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The politics behind Polish law-and-order controversy

"Law and order" has become the focus of political controversy here. On the one side, some officials complain of a mounting crime wave, a lack of respect for the law, and even public indifference to this apparently dangerous trend.

On the other, those favoring Poland's promised reforms charge that such complaints are being exaggerated as a pretext for provoking new tensions. These , they fear, could eventually be used to justify Soviet intervention.

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All this, in turn, is part of an uncertain political situation in which "conservative" groups in the Communist Party are stepping up a counterattack on the whole reform program. And the counterattack has already been endorsed by the Soviet press.

Professions of official Polish concern about the mounting crime rate and public hostility toward the police began when a small police station was burned a few weeks ago.

That touched off a flurry of official press reports about more such incidents. Onlookers, it was said, forced a traffic patrol to abandon a check on two motorists suspected of drinking while driving. A Molotov cocktail was tossed at a patrol car outside a police station.

Police frequently protest that citizens automatically take the side of offenders, decline to come forward as witnesses of crimes, and not only do not help policemen but often hinder them in their duties.

Trybuna Ludu, the Communist Party newspaper, spoke of an increasingly difficult moral and psychological climate in which police are often obstructed and even subjected to a torrent of charges of abuse of the law.

Internal Affairs Minister Miroslaw Milewski has admitted cases of improper police conduct. But he claims that all such incidents are investigated and, where proved, offending officers are punished. "Hooligans and troublemakers," he said, are taking advantage of a crisis situation.

Juvenile crime and hooliganism, usually involving alcohol, have risen alarmingly in Poland in recent years, especially since the strikes began last summer. There has been an even more alarming jump in the rate of major crime -- up 26 percent in the first four months of this year compared to 1980.

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But if, in today's Poland, "a policeman's lot [in the words of Gilbert and Sullivan's opera] is not a happy one," it is the past that is most to blame. People have yet to be convinced that political change will be realized, let alone that police are mending their ways.

Most Poles seem to believe that the authorities as well as political groups opposed to reform still seek to use the uncertainties of the present situation to keep reform in politically safe bounds or block it altogether.

Warsaw's most widely read daily, Zycie Warszawy, which is outspokenly committed to "renewal" and democratization, alluded Monday to a recent pronouncement by the state attorney that crime was growing to the extent that functioning of the state came in question.

It recalled official warnings -- made at a time during the winter when tensions were higher than now -- that if necessary the government would declare a state of emergency.

Hostility between police and public is not new in Poland. But crime, Zycie Warszawy said, "is now being kept under a continuous spotlight, whereas before it was covered up.

"It gives an impression that someone is deliberately taking advantage of the fact that there are no strikes in order not to allow tensions to recede. When police and other institutions are under fire, crime is an advantageous pretext for someone to prove that the transformation of society is loosening morals and social discipline."

The police have set up a committee up with the professed purpose of forming a police trade union to improve their image and relations with the public.

But the independent trade union movement Solidarity suspects that any such police union would be affiliated to the remnants of the former government-controlled mass labor organizations that Solidarity has replaced. And Solidarity wants no part of it.

Instead, the last issue of its weekly, also called Solidarity, printed a letter signed by more than 100 people -- including lawyers, judges, and a prosecutor -- that bluntly declared that political forces were behind a law- and-order "scare" intended to generate an atmosphere of "chaos and anarchy" that could warrant the use of a "hard hand."

Chaos and anarchy are terms drawn from the Soviet vocabulary of the late 1940 s and '50s against communist "revisionists" like Tito that are being used by antireformists within the party.

The so-called Katowice Party Forum, which launched the challenge last week, has drawn numerous contemptuous repudiations from party organizations up and down the country. Several party leaders have condemned it as a provocation and an attempt to "discredit Polish socialism."

Not surprisingly, the Soviet press is already reproducing the forum's resolution.But it is probably intended as much for Russian consumption as for maintaining pressure on the Poles to keep reform firm ly under party control.

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