Sunday, November 22, 2009

Moscow Police's Shattered Image

MOSCOW’S POLICE: THE CRACKED IMAGE

        In 1998 our team from the International Center for Psychosocial Trauma did a program in Moscow for participants from former USSR countries who were dealing with the psychological trauma of their citizens caused by various conflicts. Because of our interest in law enforcement our director Arshad Husain, Barbara Bauer, a psychologist in private practice who consults with the police, and myself, the author of a book on police stress, were invited to visit the Police Training Academy in Moscow. Besides our contacts at the Academy twelve police psychologists were participants in our six-day seminar on treating victims of trauma. This provided us an opportunity to learn more about crime and police work in Russia.

Russian police's damaged image
        The police in Russia may be in the country's most hated profession. The police psychologists our team of mental health professionals worked with in Moscow felt that the most pressing problem they face is how to upgrade police from the low status they have in the eyes of the public. It was easy for our Russian friends in police work to admit to us that this damaged image was well deserved when the police were an extension of the repressive communist government with powers to search, arrest and interrogate without limits. After all, the police were trained to protect the welfare of the state and not that of the public.
        But it was not only their past repression and terror that make the public leery of the police. Not spoken of openly but admitted by some of my informants is the generous opportunity a police officer has, with a pay of only $160 a month, to add to his income by squeezing bribes from people for various small infractions. These infractions are such things as not carrying one's identification card or committing a minor traffic violation. Police officers are also known to abuse their stop and search power on the street, and we were told that police unfortunately often hassle Africans, Middle Easterners and Asians living in the Russia. Their defense is that these are the people most likely to be dealing drugs.

The Russian Mafia
        The Russian Mafia is very powerful and is involved in most aspects of the economy. Mafia members run the sizable black market and protection rackets, control prostitution, and often take over businesses started by outsiders after they are making a profit. Those who do not cooperate have contracts taken out on their lives and part of the marked increase in murder in Moscow is related to Mafia activities. The police at this time are powerless to do anything about these criminals.
        One point of view, expressed to me by the chief police psychologist from Rostov, is that the Russia Mafia is good for the economy and that if they could be effectively stopped that the economic recovery would stop. He thought the real enemies of the health of the economy are the corrupt state officials who now own businesses and use their position to drive others out. It is the Mafia who are organized to work around these impediments by running an illegal marketplace that keeps prices down and products moving. My informant felt that once the drastic transformation that Russia is now undergoing is over will be the time to unleash the police against the Mafia.

What is being done to improve the police image?
        It may be the most hated profession in Russia but large numbers of young Russians still apply to enter the “militsia” (police force). Two major motivations attract recruits to the profession. First, while the pay is low it is steady. Earning money continues to be a real problem in Russia and many professionals such as teachers and doctors can sometimes go months with no paycheck. There are other financial benefits that make it an attractive occupation: free public transport, free medical services and paid retirement after 20 years of service.
        Second, it is an opportunity to have an interesting career where one can be of help to others. Given the large number of applicants it is expected that by careful screening, availability of psychological counseling and a revision of procedures that high quality officers can be placed on the street. This new, improved police force should be a major step in raising the image of the police.
        Part of the better screening and improved mental health of the police force depends upon the use of practical police psychologists. Rather than take trained psychologists, who are a rarity in Russia, they take police officers and give them a six months intensive training program in psychology and call them practical psychologists. They know something about testing and screening and are learning more about counseling impaired officers and officers who have been exposed to critical incidents. In the U.S. we would consider them highly trained peer helpers.
        Besides the time we spent at the Police Center in Moscow, eight members of the police group asked Dr. Bauer and me to meet with them one of the evenings during the seminar. Some of the officers were from Moscow but the largest number was from Rostov on the Don. They spent three hours firing questions at us. Dr. Bauer was particularly questioned about screening issues and the problems of working with officers impaired by alcohol abuse and critical incident stress.
        In terms of getting a better public image by doing more against organized crime, steps are already being taken to improve their performance by cooperation with the U.S. FBI force against organized crime. An additional indication that the Moscow police are trying to do better is that members of the San Francisco Police Department have been teaching crime-fighting techniques to elite members of the Moscow Police Organized Crime-fighting Regional Department.
        Besides the improvement of their skills as law enforcement personnel the media may be helping repair their damaged image. Russian television had six true crime television shows that did on site reports on the day's or week's major crimes. This exposure to the police (militsia) doing real police work rather than harassing citizens may do much to change the image of police officers.

As a visitor
        How safe did we find Moscow? Very. The Russian Mafia that we hear so much about is very powerful but functions at a level that does not impact the average visitor to Russia. We have been flooded with stories about the dangerousness of the criminals. One source said that there have been over 500 contract killings of top Russian businessmen, bankers, and journalists.
        As a visitor, however, your main concern will be avoiding the gypsy children who function in teams that can quickly cut open your pockets or the belt to your fanny pack and make off quickly. I was told that the police seeing this may not even interfere. Statistically there is very little crime against Americans. Crime against foreigners is mostly against those who are obviously foreign such as Asians and Blacks.
        We enjoyed the warmth shown to by Russians we were helping to train. Their eagerness to share with and learn from us was encouraging. They left us with a sense that we were their colleagues in an important venture. The cracked image of the police can be repaired, but it will take time and will not be fully accomplished until after recovery from the economic disruption of the country.

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