The deep and protracted crisis in Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies was more obvious than ever during the recent special operation in Odesa in which the Interior Ministry’s special task unit stormed a hotel where three killers had hidden. The goal was not even to seize the criminals, but to physically eliminate them, but even this objective took many hours and a large number of policemen to achieve. Had special SBU units not helped out, the operation could have lasted an indecently long time. Before storming the hotel, the police tried to capture the bandits alive — in a highly unprofessional way, it should be noted. As far as the Interior Ministry’s leaders were concerned, this attempt was utterly irresponsible. Experienced and armed criminals were confronted by policeman who were not even wearing bulletproof vests, the police force’s intelligence department was unable to provide essential information about the fugitives and so on. Two policemen were killed due to a lack of professionalism and neglect. In short, the operation was a fiasco. If it had happened to the west of our borders, the interior minister would have resigned immediately.
However, this sad incident was no accident — on the contrary, it was to be expected. The main task of the Ukrainian police today is not to fight crime or protect citizens from bandits but to shield the government from its own citizens. This is where all its power is concentrated and what the top ministerial officials demand of their subordinates. Dispersing demonstrations, opposition rallies and pickets is the primary concern of the ministry’s leaders. No great skill is required to handle pensioners and students. Problems arise when veterans of the war in Afghanistan — experienced and relatively young — begin to storm the Verkhovna Rada. Then the police’s actions are far from perfect — they can barely contain veterans who could take over parliament if they wanted. In contrast, there is shine and glitter to the police’s actions when they are transporting just one single woman to court in Pechersk District. It is a sight to behold these “Roman legionnaires” in armor and helmets as they surround the paddy wagon holding Yulia Tymoshenko. Yet, two weapon-wielding criminals (a third escaped despite a much bigger number of police) were able to upset the entire colossus on clay feet called the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. It was clear that our policeman cannot defend themselves, to say nothing of our citizens. What if they had faced an entire pack of 40 bandits armed to the teeth?
Clubbing Ukrainians on the head with truncheons and counteracting a real threat are two very different things.
Our police force now employs around 350,000 law enforcement officers — twice the number of Ukraine’s Armed Forces. Facts like this allude to a police state. Are our citizens more protected because of such a great number of policemen? How many of the 350,000 are fighting criminals and how many are fighting the ruling party's political opponents?
Law enforcement structures very rarely benefit professionally when they become politicized. It is a known fact that armies capable of stunning military coups usually perform poorly against external aggressors. Many examples in the history of Latin America prove this point. The Argentine army might have fared better in the Falklands War against Great Britain if it had busied itself with military training rather than interfering in the country's political life in its 150 years of existence.
And now our police, so menacing when facing their own citizens, turn out to be a “paper tiger” when confronted with real criminals.
So does Ukraine need to keep this multitude of unprofessional policemen? Or should we perhaps follow the principle “less is more”? How much budget money is spent on these hordes of police generals? They have multiplied to such an extent that Interior Minister Anatoliy Mohyliov shies away from making the figure public knowledge. In Soviet times, many dreamt of rising to the rank of colonel in the police. Now we have scores of colonels, and any town or city bigger than a district center for some reason seems to have a police general at the top of its police hierarchy. This steady increase in the number of high-ranking policemen has no effect on the efficiency of the police itself. Society becomes increasingly suspicious that a lack of professionalism is the most essential quality of our police. This shows through everywhere – from policemen on the beat to investigators to the top police chiefs in Kyiv. Investigators now have the right to put suspects in pre-trial detention units where everyone becomes more agreeable to a “compromise” with the investigative body. (Such are the conditions there — conditions that international human rights advocates view as torture.) It would be interesting to know whether they or not could handle even the simplest case if they did not have this right. Talking to some representatives of the Interior Ministry leaves one with the nagging suspicion that they do not know anything about Ukrainian laws.
In 20 years of independence, the miserable state and inadequate nature of Ukrainian politics has led to the total degradation of all law enforcement agencies — the backbone of the state. Not the least factor in this process was the politicization of these bodies, above all, the police and prosecutors’ offices.