Travel Tips

Crooked Istanbul Cops Tried to Extort Us – Here’s How We Got Out of It

I guess this story could be summed up in a 140 character tweet, but it’s the most exciting thing that happened on this trip, so I’m coming out of blogger hibernation to share it. I was in Turkey over the last two weeks for my cousin’s wedding. One night, we all went to Nusr-et (AKA Salt Bae) for a late dinner. Around 2 AM, we drove back to the hotel in my cousin’s rental car (a BMW), when we were pulled over by police outside of the Vodaphone Arena. We had no idea why.

Two cops approach us and one of them utters the word “Araba,” which prompts my sister to think we’re being profiled: “They think we’re Arabs. Tell them we’re Afghan. They like Afghans.” Both cops speak a bit of English and begin asking for my cousin’s identification and car papers. He hands over his German driver’s license and insurance documents.

The older officer makes some kind of objection to the fact that we’re in a rental car and when that doesn’t illicit a reaction, he goes with “We need to see your passport.” My cousin tells him he left it at the hotel. The officer asks my cousin to pull over further and walk over to his vehicle. The whole thing drags on and we get concerned when a second police car pulls up. I’ve successfully talked my way out of several traffic tickets and I’m great at dealing with shady a**holes, so I decide to get out and talk to them.

The child lock keeps me in. I contemplate crawling out of the window, but if traffic stops in Turkey are anything like the ones in the US, we all wonder if it’s worth getting shot over. Instead, I decide to address the amenable English-speaking officer who stayed behind. I ask him what the problem is and the following exchange ensues:

Him: “The problem is he has no passport. You have to carry your passport.” 

Me: “Most people don’t carry their passport around for safety reasons. They leave it behind in their hotel safe.” 

Him: “Yes but you need identification.” 

Me: “He showed you a driver’s license.”

Him: “Yes, but we need identification that shows entry dates.” 

Me (in my head): Do you really think a German national would try to stay in this country illegally, with all the sh** you’ve got going on?

Me: “The hotel front desk has a copy of it. I’m sure they can send it to you if necessary.”

Him: “No, he must have it with him. He needs to be punished.”

Could they arrest him? My sister suggests we tell my cousin to try to bribe these guys. I object, on the basis that bribing a police officer in a foreign country could go very wrong. At this point another police vehicle arrives. Now it’s a party and the possibility of arrest seems real. Just then, a red Mustang pulls up in front of us and two officers come out to deal with that vehicle. 

I follow up on the “punishment” comment:

Me: “What do you mean by ‘punished’?”

Him: “He broke the law and he must be punished.”

Me: “What does that entail? Is he getting arrested?”

Him (chuckles): “No! If we think he committed suicide, we would arrest him. But not for a traffic stop!” It’s past 3 AM and I’m sleep deprived, so it takes me a second before I have to hold back an explosion of laughter. He clearly meant homocide and we spend the ride home laughing about his misuse of the word.

Me: “I see. So he has to pay a fine?”

Him: “Yes.”

Me: “How much?”

Him: “I am only a trainee. My chef knows.”

Now we’re relieved because with the favorable exchange rate, I’m sure the fine is not a big deal. It certainly sounds like a great compromise to the imagined possibility of arrest. But I need clarification on something, so I ask him: “What does Araba mean? Your Chef kept saying Araba.”

Him: “Araba means car.” 

I google it later and he’s right. We’re not being profiled as Arabs after all, but we probably are profiled because we’re tourists driving a nice car. My cousin comes back with all his paperwork and I ask him what the fine is. He starts driving and says, “Nothing. They want me to come back with 4,000 Lira.” WHAT?!?!? I get that’s *only* ~$650 but this is not how traffic fines are paid.

He recounts how the shakedown went. The officers insisted on seeing a passport. When my cousin couldn’t produce one, they asked him to empty out his pockets. Those same exact words. My cousin knew what was up, so fake apologized for not having a passport and offered him 100 Turkish Lira. That’s when the officer informed him he had to pay a fine. But it was his lucky day because he would receive a 50% discount in the form of 4000 Lira.

My cousin decided to play stupid and thank him for his generosity, offering to pay him with a credit card if he had a machine handy. That’s when the officer handed back all his papers (a rookie crooked cop mistake) and instructed him to simply go back to the hotel and bring back the cash. They must have thought since he had offered to make a credit card payment, he’d be stupid enough to return with the money without any kind of obligation. My cousin thanked him for his understanding and we drove home, pondering the stupidity of Istanbul’s corrupt police force. 

As far as bribes go, I find the practice fundamentally abhorrent no matter what the amount. I will take someone down to the mat rather than pay $1 towards a bribe. If it’s one thing I despise, it’s being thought of as a sucker tourist who can be taken advantage of. Ultimately, my cousin handled the situation well and got us off the hook.

It was just my luck that neither I nor my sister had our cellphones to get some of this exchange on camera. I normally don’t go anywhere without my phone but, ironically, I had to use it to bribe my niece into staying at the hotel.

Crooked cops aside, I had an amazing time in Turkey and find their people to be some of the kindest, most hospitable and generous I’ve ever met. More importantly, I felt safe and welcome in the country at all times. If you get a chance to go to Istanbul, do it. There are terrible people everywhere and you are bound to encounter them at some point. Don’t let that tarnish your opinion of an entire nation or its people. I definitely plan on going back – hopefully in the spring.

Have you ever encountered crooked cops during your travels? How did you handle the situation?

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31 Comments

  1. Oh, please get out of your narcissistic bubble. It’s you the nice Afghan immigrant girl against the world. Either it’s Walmart or some refugee in Europe and now the cops in Istanbul. The story wouldn’t be worth telling without mentioning (BMW).

  2. I find a lot of value in hearing about encounters with “the authorities” throughout the world. And yes, the story is worth telling, enjoyed the read.

  3. I love reading your posts, never mind the sour grapes that dont enjoy the positives in this world.

  4. I enjoyed your story and it may be helpful in the future should I encounter a similar event. Turkey is beautiful. I think the crooked cops are a result of the severe economic problems the country is facing. I hope that things get much better in the country soon for its citizens.

  5. Good story and a good reminder that things can happen while traveling in other countries (sometimes in our own country). Glad it turned out to be an adventure and nothing more. And lead to a lot of laughs!

  6. Chef? Do you mean chief? Because I would have been laughing at the misuse of that word!

  7. I have encountered the same corruption as n Bali Indonesia when riding a moped rented from hotel. Police will stop you and even if you have a passport, international license and or a license from your home country they will find a way to get money out of you !

    I have given them passport and license and they have said sorry you need a Indonesian license you must pay a US $100 fine, I always just pay and go about my day not worth the hassle. I hate the bribery to but sometimes it’s better than ending up in a 3rd world jail lol

  8. This is an important travel story to discuss. In that the more you travel, the more chances you will encounter cops who act to take their own toll. It may happen infrequently and Susan may be right about present conditions in Turkey. I drove all over Turkey for 18 days in 2015 and did not see this. However, while driving in Morocco for 19 days in May, we encountered many adhoc road blocks with two cops with hand-held radar guns stationed after speed limit signs that abruptly changed, so it was very hard to slow down for the two or three speed reductions. The first time we paid and the second time I refused, stating that it was almost impossible to meet the driving limits, calling it out as a set-up, and not good for Moroccan tourism to hurt tourists. It helped that I spoke some French. We were excused. After that I became adept in playing the game and slowed to a crawl ahead of time. We did look funny at times rolling through traffic stops going 20mph when the speed went from 60 to 40 to 20. But it worked. When it Rome…… Anyway this incidence flew directly in the face of the Moroccan people who are inherently honest with pious integrity. This is a lot of haggling but always with honest rules.

    • Good for you for standing up to them. Speaking the language definitely helps. I’ve also found it best not to judge people by their authority figures – corruption exists all over the world unfortunately.

  9. I always carry a photo copy of my passport when about, and a screen shot of my entry stamp on my phone. And a little cash gift for the cops children.

  10. David J Mieras

    Quote: but if traffic stops in Turkey are anything like the ones in the US, we all wonder if it’s worth getting shot over. I wonder what you mean by that statement. Why don’t you elaborate?

    • David i found that comment so insulting to the hard working law enforcement people who put their lives on the line for the rest of us every single call they go on. I have lost all respect for this blogger lately.

      • Relax Michael, no one is insulting the country’s law enforcement. Joking aside, someone crawling out of a vehicle window at a traffic stop in the US would draw alarm. No need for the fake outrage over every innocuous comment. PS I come from a law enforcement family so any insinuation of bias against law enforcement on my end is absurd.

    • Oh, grow up.

    • She was right to be worried. Every time I get pulled over at 3am and crawl out of my window in the U.S. Bam Bam Bam…shot right there on the spot. Happened like 4 times just this year already.

    • Crawling out of a car window during a traffic stop in the US would not go over well.

  11. Cops in US are mostly bunch of trigger happy racists. Just think, wo the revolution of the camera phone usage, how many crooked cops killed innocent people that were never recorded or proven!

    • I appreciate the police and rely on them to keep my community safe. It’s the first call I’ll make if I’m in trouble. Are they all honorable saints? No – and that’s a realistic perspective we should maintain in respect to all humans. There’s good and bad in every group.

  12. Mr F’Trump, you are so F’ing stupid. Just do research. A white person is 75% more likely to be shot in a violent confrontation. The reason there are more people of color shot is they are in more violent confrontations. Police are so conditioned against the appearance of racisim, that they are more hesitant to shoot. Actual incidents, and training studies show police are 75% less likely to shoot a person of color in the same type of incident.

    If you have any facts to back up your racist statements against our police force, please present them!

  13. Should have given them some Chipotle or iTunes giftcards, next time hit me up before a big trip.

  14. I remember years back while in Moscow we got pulled over by an old cop with a big soviet style hat on in an old junky police car. Our friend who was driving was Russian and lived n Moscow. The cop came up to him and checked us out and then told our friend to comet to his car. They sat in his car for a while and then he came back. We asked what happened and he it was no problem, “he wanted money” we were appalled but our friend says its no problem, the cops get paid very little money and this is like a donation. Its part of the culture. Some of us travel because we like adventure. Others travel as tourist hoping to play it safe. Step out into some of these countries and you will sooner or later experience things like this. On the whole a beautiful world.

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