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Police Resist Change Despite Growing Public Distrust

As the clock ticks for Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, who has to present the legal framework for an overhaul of the police force by year's end, public trust in the officers charged with enforcing the law has reached a new low.

The state-run VTsIOM pollster released a survey Monday that indicated 82 percent of Russians believe that police officers are ready to break the law, a small uptick from the already high 81 percent in a similar survey in 2009.

About 32 percent of the 1,600 respondents of the latest poll said police officers commit crimes on a regular basis, while 20 percent criticized police for harboring negative attitudes toward citizens.

The poll, which has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points, was released as a police station in the city of Oryol was attacked in what analysts called possible signs of growing public anger over police corruption.

In Oryol, unknown assailants threw two Molotov cocktails into the window of a police station early Monday, Interfax reported, citing a spokeswoman for the regional police.

No one was harmed, and the fire was swiftly put out, she said, adding that the assailants left pamphlets with the Soviet-era slogan: “Do like us, do better than us.”

In a separate incident, a small bomb was planted in the window of a district prosecutor’s office in Oryol on Friday. No one was hurt in the explosion.

The attacks might have been inspired by a drama that played out in the Russian Far East in May and June, when several vigilantes with a history of being harassed by law-enforcement officers launched a brief war against the police, killing two and wounding four. Four vigilantes were arrested mid-June, and two others ended up dead in what the police said were suicides.

A recent poll by the independent Levada Center found that 22 percent of Russians supported the actions of the vigilantes, despite their ultranationalist rhetoric and purported ties to the criminal underworld. In Moscow, support for the gang was even higher, reaching 46 percent.

Denis Volkov, a senior sociologist with Levada, explained that Moscow policemen, who are often hired from other Russian regions, are especially aggressive because they feel indifferent toward residents. “For them, they have no face — unlike in the regions where people are connected to one another,” Volkov said.

Only 8 percent of cases of suspected police torture are investigated effectively, according to a survey by the Public Verdict foundation, a public organization that helps victims of police abuse. The study was based on 156 cases of abuse.

It is hard to expect prosecutors, who are supposed to monitor the police, to properly investigate abuses because they are a part of the same system, said Public Verdict president Natalya Taubina.

“Police reforms should not be singled out. The reforms should also concern prosecutors and investigators,” Taubina said.

Many analysts and human rights activists say increased official and public oversight over the police force is the only way to stop police violence. But, instead, the Interior Ministry has proposed new legislation that would punish citizens for being rude to police officers.

The bill, proposed last month by Yury Draguntsov, head of the Interior Ministry's internal affairs department, would make police officers effectively immune from public anger while on duty.

Draguntsov defended the proposed measure by saying that up to 30 percent of all document checks end in citizens insulting and even pushing police officers.

But existing laws offer more than enough protection to police officers, human rights activists said. For example, insulting an official is punishable by a fine of more than $1,000 or several months of forced labor, according to the Criminal Code.

Draguntsov's proposal seems to indicate a 180-degree turn from a plan offered by his boss, Interior Minister Nurgaliyev, in November. Nurgaliyev said citizens had a legitimate reason to beat police officers who were violent and unruly.

Rowdy police officers seem to be a problem for the police force itself. Stavropol regional police last week created a special commando unit to make sure that police officers visiting the region's Black Sea resorts do not stir up trouble.

“We established the special task force … after receiving information that law-enforcement officials from Chechnya and Kabardino-Balkaria are visiting entertainment venues without leaving their guns at the door,” said Viktor Zubov, head of the Stavropol police department, RIA-Novosti reported.

Proposals about granting more rights to policemen serve only to worsen the public's opinion of them, said Alexander Volkov, a retired police general and a State Duma deputy. “There should be no untouchables. It only further corrupts the police,” he said.

The police reform, which was set in motion by President Dmitry Medvedev in December, aims to cut the 1.4 million-member police force by 20 percent and to halve the personnel at the Interior Ministry's headquarters by 2012.

Medvedev also demanded that regional police forces be held more responsible by the ministry's central office, which could break up ties that connect corrupt police officials with equally corrupt local bureaucrats.

But Mark Feigin, a lawyer, said those measures were not enough. He said only the decentralization of the local police and popular elections for the heads of police precincts — which are not in the cards at present — could produce substantial change.

Meanwhile, police officials have tried to fend off the mounting public backlash through Soviet-era methods such as the publication of a calendar of “good deeds” carried out by the police on the Interior Ministry's web site. Another ploy saw posters praising brave policemen plastered around major cities.

But Alexander Gurov, a retired police general and Duma deputy, said neither the low-paid police force nor citizens will appreciate the message.

“A police officer might risk his life for people, but sooner or later he gets corrupted and starts to commit crimes,” he said.

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