Police corruption in parts of Asia has grown from a mild annoyance into a real problem. In some countries, regulations are seemingly passed with the goal of collecting fines, more so than for keeping public peace or safety.
While you should obviously follow the local laws of whatever country you are visiting and show respect to people in uniform, travelers are sometimes approached by corrupt officers who are looking for easy, on-the-spot bribes. Infractions, no matter how small, can be costly.
What to Do if You Are Approached
If you find yourself approached by a police officer, remember the following:
- Make sure the cop is legit. There have been many instances of fake police scams in Southeast Asia. First, ensure that you are dealing with a real police officer and not just a con artist in a uniform.
- Be courteous. Despite the circumstances, smile! The interaction will certainly follow the Asian rules of saving face. Don’t put the officer into a position of embarrassment where they have no alternative other than to fine you.
- Don’t panic. The officer may have ultimate authority, however, they often know that they are pushing their boundaries.
- Be firm. If you’re clearly being scammed, stand your ground and create as much delay as possible. Corrupt officers will often give up after time and move on to someone else.
- Don’t hand over your passport. Even if you have your passport handy, begin by saying that it’s locked up at the hotel. If pushed, you can always “remember” that you do indeed have it on you. Once the police have your passport in hand, you’ll have to pay handsomely to get it back.
- Never offer money. Although both you and the officer may know the real reason you were approached, don’t be the first to offer a bribe or dig into your pocket.
Classic Police Scams
Sadly, the police in some Asian countries are always finding new and creative ways to entrap tourists for collecting ‘fines.’ Be vigilant and watch out for these classics:
- Motorbike Helmets: Most countries have helmet laws in place. If you choose to rent a scooter in Asia, wear a helmet! The rule also applies to your passenger. Many locals residents completely ignore helmet laws; police will often let them go and opt to stop tourists instead.
- No-Smoking Areas: Particularly in Bangkok, sometimes public areas will be declared as no-smoking areas. A sign, if one exists, will be tiny or just around the corner. Locals often don’t care, however, tourists will be approached for an on-the-spot fine. Be careful where you choose to light up, and never drop a cigarette butt on the ground.
- Drug Scams: Marijuana can be purchased from bars on many of the islands in Southeast Asia. Remember: drugs are illegal in every country in Asia; some have very strict penalties for people who get caught. Your embassy in Asia won’t be able to do much if you’re arrested as a drug offender. Bars have been known to sell their ‘products’ then promptly call a police friend who will shake you down for the weed and a steep bribe. The same weed is sold again and again.
Asking to See a Superior
Unfortunately, within a system rife with corruption, asking to speak to an officer’s superior won’t always help. You can’t assume that anyone further up the chain of command is any less interested in collecting bribe money. In fact, the size of your ‘fine’ may increase as the officer approaching you must pay a little commission to his superiors.
If the tables turn and you are threatened with going down to the station, stand your ground. Most officers working the streets couldn’t be bothered to do any actual paperwork for petty offenses.
Some Ways to Beat the System
Aside from abiding by local laws, which may not always be enough to keep you from being approached, here are some ways to beat corruption:
- Separate your Money: Especially if driving a scooter and there’s a chance you’ll be stopped (Bali has a problem with this scam). Police may ask for identification, then once you have your wallet open, see all the cash inside. Bribes/fines rarely come in the form of an exact amount. Keep your money in two different places in case a corrupt officer decides to clean you out.
- Try Negotiating: The concept of negotiating a fine with a police officer may seem absurd, but travelers do have success doing so. Stall, create delays, and offer a lesser amount than asked if you’re forced to pay. Again, having your money in two separate places will be key.
- Ask for a Photo: Because you’ll rarely, if ever, be given a receipt or an actual ticket to show that you paid a fine, travelers sometimes ask for a photo with the officer to show other policemen in case they are stopped again just down the road. Most officers will balk at having their photos taken, and some may even let you off the hook if you present your argument logically. Alternatively, you can also ask to write down the policeman’s name and badge number.