Bellingham, Washington, 28 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The landlocked Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek and the much smaller waterfront city of Bellingham in the Pacific Northwestern state of Washington may seem, at first glance, to be unlikely partners for any kind of international exchange program -- and not least, perhaps, in the area of law enforcement.
But police officers from the two cities actually do face at least one major common challenge in addition to the more general concerns for maintaining public law and order: Both Bishkek and Bellingham, which is only a few kilometers from Canada's Pacific border, confront a growing international trade in illegal drugs.
Police officers from both cities will be getting together on each other's home grounds to learn what they can about their mutual concerns.
Bishkek and Bellingham are just the latest in a number of exchanges of police personnel between American cities and their counterparts in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. The exchanges are sponsored and paid for by the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. The two-year-old program is administered by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which is based just outside Washington, D.C., in Alexandria, Virginia.
Irena Ramashkan, a native of Ukraine who coordinates the program for the police association, tells RFE/RL that six similar police exchanges have already taken place. Other participating cities, she says, include the Russian cities of Saint Petersburg and Vladivostok; the Kazakh city of Almaty; the Armenian capital Yerevan; the Georgian capital Tbilisi; and Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. Their exchanges are with such major American cities as San Francisco, San Diego, Philadelphia and Baltimore, along with Indianapolis, Indiana; Wichita, Kansas; Memphis, Tennessee; and Denton, Texas (which is about midway between Dallas and Fort Worth).
The purpose of the program, Ramashkan says, is to promote training opportunities and help nurture awareness of the far different role of police in a democracy than in the old Soviet Union.
Bellingham Police Chief Don Pierce tells our correspondent that while his department may be responsible for law enforcement in a city one-tenth the size of Bishkek, its police force is as well-equipped in the latest crime-fighting technology as many big city U.S. police departments. Pierce adds that Kyrgyzstan apparently has a much lower rate of sexual and child abuse, saying that "maybe they have a secret we can learn."
Here's how the exchanges work, using the Bishkek-Bellingham program as an example: Pierce and his counterpart in Bishkek first will meet for three days in one another's city to design an agenda of mutual law-enforcement interests and needs. With the agenda set, each city will send a team of seven officers to the partner city to work side by side for two weeks to share information, law-enforcement philosophy and policing techniques.
Pierce says he will be visiting Bishkek starting July 11. The other exchanges will take place in August.
While in Bellingham, the Bishkek officers will live with the families of the participating police officers. Such "home stays" are designed to foster personal ties to supplement and strengthen the officers' professional experiences.
Pierce calls Bellingham's selection to participate in the exchange "a huge honor" for this city of about 60,000 inhabitants, including hundreds of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The chief says that from previous visits he has made to Vladivostok and Nakhodka in the Russian Far East -- Nakhodka is a sister city of Bellingham -- the personal contacts made "develop and last for years to come."
He adds that those visits, five years ago, underlined for him the importance of "exporting" the long-evolved concept of the role of police in a democracy for officers whose previous experience with police equated with repression. During his earlier visits, Pierce says, "police there just didn't understand" the role of police as dedicated, as the famous motto of the Los Angeles Police Department states, "to serve and protect."
Pierce says that "if these newly independent countries are to evolve into truly democratic societies, their police are going to have to learn what role to play in that."
In all, 21 American cities have been chosen and nearly 300 police officers are taking part in the exchanges, says Irena Ramashkan of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Ramashkan says the participating cities that have already undertaken exchanges of police indicate that they plan to continue to share information and ideas -- perhaps linking their respective training academies, crime laboratories and other facilities.