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Police Struggle With Bad Reputation

Two traffic police pulling over the driver of a Range Rover on Ulitsa Vozdvizhenka earlier this month. The country's traffic cops are widely seen as the most corrupt division of the Interior Ministry. Igor Tabakov

Having studied foreign literature and worked as a schoolteacher, Yekaterina made a drastic career change four years ago: She became a cop.

Inspired by her brother, a Moscow homicide detective, she was full of idealism when she joined the force.

"I came here to fight for justice," Yekaterina, 26, said in a recent interview during her night shift at a local precinct.

These days, however, Yekaterina, a police detective in northern Moscow, prefers to hide what she does for a living. When she heads home at night, she dons a jacket to conceal her police uniform.

"I don't want to hear people talking about how corrupt we are,” she said.

It would seem difficult for the reputation of the country's police force to get any worse. Public opinion polls show that police are among the country's least trusted institutions, and incidents of police corruption and brutality are reported in the media almost daily.

President Dmitry Medvedev last month ordered Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev to implement serious reforms to weed out corruption and assuage public concerns over police abuses. 

But Yekaterina and several other current and former police officers say top officials' ability and desire to conduct meaningful reform are negligible. The system of rewards in place is so perverse, and salaries so meager, that even good cops have to cheat and take bribes in order to make ends meet, they say.

In response to Medvedev's order, Nurgaliyev issued a directive late last month that he claimed would eliminate a ministry-wide system of promotions and pay raises based on officers' clearance rates. The system rewards officers for a high percentage of solved crimes, providing little motivation for tackling hard-to-solve cases and encouraging officers to fabricate charges, experts say.

Subsequent analyses of the directive, however, suggest that the notorious evaluation system was left largely intact. In an online survey of 700 police officers conducted by the independent Moscow Police Trade Union, 90 percent said the directive was almost identical to a similar Nurgaliyev order from 2005.

“The system works for statistical purposes, so the daily life of a police officer is to push the statistical points higher, but not to solve actual crimes,” said Yevgeny Vyshenkov, a former St. Petersburg police detective and current deputy head of the Agency of Journalistic Investigations in the northern capital.

One case described by Andrei, a Moscow beat cop who spoke on condition of anonymity, highlights the petty bureaucratic manipulations that police often undertake to improve their job performance on paper.

A woman came to him once claiming that she had been robbed while waiting on the platform for a commuter train, Andrei said. He told her to file the complaint with police in another district because it was outside his jurisdiction.

But later that day, Andrei said, he and his partner nabbed two thieves who, it turned out, had the woman's cell phone. The suspects confessed to robbing the woman, and her possessions were returned to her.

Andrei says he then told the woman to file a complaint claiming that she was robbed in his district, thereby allowing him and his colleague to chalk up a solved crime.

“As a citizen, I knew that what I was doing was wrong," Andrei said. "But [for my career], it was correct."

Police officers say their profession forces them to commit more serious crimes as well. Taking bribes, they say, is a matter of survival. An average Moscow policeman earns about 20,000 rubles ($660) a month with minimal benefits, despite regularly working long hours and weekends.

“There are still some people who enter the service with romantic notions, but all of them get a fast reality check,” said Igor, who joined the Moscow police force in 1987.

Like other police officers interviewed for this report, Igor spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

There was prestige in police work during Soviet times, with officers earning decent wages and receiving perks for good performance, Igor said.

“I knew that after 33 years in the service I would be able to get an apartment from the state and a small piece of land,” he said, adding that such rewards were scrapped long ago.

There was, of course, corruption at various levels of the Soviet Interior Ministry as well, but Soviet police officers were generally scared to take bribes for fear of being caught by the KGB, which oversaw the ministry, Igor said.

Another Moscow police official said the current police leadership would not carry out serious reforms because the financial stakes are so high.

“In just one district of Moscow, a traffic policeman can bring his superiors 500,000 rubles ($16,000) a month," the official said.

The country's traffic police is widely seen as the most corrupt division of the Interior Ministry. Last week, 19 traffic cops were detained in a Federal Security Service sting in Astrakhan for extorting bribes from drivers over the course of three years.

“A traffic police officer takes bribes to earn money for his family, because he sees the person driving a Mercedes as someone who makes his money easily, while he struggles to make ends meet,” one Moscow policeman said.

Several prominent politicians and rights activists have suggested that completely dismantling the Interior Ministry and rebuilding the police force from scratch is the only solution to the endemic corruption.

Top officials have dismissed such categorical proposals, but Medvedev did order Nurgaliyev to slash ministry personnel by 20 percent.

“It will help us raise salaries and establish normal conditions for police officers to perform their duties,” Nurgaliyev told reporters late last year.

But many experts and police officers fear that the cuts will affect only policemen on the ground, leaving the ministry's enormous bureaucracy untouched.

“Our system is established in a such a way that … it would hit the low rank-and-file to preserve the bosses' chairs,” one blogger, who claims to be a 48-year-old senior police officer, wrote on the Moscow Police Trade Union's web site.

Meanwhile, cases of police abuse and corruption continue to pile up nationwide, even ones involving erstwhile heroes.

It was Moscow policeman Roman Potyomkin who overpowered fellow officer Denis Yevsyukov last April after Yevsyukov went on a shooting rampage at a local supermarket, killing two shoppers and injuring seven.

Yevsyukov is currently on trial for murder at the Moscow City Court, where Potyomkin recently testified against the officer.

Currently in custody on extortion charges, Potyomkin appeared in the courtroom in handcuffs.

“An ordinary policeman," said Igor, a 20-year veteran of the Moscow force. " … Today he saves lives, tomorrow he is caught for committing a crime himself."

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