Neighbourhood Watch or Dog-Pooh Brigade?
Linz pioneered its municipal security service to keep the Upper Austrian city orderly and clean, but many find it redundant
Two officers in puffed-up, red jackets enter a small park in Linz’s inner city. When they spot a group of men hanging around a park bench surrounded by beer cans and empty bottles, the officers quicken their step to approach them. It is only 10:45. One of the drinkers’ face and arms are covered in tattoos, discoloured from age and faded to green. Yet the uniformed officers are more interested in the black boxer dog that is sniffing around a nearby bush. "Please be so kind…," the older officer prompts the group in a friendly tone. Instantly, a man with hollow cheeks gets up and puts a leash on the animal. After some brief small talk, the officers walk on.
The two red-jackets are full-time employees of Linz’s municipal security service – the so-called Ordnungsdienst. As a condition of taking me on their tour of duty, they requested I use pseudonyms in this article. I will call them Hubert Müller and Alfred Moser; they are 52 and 41 years old.
Daily from 6:30 until 0:30, six officers patrol the Upper Austrian capital in pairs. Their job is to answer citizens’ inquiries, to tell dog owners to leash, muzzle and clean up after their four-legged friends, to report illegal dumps, and, most controversially, to prevent illegal begging and busking. Their mission: "more security, cleanliness and order in Linz," as Detlef Wimmer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ), and Linz’s alderman for security, told The Vienna Review.
Yet Linzers are divided about whether the town really needs these municipal agents, introduced in September 2010 under a Social Democratic mayor bowing to pressure from the FPÖ and the conservative party, ÖVP. In a 2011 survey commissioned by the city, 49% of residents supported the troop, while 46% found it "unnecessary".
This spring, Linz’s security service also entered the national debate, attracting scrutiny from politicians and lawyers in Vienna. In early March, the Austrian constitutional court started hearings to determine whether anti-begging laws passed by five federal state assemblies in recent years are constitutional. The Upper Austrian law prohibits begging that is aggressive, organised, or involves children; yet the point of contention is whether the Ordnungsdienst should be allowed to enforce the law, or whether such a municipal vigilante conflicts with the national police’s constitutional monopoly of force. The ruling is expected in September [see box below].
According to alderman Wimmer, the municipal security service usefully complements the police. "Some of the service’s tasks aren’t carried out by the police, as they are municipal responsibilities, " he says, referring to dog control as an example. Moreover, the police would not be able to keep an eye on beggars as much as the population wished, Wimmer adds.
Indeed, the competences of Linz’s security service differ widely from those of the police. Rather than fighting crime, Müller says his team provides a "mobile citizens’ service." In its first year, the Ordnungsdienst’s case record showed that most of its interventions concerned answering citizens’ requests and complaints (45%), followed by enforcing proper dog keeping (29%), and reporting illegal rubbish dumps (18%).
Unlike the police, Linz’s security service is not allowed to carry weapons; its officers are armed only with a camera, a mobile phone, a notebook, gloves, a torch, and bags for dog waste. Its competencies do not exceed ordinary citizens’ rights: Müller and his colleagues may report offences to the police but not issue fines; they may ask others for identification, but have no right to demand it; and they may prevent suspected criminal offenders from leaving until the police arrives.
But in the crucial matter of the begging ban, the Ordnungsdienst does have special powers: Upper Austrian law grants the municipal offi-cers the right to demand identification. They may even arrest beggars, although no such cases have been reported, and Müller insists his team never exercises that right.
Its limited competencies have earned the troop the nickname Hundstrümmerl Brigade – "dog-pooh brigade". But Müller and his taciturn colleague agree that their mere presence makes citizens "feel safer". The notion is confirmed by several passers-by whom I ask on the streets of Linz.
Yet, under closer scrutiny, that justification seems shaky: A 2011 poll by the municipality showed that 74% of residents did not feel any safer since the service was created, and 69% said the Ordnungsdienst had not made the town any cleaner either. An earlier municipal poll corroborates the finding: in 2004 – long before the service was introduced – 81% of Linzers said they felt safe in their environment. In 2011, the figure was virtually unchanged, standing at 82%.
Media artist Karl Klar, 25, is pleased about the waning approval. He sees it as evidence that the civil society campaign of Kritische Plattform Stadtwache Linz ("critical platform city watch") – for which he volunteers – is working. The initiative has issued a manual informing citizens how to behave when stopped by the patrols, and processes written complaints. For Klar, Linz’s security service symbolises "a kind of politics that does not solve social problems but represses them, and that absolves individuals from their responsibility." Klar thinks citizens should be encouraged to create safe environments themselves, say, by urging dog owners to act responsibly. "What we need is more civic engagement and less disciplining personnel," he argues.
Back in the park a man in his late 40s shares his view on the municipal officers: "They’re alright. We certainly don’t need them, but they don’t hurt anyone either." Yet, taxpayers may soon start to feel the pain: The service’s cost for 2012 is estimated at €1.3 million, according to Martina Steininger from the city administration; a tall sum for a service deemed unnecessary by half the population.
In the end, local residents may bring the Ordnungsdienst down before Vienna’s constitutional judges get the chance.