During my childhood, watchmen were regarded as local servants who would keep an eye out for the “bad guys”. Bear in mind that there were no CCTV cameras, private security or house alarms back then.
Up until 1995, watchmen patrolled in the streets, their role consisting mainly in blowing a whistle to alarm the neighborhood of malignant activities and acting as a local aid to the police. The watchmen did not hold guns but sticks, and their powers were restricted.
In 2016, the AKP-MHP government allowed watchmen to make a comeback. At that time, they were allowed to carry a handgun but could only use it under specific conditions.
Currently, up to 60 percent of watchmen only have high school or secondary school diplomas. Despite that, their salary amounts to 5,000 TL, which is twice the country’s minimum wage and exceeds that of teachers. So far, watchmen number around 21,000, though the government announced it would hire another 10,000.
Not only are the watchmen rising in number but their powers are being extended. A new bill from the AKP and the MHP that would expand the watchmen’s powers has raised huge concerns. All opposition parties in parliament, the CHP, the HDP and İYİ have objected to the bill.
The proposed bill would enable watchmen to work with gendarmerie officers as well with the police force. If accepted, watchmen will be able to stop criminals “in the act of a crime”, handcuff and deliver criminals to the police, preserve evidence at a crime scene. They also will be allowed to use firearms.
The boundaries and definition of the watchmen’s duties are vague. Will watchmen serve as some kind of militia? Who will control them, and how?
The most hazardous part of the bill is that watchmen have no police background or skills. The kind of training they will receive remains unclear. That means they could be prone to making poor decisions, misbehaving and perpetrate human rights abuses.
Just a few days ago, watchmen beat up someone in Istanbul because he resisted a body search. Besides, ID controls and body searches by the police have become a regular occurrence in every corner of the country. Though the state of emergency has been lifted, it is referred to as the “routine.”
Another concern has to do with the fact that the watchmen will not operate under a specific law or the constitution but under the government’s direct orders. Opposition parties thus warn of a “parallel police force” that enjoys unprecedented powers. At night, the watchmen could well turn into the state’s moral police.
The opposition People’s Democratic Party, HDP, claims that such powers will turn the watchmen into a “political party force” and will serve as the rulers’ “eyes, informants and handcuffs” as they will be assigned by the Interior Ministry, which is directly bound to the President.
On the other hand, it is interesting to note that the Republican People’s Party (CHP) is not “entirely” against the proposed law. The party claims the bill should be updated and revised.
AKP and MHP policy makers maintain that watchmen will assist law enforcement officers.
But does Turkey really need more law enforcement? According to Eurostat statistics, the number of policemen in Turkey is already high in compared to the EU member states. The only exception is Cyprus.
In 2018, Turkey had 540 police and gendarmerie per 100,000 people. In the EU, the mean number of law enforcement officers is 318 per 100,000. And every year, the numbers of police officers are slowly decreasing. Between 2009 and 2016, the EU reduced the number of its officers by 3.4 percent.
In Turkey, the trend was the opposite. In the past decade, the number of police officers and gendarmerie went up by 26 percent. One can hardly say more armed forces are needed – especially given the laws of the state of emergency continue to be enforced.