How to Deal With Corrupt Police While Traveling Abroad

When you travel, your rights in your own country don't travel with you, and this can become challenging if you meet a police officer who isn't on your side.


police car Photo © Getty Images/Westend61

Be prepared before you travel abroad

A survey by Index Mundi provides a subjective scale (from 1 to 10) of how citizens in a list of 100 countries measured the level of police corruption in their country.

The problem is that many travelers are under the mistaken perception that local police are subject to the rule of law. However, there's not much a traveler can do about local laws and corrupt police, but awareness of the local conditions and sensible preparation for encountering corrupt police could prevent an already uncomfortable situation from worsening.

You can survive an encounter with corrupt police anywhere in the world by educating yourself on local conditions and following a few rules of diplomacy and ego-stroking. Also, the best advice is to control your indignation and be respectful and pleasant.

Before traveling oversea, do some research on the organization of the police force in the countries you are visiting. For example, metropolitan police in third-world countries tend to be the worst paid and poorly trained. Many augment their meagre incomes by extortion and bribery.

polic car lights
Police car patrol. Photo credit: Getty images/Westend61

What to do if you encounter a corrupt police officer while traveling

If you are stopped or detained by a foreign police agent, consider the following strategies:

Just speak English (even if you know the local language)

Local police officers don't usually speak English. Even if you're a native speaker, stick with English. Often, if the officer cannot handle the transaction, he'll give up and go searching for someone else to fleece.

Be nice and play the victim

Stroking the ego of a local police officer who gets off on power can get you off with a small "fine." Safety tips against extortion by a corrupt police officer include carrying only a small amount of cash before you go out walking or driving. Hide your cash and credit cards in a safe place. If you're stopped, make it clear the small amount of cash in your wallet is all you have. If the cop is corrupt, he'll take the small amount and leave.

Also, by humbly admitting you did commit whatever violation the officer is accusing you of and accepting the officer's "kind assistance," you'll stroke the ego and probably get out of the situation.

Important: Do not, repeat not, offer a bribe. Ironically, in most countries, bribery is against the law. Instead, agree to "pay the fine" the officer imposes.

Insist that you go the local police station to pay your fine

This might sound counterintuitive, but if the police officer is looking for an easy mark, he can't get the money at the station. If the police officer backs down and offers to accept a fine on the spot, you should still insist on going to the station to get an official record of the transaction. Often, the police officer won't want to go through the hassle of leaving his beat and going to the station and will let you off with a warning.

What you should not do when dealing with a corrupt police officer while traveling

Don’t act tough or question the officer’s authority

Remember the advice that you should stroke the officer's ego. The officer may occupy a low station in local society, but one of the perks of the position is authority over others, a feeling of power and importance—and the ability to make money on the side.

So, playing "king of the mountain" with a foreign police officer is a losing game. If you become verbally abusive and threaten to cause an international incident, plan on being arrested for verbal (or even physical) assault.

Don’t be impatient or say you have to be somewhere else

Expect a corrupt policeman's eyes to light up like a slot machine when he learns that you are on a deadline. You immediately become hostage to his arbitrary power to detain you, with the resulting motivation to pay up and get on your way.

polic car lights
Police car lights. Photo credit: Getty images/Douglas Sacha

Corruption is in the eye of the beholder

Police corruption notwithstanding, as a foreigner, you are also subject to the country's laws and different approaches to civil rights. If you're arrested in France, for example, you can expect long pre-trial detention, where, according to the U.S. State Department, "some suspects spent many years in detention before trial. As of July (2020) pretrial detainees made up 34 percent of the prison population".

French citizens, however, don't seem to worry much about police corruption. When asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how big a problem is police corruption in their country, the average response was 3.74.

And that highlights another problem that you, as a foreign traveler, might encounter: locals may not care much for the welfare of foreign visitors and may accept police corruption as a fact of life.

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