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Where To Start With Police Reform?

All three men in this photograph are police officers.

All three men in this photograph are police officers.

There was an old Soviet joke about how central planners decided to reward factories based on how many nails they produced. So the plants naturally began producing copious quantities of miniscule nails. So planners began measuring output by weight, and the factories promptly started producing small numbers of enormous nails.

A similar problem is currently bedeviling efforts to reform the Russian Interior Ministry, as a recent article in makes vividly clear. The site spoke candidly with a police officer identified only as Sergei, who described in detail how the ministry’s insistence on tallying up “solved” crimes motivates officers to commit the most heinous acts.

Sergei describes how ambitious officers boost their statistics (in order to secure bonuses, promotions, or choice assignments from superiors who can recognize a person who will “do whatever is necessary” when they see him) by setting up unsuspecting people, usually by giving them a few drinks and then convincing them to commit a crime to help their new drinking buddy. The drinking buddy, of course, disappears in the confusion surrounding the arrest and if the scam target mentions him, police shut him up just by threatening to charge him with “organizing a criminal gang.”

Sergei expresses little sympathy for these people. “After all, no one forced him to snatch the purse. He did it himself, with his own hands. They should use their heads,” he says.

He has a little more compassion for innocent people who are completely set up. He describes a scam in which a woman borrows $100 from the target. Then she arranges to meet him in public to pay him back, but as soon as she hands over the money, the target is arrested and the woman claims she purchased drugs from him.

“’Are there a lot of cases like that,’ the correspondent asks. And he just closes his eyes affirmatively.”

Alternatively, Sergei says, police can rack up a lot of brownie points by “paving the way” for a known drug dealer and just arresting his customers one after another.

He also describes how the end-of-the-month reckoning at the police station leads to a lively market in which officers who have exceeded their quotas (the most viciously corrupted) sell or trade their extra “solved” crimes to less-fortunate officers (the ones who wasted the whole month pursuing real criminals or keeping the public safe).

Sergei says the heart of the problem is that the ministry is completely infused with a culture of statistics, particularly statistics that show ever-increasing figures for “solved crimes.” The entire ministry and individual departments, precincts, and officers live in terror of the dreaded “analogous period from last year” (known by insiders by the Russian acronym APPG). It is, Sergei says, “the root of all evil” in the force.

He says that an officer who solved 40 crimes last year is simply obligated to solve at least 41 this year. And he compared it to a journalist who covers five terrorist attacks in one year and is informed by his editor that he must cover at least six this year. He describes how every unit in the ministry must account for itself on a quarterly basis and how when the third-quarter report is submitted in October, the pressure begins to solve all the “open” cases and to bring up the current levels to the needed APPG levels before the end of the year.

Comparing the situation to Soviet times, Sergei says back then police were judged only on the percentage of solved crimes and they regularly achieved rates above 90 percent largely by not registering many crimes that actually occurred (this practice made the country look good and pleased Communist Party officials).

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ministry “reformed” this system by instilling deep incentives to “solve” as many crimes as possible (and the nefarious one-two punch of police and prosecutors in Russia made this easier than it otherwise would have been). He points out that all police – even patrol cops – have to live up to the APPG quotas, even for administrative offenses like “fighting.”

Sergei’s conclusions are not uplifting: “Everything is rotten to the core, from the top to the bottom,” he says. “You can’t live in their with rose-colored glasses for more than six months,” he adds. “After that, you either act like everyone else or you leave.”

His final assessment reminds me of another old joke, about the man who complained that the food on the airplane was terrible and there wasn’t enough of it. “Our system is bad,” Sergei says. “But it is strong and resilient.”

(For more on police-reform issues, click here, here, here, and here. RFE/RL correspondent Gregory Feifer has a recent three-part series on corruption in Russia, including police corruption, here, here, and here.)

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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