind that if it belongs to the working class, it's mine, and I can take it."

But if Czechs fear crime, they also fear, or at least dislike, the new security services. For one thing, many of the services are populated with the very same people whose fearsome gaze Czechs once had to brave when protesting -- officers of the now-disbanded secret police.

This fact has not been lost on Mr. Fendrych. He says one goal of the new law will be to keep an eye on the kind of people the companies are hiring to keep an eye on the public.

But Mr. Popovich says the former agents are the best-trained guards and better prepared to handle a sticky situation.

"It's no problem for me if somebody used to work for the secret police before," he says. "They're more organized. They're well-disciplined."

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