The scuffle could be seen from a block away, despite the morning’s busy traffic. Three Phnom Penh traffic police officers had pulled over two students at the corner of Monivong and Sihanouk Boulevards, and the situation was rapidly getting out of hand.
One of the students, in his early 20s, traded violent shoves with one of the blue-uniformed officers, who attempted to pull the young man’s keys from his motorbike. Strong words were traded, and a police officer threw the youth’s backpack to the sidewalk.
Retrieving his bag, the young man stormed back and wrestled with two officers who stood in front of his motorcycle, firmly holding onto the handlebars.
The youth finally broke his vehicle free and skidded around the corner as he escaped; an officer threw a final parting kick to the bike’s back wheel. Now clear of the police, the young man screeched to a halt and hurled abuse at the defeated officers.
Altercations between drivers and the city’s traffic police are all too common in the streets of Phnom Penh, where many feel that officers are more interested in bending the traffic law for their own benefit than enforcing it.
“The population has a lack of respect for police,” said Jean van Wetter, operations coordinator at Handicap International, which issues a monthly traffic accident report with the Cambodian Red Cross.
Driving in the city is characterized by a “total lack of respect for order in general,” he said, adding that motorists frequently try to evade police who attempt to pull them over.
“And then when they escape, they make fun of police. [We need to] change the perception of traffic police,” he added.
The groups of traffic police gathered around the city’s most prominent intersections-or lurking behind trees on side streets-are commonly perceived as bullies rather than law enforcement officers, van Wetter said.
And traffic police may sometimes make the roads more dangerous, with motorists swerving erratically to avoid officers who jump from the sidewalk in an attempt to block their path, van Wetter said.
“We want to start a system where police stop people for actually breaking the law,” he added.
Tin Prasoer, chief of the municipal traffic police, said he has instructed his officers not to pursue vehicles if they fear this will cause an accident.
Though Phnom Penh’s traffic police are not as skilled as those in more advanced countries, they still perform a valuable public service, Tin Prasoer said.
“Don’t see only the bad points. Police do help traffic,” he added.
Sailing through a red light on his motorcycle, On Sothy, a staff member at the Ministry of Industry, was pulled over by traffic police at the corner of Norodom and Mao Tse Tung boulevards last week.
Stopped by three officers, On Sothy was adamant that he had done nothing wrong.
After showing his government identification card and arguing with the police for 10 minutes, he was allowed to leave after promising not to drive through red lights again.
Arguing further with On Sothy would have been a waste of time, said the three traffic police working the Mao Tse Tung corner, all of whom declined to be named.
“A person like him wouldn’t pay even if police beat him,” one of the officers added.
The officers said that they were stationed at the lights because pursuing vehicles was too dangerous, and that most of the time they are only able to apprehend one in five traffic violators.
One officer said that they only manage to extract a $.50 fine from one in 10 drivers who break the law.
Four traffic policemen stationed at the intersection of Monivong and Sihanouk boulevards said the money that everyone sees them taking from drivers is in fact donations; acts of generosity by the public.
“It is not a fine but kindness for police officers who must stand in the sun,” one officer explained.
“They give it to us. We do not threaten them,” said traffic policeman Pen Kit, who was stationed at the roundabout outside Funcinpec headquarters.
The small bundles of money handed through open windows to the police from vehicles that don’t stop are tips to the police for helping with traffic and parking, Pen Kit said.
“We take 500 riel for tea and water,” he added.
Tin Prasoer denied that the money generated by the traffic police at the city’s busy corners and intersection is passed up through the ranks to their superiors.
Sixty percent of the fines levied by his officers go to the municipality and the remaining 40 percent goes to the municipal police department.
Standard fines for traffic violations are $2.50 for cars and $1.25 for motorbikes, but the rate can change depending on the severity of the violation, he said.
He added that if anything, his officers deserve compassion from the general public rather than criticism.
“Please feel pity for them,” he said. “We are step by step getting better.”