Ukraine’s Police Reform: What’s Really Going On?
16 November, 2017

It’s been two years since Ukraine’s new National Police officially replaced the old militia. But now, the National Police’s effectiveness is being called into question due to a recent series of high profile murders and crimes. Though the authorities maintain that the police system is undergoing changes, advocates for reforms and law enforcement reform experts are taking a more critical stance on their progress.

Hromadske breaks down what’s really going on with Ukraine’s police reform.

During the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution, Ukrainian security forces fired on protesters, killing around a hundred people. The new government under Petro Poroshenko held the Berkut special police force largely responsible. In response, the government initiated a plan to reform Ukrainian law enforcement by replacing the old patrol police force (the Militsiya) and dissolving the Berkut completely.

In July 2015, Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov launched the new patrol police force in the country’s capital, Kyiv. The process was then repeated with the establishment of new patrol police departments  in regional capitals across Ukraine. Departments were also set up in other key towns, focusing on Ukraine’s borders with the European Union and the frontline of the war in Donbas.

Arsen Avakov, the Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs. Photo credit: UNIAN 

On November 7, 2015, the new National Police officially replaced the old militia.

The creation of the new patrol police is often heralded as one of the few successful reforms of Ukrainian law enforcement. In an interview with Hromadske, law enforcement reform expert Eugene Krapyvin underscored that “all other initiatives” aimed at police reform in the wake of Maidan  — including those targeting the criminal police and investigative forces — were “just plans.”

Eugene Krapyvin, law enforcement reform expert at the Reanimation Package of Reforms. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

On the other hand, the Director of the Kharkhiv Institute of Social Research, Denys Kobzin, remains wary of the new patrol police as a “decorative element” in the reform process.“Everyone was in euphoria: beautiful cars, beautiful young people, there was a lot of information about how objectively they acted,” recalled Kobzin. “But it wasn’t used to the fullest extent in order to change the rest.”

Hromadske’s investigation into police reforms also revealed that many officers are leaving the force. And for those who remain, their quality of work appears to be  declining.

So how “new” are Ukraine’s patrol police officers? And moreover, are they effective?

Problems, Old And New

Although Avakov allegedly planned to fully replace the Militsiya, Krapyvin claims that of the number of new patrol police accounts for just 12,000 of the 140,000 police officers in the country — less than ten percent.

Krapyvin has also called into question the effectiveness of the mechanisms used for replacing former Militsiya officers. “Eight percent of previous militia were dismissed by the results of attestation,” he told Hromadske. “And half of them were returned [to the police] by court decision.” Krapyvin suggested that this is due to legislation that allows former officers to return to the police force after being dismissed. “And our country pays them nearly 55 billion hryvnia [over $2 billion] because they didn’t work [in] this past year after attestation,” he said.

Eugene Krapyvin, law enforcement reform expert at the Reanimation Package of Reforms. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Members of the new patrol police themselves also testify to the reform’s setbacks.

“The had big plans for us,” Andriy Kobylinsky, a former patrol officer from Kyiv told Hromadske. “And for the first few months I really believed it would happen. But the guys at the top, namely [Interior Minister Arsen] Avakov, probably thought it was too dangerous to infuse so much young blood in the police. It was better to rely on old professionals.”

The presence of members of the “old guard” — and former Berkut special forces officers in particular — continues to be a sensitive issue in the reform process. But Ukraine’s current Chief of National Police, Serhiy Knyazev, insists that police officers suspected of committing crimes on Maidan are being investigated, but this is not an immediate process. “The police are not a monolith,” he told Hromadske in a rare interview. “No one can be singled out as a criminal without the proper procedures.”

Knyazev was appointed Chief of the National Police of Ukraine in February 2017, after the resignation of former chief Khatia Dekanoidze. As a member of the “old guard,” Knyazev has faced comparisons to his predecessor as well as mounting criticism after a recent spate of violent murders and crimes in Ukraine’s peaceful regions.

Serhiy Knyazev, Chief of the National Police of Ukraine. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

According to him, however, the spread of illegal weapons from front-line territory to other regions of Ukraine accounts for the rising violence. “We opened the weapons arsenal. Our enemies did the same. Weapons spread to peaceful regions,” Knyazev explained. “Unfortunately, this is a common situation in every country where there is a war.”

The murder of Chechen-Ukrainian sniper Amina Okueva outside of Kyiv on October 30 was the latest in what appears to be a string of high-profile attacks on military personnel. These, in addition to incidents such as grenade explosions in Dnipro and a recent shooting in Kharkiv have left many asking why the police failed to predict these crimes.

READ MORE: Who Was Amina Okueva, The Chechen-Ukrainian Sniper Killed This Week?

But Knyazev insists that the police have increased prevention work, as well as cooperation among the country’s various police forces, to keep weapons from reaching peaceful regions. “In October alone we registered more than two thousand cases [where] law enforcement have seized illegal weapons,” he said. “Since the beginning of the year we have detected and registered more than eight thousand of these offenses.”

“Of course the war in the East, the social and economic situation, and the amount of illegal weapons in our country – it’s all [had] a huge influence [on] police work,” Krapyvin admitted. “The level of criminality really rises. It’s not just stories from the media, it’s true.”

Victims Of Attrition

Increased criminality, lack of resources and declining numbers of police is also leaving the remaining officers overworked. Officers say that the demands of the job are extreme and they often have to work or undergo training on their days off.

“Shooting and tactics need to be taught constantly because otherwise you lose these [skills…]When can this be done? Only on your day off,” Kobylinsky said. “And if there are other events in the city, a rally in front of parliament or the anniversary of some event, then, of course, in addition to a regular shift they summon off-duty officers.”

According to Lilia Taranda, a former patrol officer from Lviv, multiple members of her platoon were diagnosed with high blood pressure and chronic fatigue. Doctors ordered them to rest, but, for most, there was no time. “They were sent for treatment and not allowed to work,” Taranda explained. “[But] everyone has a family, children, work. And the pay is obviously not enough to feed a family.”

Contrary to popular perception, officers report that police salaries remain very low even after the reforms. Furthermore, officers can be subject to monetary penalties for infractions and are not provided with insurance for their cars, equipment and health. Often, this means they have to pay out of pocket.

“We were told from the start that we should take care of the Priuses [police cars]. Unofficially, if a Prius is damaged, it will cost us,” Volodymyr Oleksiyev, a former patrol officer from Dnipro, told Hromadske. “The patrol officer is [also] responsible for the body cams and tablets. If someone knocks a tablet out of your hands or you break it, you will have to fix it at your own expense.”

Officers also say that low salaries make it difficult to fight police corruption. “The more people are financially squeezed, the harder it will be to fight this temptation,” Oleksiyev said.

Despite being sympathetic to the challenges of war and reform, both Krapyvin and Kobzin argue that the overall ineffectiveness of Ukraine’s police reform is due to its failure to address greater systemic issues — specifically, those within the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the criminal justice system.

“In defense of the old Ukrainian Militsiya, it [was] overly demonized when the new police was being implemented,” Kobzin said. Like members of the new patrol police, he explained, former militia recruits likely joined the police for the right reasons only to fall victim to a corrupt system.

Denys Kobzin​, Director of the Kharkhiv Institute of Social Research. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

“Most of them do not want to abuse [their power] or partake in corruption schemes, they just want to serve and protect,” said Kobzin. “But the system changed them. It’s the same for officers of the new patrol police. Those who do not want to bend to the system quit.”

Prior to the launch of the new patrol police in July 2015, the Militsiya carried out law enforcement in Ukraine on behalf of the Ministry of Internal Affair directly. As as a result, reformers have advocated for decentralization, but this has yet to be fully realized.

“From what I see, the reform in the way it should be done has not started,” Kobzin told Hromadske. “This requires some serious willpower and going to very dangerous places, especially for the Interior Ministry.”

Missed Opportunities And Next Steps

According to Kobzin, the reform process should have started with an independent and transparent audit process to calculate a reasonable budget for the police sector at the parliamentary level. “That would help us understand where the system is failing us and where it might be about to fail us,” he explained. He claimed that such an audit was only carried out in the Lviv region, where police reform has, in his words, “achieved the most success.”

An audit would clear the way for much-needed decentralization in Ukraine’s law enforcement, Kobzin explained.“The system is very centralized and is de-facto governed by a small group of people,” he told Hromadske. “If the head of the police is from Kyiv, he will be looking to fulfil the expectations of his Kyiv-based leadership [...] The pyramid is built where where everyone has their eyes set on the [Ukrainian] capital, while they should be looking at ordinary citizens living [all over Ukraine].”

Denys Kobzin​, Director of the Kharkhiv Institute of Social Research. Photo credit: HROMADSKE

For Krapyvin, this is connected to larger issues of  police accountability. “When policemen commit a crime, or some disciplinary offence which is not a crime, we don’t have an effective system to punish them,” he explained. Currently, investigations into abuse of power by law enforcement are conducted by the Prosecutor’s Office — with the help of the police themselves.

“Everyone knows that complaining about the police to the police is a waste of time. You can also complain to the prosecutor’s office but that’s a vicious circle.” Kobzin agreed. “The prosecutor’s office would forward the inquiry to the police department that deals with personnel or internal security. That’s pointless too. It’s a closed system; it personally deals with the complaints about itself.”

Because the system is so interconnected, reforms to law enforcement are practically impossible without reforms to the judicial system. But according to Kobzin, the impetus for this would have to come from the Minister of Internal Affairs himself.

“Ukraine has never seen such an independent interior minister like [we have] now. He has the resources for big influence,” he explained. “In my opinion, he can talk to the President on equal terms and, had he wanted to, he could move reform mountains.”

According to Krapyvin, Avakov took the first step towards reform by depoliticizing the position of Chief of Police. But as Minister of Internal Affairs he continues to wield significant personal power.

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“The Minister of Internal Affairs, he still has influence at the legal level,” he explained. “For example, the head of the National Police [has to] approve his deputies, the chiefs of local police stations, with the Ministry of of Internal Affairs.”

Furthermore, many still question whether or not the Chief of the National Police is truly independent of politics. But when asked about his recent meetings with President Poroshenko to respond to a protest encampment outside the Ukrainian parliament, Knyazev remained evasive.

“I have repeatedly participated in various meetings, both in the Cabinet and with the President,” the National Police Chief told Hromadske. “And as for these insinuations, I’m not interested in talking about that. Maybe you need to ask society about this — how independent is the head of the police.”

READ MORE: Inside The Maidan That Wasn't

Ahead of Ukraine’s 2019 Presidential and Parliamentary elections the issue of police reforms remains critical. And changes to the patrol police provide some hope for further developments.

“I can’t say everything is going badly. There are positive aspects, part of them is the little changes to the police’s work and some positive experience in different regions [of Ukraine],” Kobzin told Hromadske.

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But for Krapyvin, the future of Ukraine’s law enforcement reforms remains unclear. “Police reform is a slow-going reform and we really don’t know the direction of this reform,” he explained. “[The] police don’t have any policy, any strategy [or] any document in this sphere on how to reform.”

In his words, even Strategy 2020 — the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ recently announced development strategy — is “an abstract document” lacking “concrete measures.”

Nevertheless, Avakov maintains that the Ministry is making progress. “The police reform hasn’t come to an end yet. I believe that we have gone through about 25-30% of the police reform,” he told reporters on November 11.

Avakov presented Strategy 2020 at a meeting of Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers on Wednesday.

/Written by Eilish Hart