Whether they’re uncovering drug cartels, teaching how to protect secrets, improving the image of the police department or fighting corruption, skepticism is their speciality
Press Representative, Vienna Police Department
In 2007, UN staffer Aeryn Gillern disappeared on foot from an exclusive gay sauna and apparently fell into the Danube Canal. The story of Gillern, a young American living in Vienna and working at UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization), brought forth worldwide criticism of the Viennese police, who were described as “uncooperative” and “not forthcoming” in their handling of the case. It was only in 2015 that Gillern’s mother, Kathryn, and the public were finally convinced that the police were committed to the ongoing investigation. Although the case remains unsolved, this in itself was a breakthrough.
After such infamous criminal investigations as the kidnapping and captivity of Natascha Kampusch (2006), Josef Fritzl’s 24-year imprisonment and sexual abuse of his daughter Elizabeth (2008), and the Gillern case, the Vienna Police realized they needed a public relations department, which was then established in 2009. Press spokesman Roman Hahslinger, 48, with the police for 32 years until this month, acknowledges that communication has not always been the force’s strong suit.
“In the past, people found us not so open and a lot of misunderstandings arose,” he said. “Of course, the police make mistakes too but the difference now is that we’re willing to talk about it.”
Although the department has been trying to improve its image, they face an ongoing challenge in striking a balance between transparency and security. Although prevention and safety are among the highest priorities, Hahslinger says there are limits as to what can be shared with the public.
“There are of course things we can’t reveal,” he says, “to avoid having them seen by a perpetrator in a newspaper or on TV.” At such times, transparency is simply the wrong answer. “Obviously, when it comes to terrorism investigations, we try not to report too much.” Discretion takes priority.
Hahslinger is grateful that Vienna has avoided being a target of terrorism, which he attributes to Austria’s being a small country and perhaps just lucky.
And, he said, straightening up, it may also be “the excellent work” of the Vienna police.
The police used to be seen as unfriendly and taciturn. Now we really make an effort to talk and communicate with the public.