Kosovo streets challenge officer

Local police veteran working for one year as part of U.N. force

`A war zone'

April 02, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Officer Scott Gall is about 5,000 miles outside the Anne Arundel Police Department's jurisdiction, in a place without crab cakes, cable or Coors.

Gall has no telephone service and sometimes no electricity in Kosovo, where he is investigating atrocities in a region internationally known for them.

He lives among bombed-out buildings, patrols what's left of the streets, pieces together accident scenes by snapping pictures on the camera he brought for sight-seeing, and measures distances with his two feet.

He finds victims buried in unmarked graves because fatalities often are reported days after the fact, if ever. He sees drunken drivers he's sent to jail back on the streets within weeks because of crowding in the prisons. When Gall stops reckless drivers, he cannot verify licenses or registrations because most government records were destroyed by NATO bombing.

"The frustration level is high. But I'm glad I went," Gall said during a brief trip home last week. "I've become more thankful for what we have."

Nine months into a yearlong assignment in the civilian police corps working for the United Nations, Gall takes nothing for granted -- not democracy, justice, efficient government, standard equipment, and especially not the comforts of home, such as fast food and supermarkets.

There is no Giant, McDonald's or Blockbuster in Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo, which has 400,000 people.

"I miss the conveniences," Gall said. "I miss cheese steaks."

His fellow officers on the Anne Arundel County police force know this, Gall said, because he jokes about how he wants them to send one through the mail.

Police from many nations

Gall is the first and only officer from Anne Arundel County to serve on the U.N. civilian police force. The 500 American police officers recruited by the State Department are among the force's 2,400 officers, who have come from 45 countries. Recently retired Baltimore city homicide Detective Tom Pelligrini is among them.

Gall, who is assigned to the regional traffic division investigating accidents that result in serious injury and death, works alongside officers from Russia, Italy and Germany. His partner is from Fiji.

Gall, a 16-year veteran who had been working in the county's fugitive and career criminal division, applied for the program after seeing the recruitment poster, which was sent to nearly all U.S. police departments.

"It was the right time to do it," said Gall, a 36-year-old Gambrills native who is not married and has no children. "I'd never been overseas and I knew the international training would be good experience."

Soon, Gall will begin training with the special operations close-protection unit in Kosovo, which guards visiting dignitaries. "I think I'll learn the most in that assignment," he said.

County police leaders, who granted Gall a one-year leave of absence, say they hope he will be able to share what he's learning when he returns in three months. "We're proud of the representation this gives our department internationally." said department spokesman Lt. Jeffrey A. Kelly.

In addition to enforcing laws, Gall and the other civilian officers, known as "Civ Pols," teach recruits and local residents about policing.

Fear is pervasive

The Serbian police force was known to beat and rob Albanians regularly during traffic stops, he said. "They really got tortured."

One elderly man whom he stopped for a minor traffic violation started crying when Gall began talking to him.

"He was afraid of being beaten," Gall said. "He didn't have any money. And he didn't understand that he didn't have to pay the ticket right then -- that he could pay it later. When I explained, he was crying and thanking me."

To build trust, Gall said the traffic unit is developing a unit to help schoolchildren learn about police.

Gall and other officers have also helped rebuild an elementary school destroyed by Serbian police. This spring, Gall is organizing a baseball league for police, their interpreters and local residents.

'Nothing to do'

There is little recreation in the region -- especially for officers who work seven days a week with a few days off each month. The local sports complex burned last month, in part because the city has only a rudimentary fire department, Gall said.

"That was really devastating," he said. "There's nothing really to do. We play cards, Fijian board games. When the electricity is on, we watch TV, but it's all in foreign languages.

"In a way, I do feel like I'm in the army," said Gall, who wears a military-style uniform and blue U.N. beret. "It's still considered a war zone. You have to go out in pairs whenever possible. You have to be aware all the time."

Ethnic attacks continue to occur in daylight before hundreds of people. Grenade attacks have been made on American police officers, Gall said.

Two American officers who were living with Serbs received death threats, Gall said. Within days, a grenade was thrown at their window. Had chicken wire not covered the frame, the bomb would have exploded inside, he said. A second grenade was thrown through the front door, but the Americans were not home and no one was injured, Gall said.

"They were transferred," he said. "But it shows you the kind of thing we're up against."

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