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Police Crime Wave Sparks Talk of Reform In Russia

  • Kevin O'Flynn

A banner reads "Time to change" at a demonstration for police reform.

A banner reads "Time to change" at a demonstration for police reform.

MOSCOW -- The name Yevsyukov is now infamous in Russia.

Denis Yevsyukov, the former head of a police district in the southern Moscow neighborhood of Tsaritsyno, is the 32-year-old police major shocked the nation in April when, upset by a fight with his wife, he went on a shooting spree in a Moscow supermarket that left three people dead and another six injured.

Seeking to explain the event later that day, Moscow police chief Vladimir Pronin called Yevsyukov "a good officer" who "has had a good career." He added, however, that "it looks from the evidence we have that he had a nervous breakdown."

But to many Russians, the crime was deeply sinister. An investigation later revealed that Yevsyukov had shot his victims with a gun that had been illegally removed from a criminal inquiry in Chechnya years before.

Since then, allegations have surfaced that Yevsyukov ran the Tsaritsyno district like a personal fiefdom, falsifying records on the number of crimes solved, and using his post to extort sums from people looking to avoid prosecution.

Yevsyukov is not just an anomaly. Since the supermarket rampage, stories have emerged on an almost daily basis in Russia of crimes committed by the crime-fighters themselves.

In recent weeks, a drunk policeman hit and killed a pregnant woman in Moscow before abandoning the scene of the accident. Another police officer was found dead of a heroin overdose. A third hacked his wife to death with an axe. And a group of policemen were arrested for stealing more than 30 million rubles ($960,000) from passengers at Moscow's Vnukovo Airport.

All Powerful And Beyond Punishment

Police brutality has long been a concern among rights-watchers, who say one out of every 25 people in Russia is tortured, beaten, or harassed by law enforcement officials each year.

Altercations with police have become so commonplace that many Russians can relate their own personal story about a violent brush with the law.

Dzhordzh Sukhomyro was spending the evening at a crowded disco in the Far Eastern town of Dalnegorsk when the club was stormed by police.

"A lot of policemen arrived, and at first they beat up one guy and I went up to see what was happening," Sukhomyro recalls.

"These were police in uniform, not kids. But then I got hit. Then lots of policemen came in, the whole station, and they took everyone -- small, big, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 years old. Teenagers. They took them to the station, and at the station they beat them viciously. Really viciously."

The incident took place two years ago when Sukhomyro was 17. He came away with a broken nose and a prison sentence for threatening the well-being of a police officer.

But there have been no charges against the Dalnegorsk police, despite admissions from local prosecutors that police violated standard procedure in their treatment of the young people at the disco. Some of the police involved in the raid have even received promotions.

Sukhomyro says the police are seen by most people as all-powerful and beyond punishment.

"They are everything here. They're the bandits, the police, the power, and the local administration. They're everything," Sukhomyro says. "You value yourself too much to fight them. It's the same as fighting against the wind. I don't know how to fight. How can you? To fight them, you need a lot of money, and we don't have any."

Structural Problems

Sukhomyro is one of many Russians who has taken his case to Public Verdict, a nongovernmental organization formed in 2004 that offers support to citizens who say they were victimized by the police.

"In the last five years, we can see it getting worse, and the clearest example of this is the tragedy in the Tsaritsyno shopping center," says Public Verdict's director, Natalia Taubina.

"Five years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine [such a thing taking place]. But now, news about law enforcement employees getting behind the wheel in a drunken state and hitting someone on a pedestrian crossing is happening -- not every day, thank God, but quite regularly."

The policeman who killed the pregnant woman in Moscow was arrested after a public outcry. He was given a two-year suspended sentence last week.

Experts say the Russian police force has a number of structural problems, and that only a program of sweeping reforms can rehabilitate law enforcement in the eyes of the public.

Low wages and dilapidated equipment are coupled with an outdated system that demands a rising quota of arrests each month. Morale is low and the force has lost a large number of professionals in recent years. Many of the new recruits cleared for service are poorly educated, and sometimes mentally and physically unsound.

A Normal System Of Law

Some lawmakers have long called for comprehensive reform.

"Raise the wages of policemen by three or four times; provide social guarantees; purge the force [of bad police] and organize supervision of the police by parliament, society and media," says Gennady Gudkov, the deputy head of the Security Committee in Russia's State Duma. "Then we will have a normal system of law in Russia."

After a whirl of negative stories in the Russian media, one Interior Ministry official hit back last week, saying the police system was fine and that the case of the Yevsyukov supermarket shooting should not be enough to besmirch the reputation of the police.

"A single incident, committed by a completely rotten personality, has been used to cast dirt on all our system," Deputy Interior Minister Arkady Yedelyev said. "It is absolute stupidity."

But Yedelyev's comments were quickly overshadowed when a story broke the same day that a policeman had shot a person dead in a Moscow police station and then tried to kill himself.

Yet police reform does not seem to be on the government's agenda.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has made fighting corruption a priority of his administration. But the country's long-serving interior minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, remains a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Independent politician Vladimir Ryzhkov says there is no real desire to tackle the problem. In fact, he suggests the opposite appears to be the case.

"What's important is that the police fulfill the role of the organ of repression in the defense of the regime," Ryzhkov says. "It is the police who break up opposition marches. It is the police who arrest those in opposition, it is the police who fabricate false criminal cases. They are the main repressive instrument of the ruling regime, and that is why they don't talk about reform. And that's why the government closes its eyes to the corruption, expansion, and unprofessionalism of the Interior Ministry."

For now, Russians are more wary of the police than ever before. In a poll conducted by the Levada public opinion center before the Yevsyukov killings, only 9 percent of respondents said they had complete trust in the police.

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