Bellingham, Wash., 17 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Seven police officers from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan are on their way home from Bellingham in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington today.
The officers are due back in Bishkek on Thursday. A week later, it will be their turn to host seven policemen from Bellingham.
The Bishkek officers have spent the last few weeks working side by side with Bellingham police officers and living with their families under a U.S. State Department exchange program. The exchanges are arranged by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which is based in Alexandria, Virginia -- a suburb of Washington, D.C.
A similar exchange is underway in the central U.S. city of Wichita, Kansas, whose police force is hosting seven police officers from Ashgabad, the capital of Turkmenistan. And the chief of police of Denton, Texas is in Tbilisi, Georgia now working out details of a similar exchange with his town, which is about midway between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas.
Brannan Cass of the international police association told RFE/RL that police forces in the exchange program share similar policing problems. These can range -- as in the case of the Bishkek-Bellingham and Ashgabad-Wichita exchanges -- from narcotics trafficking to so-called white-collar crime and working with young people to help prevent crime.
Cass says the association has had "a lot of great feedback" from exchanges already run or soon to run. These involve the Russian cities of Saint Petersburg, Nizhniy Novgorod, Khabarovsk and Vladivostok; plus, Chisinau in Moldova; Yerevan, Armenia; Almaty, Kazakhstan; and Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Partners on the American side include such cities as San Francisco and San Diego on the Pacific Coast and Philadelphia and Baltimore on the East Coast.
Cass says a major goal of the exchanges is to promote "policing in a democracy and the meaning of the rule of law in a democracy" through shared experience in what he calls "community policing."
Meeting with reporters in Bellingham, Bishkek officer Torobed Azizov said: "We visited police laboratories and jails, learned what each police division does and really enjoyed that." The former Soviet Army officer added that he and his colleagues "are extremely happy with everything here."
Azizov, who served as spokesman for the Bishkek officers, says he was most impressed by the modern weaponry available to the Bellingham officers and the technology that they have at their disposal.
The officer explained that "we have difficulties with technology" in Bishkek because of scarce funds and what he describes as a high rate of criminal activity, made worse by economic hard times.
Bellingham, a university city of about 65,000 residents, is only about one-tenth the size of Bishkek. But the area in recent years has acquired a sizable minority of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The city's locally financed police force enjoys a reputation for being one of Washington state's most modern police departments. Its location on the West Coast, only minutes from the international border with Canada, creates problems in drug trafficking and illegal immigration that usually is less pronounced in cities of its size.
Cass says participating U.S. cities are chosen largely based on local and regional population characteristics, the size and complexity of their police departments, and their desire to work with officers from abroad. Bellingham, a Pacific port city, maintains an extensive network of "sister cities" around the Pacific Rim. These include Nakhodka in the Russian Far East.
During his stay in Bellingham, Azizov lived with the family of Bellingham's deputy chief of police, David MacDonald. Azizov's six colleagues also lived with the families of Bellingham officers, sharing meals and -- by all accounts -- establishing strong bonds of friendship.
Those bonds will likely only be reinforced during the Bellingham officers' working visit to Bishkek starting next week.