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Ukraine’s photogenic “new cops” went viral, but the real police reform is yet to start

The reform was launched just after the Euromaidan Revolution. Photo:
Article by: Olena Makarenko
Edited by: Michael Garrood, Alya Shandra
Reforming the law enforcement was one of the most pressing demands of the Euromaidan revolution. Four years later, despite the introduction of a new photogenic patrol police force which was hailed as one of the successes of the post-revolutionary government, Ukraine has not drawn closer to a real rule of law. Experts say the reform was started from the wrong place. It remains one of the unfulfilled demands of Euromaidan. Plus, experts note the worrying presence of paramilitary formations which think they have the right of police functions.

Plans to transform the law enforcement bloc in Ukraine were up in the air immediately after the success of the Euromaidan Revolution and entrance of a new government into office. And rightfully so – the images of police violence against Euromaidan protesters and the shooting of nearly 100 people in central Kyiv by the Berkut special riot police made a deep impact both on Ukrainians and external observers.

However, the incidents with police units during the Euromaidan revolution were only the tip of the iceberg. During the whole period of Ukraine’s independence the employees of the institution were known not only for serving the interests of those in power instead of ordinary people, but also for tortures, illegal detentions, falsifications of evidence, prosecuting innocent people.

An extreme such case happened in the summer of 2013. Ukraine was shaken by the protests which started from the provincial town of Vradiivka. There, two policemen with good connections gang raped and then attempted to murder a 29-year old woman. The court refused to detain one of the suspects. Thousands-strong protests, a storming of the police building, and a march to the capital succeeded. The perpetrators went to jail, and the district prosecutor and chief of regional law enforcement departments were fired.

This incident, which illustrated the deep rot of Ukraine’s law enforcement system, was later seen as one of the precursors to the Euromaidan protests which started in November 2013 and ended three months later with the escape of President Yanukovych and his entourage to Russia.

After Euromaidan, changes were needed to break the old corrupted and criminal police system and stop the shameful practices within the institution.

The first reform

In the first major reform, the Ukrainian police got a name change, from “militsia” to “politsiya” aka police, a completely new unit of law enforcement was created – the patrol police, and a team of Georgian reformers, in particular Eka Zguladze and later Khatia Dekanoidze, who had overhauled the country’s police service during Saakashvili’s presidency. The Ministry itself has been headed by Arsen Avakov, ex-MP from Yuliya Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna and later a representative of Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Narodniy Front.

For months afterward, the fresh faces of new Ukrainian cops who were motivated to be part of positive changes were used to illustrate the successes of the post-revolutionary period. The #SelfieWithaCop (“#селфізкопом”) hashtag exploded as ordinary Ukrainians stood in line to make selfies with the newly-made police officers, believing that this was the start of positive change.

However, four years after the launch of the reform, no sustainable progress has been made in the law enforcement reform, as the government is lacking any vision or strategy. Other bodies of law enforcement have not been reformed, with even the successful patrol police having significant issues. Euromaidan Press talked to Yevhen Krapyvin, a lawyer and expert on criminal justice of the Association of Ukrainian Human Rights Monitors on Law Enforcement to understand the state of affairs in the first big reform, and how things should move forward so that Ukrainians be offered real security by the police.

Lately, the experts says, the media have been silent about the police reform – and this is probably because it’s not clear what changes are envisioned.

There is no plan of action. And nobody really knows where to move on to,” says Krapivin.

The reform can be divided into three periods – just after Euromaidan starting from March 2014, when the Georgian team was invited starting from the end of 2014, and when Serhiy Kniazev headed the institution in the beginning of 2017. All three lacked a strategy.

When Khatia Dekanoidze was the head of the National Police, the most well-known projects were implemented, first of all, the patrol police. Later, interest in the reform weakened. She had a 100-day plan for renewing the whole system. But not even a third of it was implemented,” explains Krapivin, citing a lack of time and political will, as well as differing visions of the goal.

At the beginning, it was envisioned that other law enforcement units – criminal police, pre-trial investigation bodies, police guard, special police etc – will be updated on the example of the patrol police. But the patrol police remains the only significant achievement of the reform up till now. And it’s not going as smoothly as planned, either.

However, it is the police reform which is “close” to the people: the results are felt immediately. The personal safety of an ordinary Ukrainian indicates the success of the reform and sometimes the government in general.

Stumbling blocks for the patrol police

Out of the total 140,000 policemen in Ukraine, 12,000 are enlisted in the newly-created patrol police. Photo: facebook page of the National Police of Ukraine

The patrol police was created from scratch in 2015-2016. The new employees were promised good conditions of work and a decent salary. Three years later, the unit experiences systematic problems inherited from the old militia – outdated legislation, law salaries, lack of opportunities for the police staff to resist abuses of power by their bosses.

Back in 2015, a salary of UAH 8,000 ($300) was more or less decent. But due to inflation which that year reached more than 40%, this is no longer the case. However, Krapivin says that the main problem of the salary is not its amount but the way it can be manipulated by superiors. It consists of three parts. The fixed amount – UAH 1,500-2,000 (about $70). Second, allowances for years of service, rank, for seniority etc. And bonuses which make up about 60% of the salary.

This is an effective mechanism of disciplinary influence. If a chief considers the work of a subordinate as unsatisfactory, he may deduct bonuses. This is one of the main reasons why new patrol policemen are in practice very passive in defending their rights,” explains Krapivin.

The old Disciplinary Statute of 2006, hardly updated from the Soviet statute of 1990, deprives policemen of the right to defend themselves when their bosses abuse power. The new statute which will come into force in a few months should offer some remedy to the problem. For example, it outlines that superiors won’t consider the cases of their subordinates alone; rather, there will be a commission made up of other policemen. The law also foresees the participation of society, But it is not obligatory, raising doubts that society will really be able to take part in the law.

The new statute is called to establish inner discipline within the institution which was neglected before and to defend honest policemen who do not follow corrupt and criminal rules which so far remain.

Another problem for the patrol police is legislation tasking the new unit with administrative violations, including petty hooliganism, smoking and drinking alcohol in forbidden places, and violations of traffic laws. This legislation dates back to 1984. Krapivin explains that the main code allows violators to evade responsibility for the people who violate it, effectively making the work of the patrol police pointless. This demotivates policemen and compels them to leave.

The overall material conditions don’t play for the new unit either:

If their patrol car is involved in an accident, the reimbursement system is such that they can’t be sure that they won’t end up paying for repairs. Also, they often don’t have enough money for petrol,” Krapivin explains.

All of these aspects lead to higher staff turnover and increasing pressure on those who stay. The young Ukrainians who were eager to be part of the positive changes of the country in 2015 are now leaving the ranks of the patrol police in droves.

The creation of the Patrol Police gave hope for changes in whole law enforcements. However, very soon it became clear that in fact the unit does not have significant leverages of influence and its level of trust dropped. According to the poll conducted by Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, in 2015 the trust towards the institution was higher than distrust by 18%. In 2016, trust was higher only by 5%. And in the end of 2017 distrust was higher than trust by 19%.

The core of the police and attestation

Attestation of police. Photo:

Patrol police makes up for only 12,000 people out of the total 140,000 policemen in law enforcement.

The patrol police get all the attention, as they are visible on the streets. However, the main work of the police is actually to prevent and counter crime. The core of the police are operational units – criminal police and pre-trial investigation bodies,” says Krapivin.

And this core of the police which is responsible for the crimes like murders, rapes, robberies has not been reformed. First of all, it consists of almost the same people who used to work there before Euromaidan. It does not necessarily say that they are bad professionals, but still it says that they belong to the old system.

In 2016, the attestation of the policemen took place, but it did not bring significant changes.

Only about 8% of policemen were dismissed. Moreover, a large part of those 8% got reinstated through court appeals. As a result, the state even paid them UAH 55mn (about $2.1mn) in compensation for not being able to work during the court hearings.

Regarding investigators and operative officers, they are old employees who work according to old mechanisms. And all the things for which we criticized them – torture, illegal detention, falsification of evidence, prosecuting innocent people etc – it has all remained,” says the expert.

He also admits that after Euromaidan, the number of unlawful detentions increased:

“People who were unlawfully detained by police can’t appeal this and any other illegal actions towards them. And if such a person later appeals to a court, it would rather ignore the request.”

Krapivin explains that the system is overloaded with too many cases. The situation with crime worsened due to the war in Donbas and the illicit arms trafficking that came with it. Also, crime rates have gone up together with increasing socio-economic problems. All of this is a challenge for the police.

We can see this from the number of cases directed to courts. From all that large volume of cases the investigators choose the simplest and most obvious ones – to deal with them more quickly and to achieve good results. With some investigators needing to deal with 300 cases simultaneously, the only way they can work is to stay in the office and write papers. This conveyor hits people who can’t defend themselves, who can’t afford a lawyer, the most.”

The expert goes on to say that to ease their workload, the police often use all the means they have – starting from psychological to physical abuse, concealing cases, to blackmailing witnesses or relatives.

How things should be done

Krapivin is sure that the reform process should have started with the criminal police which deals with more dangerous crimes (unlike the administrative offences which the patrol police deals with) and which are directly related to people (unlike cyber crimes, for example). Apart from that, there are many important aspects of reforms which have yet to be implemented.

One of them is reducing the workloads of investigators. According to the expert, this is possible only by introducing a differentiated approach to crime investigation. Now, the investigative procedure is identical for all crimes, from theft to homicide. And it’s the investigator who deals with every detail of the procedure.

As a result, he deals with about 300 cases simultaneously. He has no time for any real investigations,” says Krapivin.

The expert believes that introducing a differentiated procedure, in particular classifying criminal misconduct as a milder category of crime and removing it from an investigator’s responsibility, would improve the situation:

An investigator who is responsible for pre-trial investigation is a person with a higher education who you have to teach for about 5 years at a university and then in practice. Small cases which they do not investigate anyway should be given to less qualified staff.”

The second thing to change in terms of the criminal police is to introduce a three-unit pre-trial system of criminal justice in place of a four-unit one.

In any European country, the system includes a detective who collects evidence, a prosecutor who estimates the legality of the method of evidence collection, and a judge who estimates the admissibility of evidence. In Ukraine, during the Soviet era, a fourth unit, an operational worker, was added. This is a person who collects a part of the evidence before the investigator, the latter then mostly performing paperwork. At that time, the fourth unit was introduced to weaken judicial control, but now it is criticized by all the expert community.”

Not until 2017 was an experiment regarding this system introduced in a few regions of Ukraine.

The expert believes that these two steps can help to restore people’s faith in the police.

Trust in the police has deteriorated because simple crimes like theft, injury, damage to cars are not investigated. The police talk about combating cyber-crime, about new intellectual resources, but it all is too far away from ordinary people.

Political influence

Arsen Avakov, the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine. Photo:

Since 2014, the Ministry of Interior has been led by Arsen Avakov, a member of Narodnyi Front, a party in the Ukrainian parliament led by ex-Prime Minister Yatsenyuk. Despite the reform being directed at depoliticizing the law enforcement ministry, it has often been the case that Avakov still has the final word in crucial situations.

Krapivin affirms that both the Ministry and the Prosecutor’s office agree that there is a need to reform the criminal bloc. However, as soon as things get to Parliament, they get stuck:

There is no agreement on reforming law enforcement between the different factions. The main discussion in the parliament now is about who is going to head the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry itself also takes part in the process. Now law enforcement is clearly divided. The Armed Forces are under the President. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Guard are under Narodnyi Front.”

Thanks to the reform, the Ministry of Interior became just a body which allocates resources and coordinates the work of five different bodies: the Patrol Police, the State Border Guard Service, Migration Service, National Guard, and the State Service on the Emergency Situations. Before Euromaidan, it controlled the work of these institutions; now, the Ministry’s political control is legally weakened.

Now the minister does not have the right to intervene in police work. But the legislation was written sloppily, [allowing for legal loopholes]. So our minister still agrees appointments of all the deputy heads of the national police and local police.”

The expert is confident that the initial course on the depoliticization was right. But because it was not done properly, Avakov gives orders on dispersing protester camps, takes away the protection to judges courts, or allows himself political statements. And such a resource as the police can serve Avakov during the election campaign. So can paramilitary structures, which have become an increasingly troubling tendency in Ukraine.

The “National militia units” took an oath in January 2018 in central Kyiv. Photo:


Since 2014, there has been a new trend in the police – the Ministry of Interior took militarized battalions of volunteers from the Anti-Terrorist Operation [de facto war in Donbas] under its wing. With time, they started spawning political movements. The most famous one is the ‘National Corps’ [political party which emerged from the ultra-right Azov regiment – ed] which later created the ‘National militia units [in Ukrainian: ‘Natsionalni Druzhyny’]” These are groups of young people who are registered according to laws, have powers, and even can carry special tools when they patrol together with police.”

Krapivin says that such a paramilitary “National militia unit” in each city may be exploited in confrontations and there is a high probability that they are related to the work of the Ministry itself and the political party associated with it, Narodnyi Front.

They might be used at the opposition’s political protests. However, maybe they are created symbolically – so the Minister Avakov can flex his muscles in front of competitors from the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.”

The expert states that all the progressive initiatives within police came to an end in 2015-2016, and now there is no political will to reform the institution.

The only important thing which can be done now is to create the State Investigative Bureau. If we manage to do it more or less independently, it will weaken the Prosecutor’s Office and will destabilize the system. Because so far the law enforcement structure makes the Prosecutor’s Office the most important of bodies.”

Corruption is among other challenges facing the police. The new National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) is tasked with preventing serious corruption, with lower-level corruption being left in the hands of the police who in general do not greatly care about the problem.

The police reform is one of the most important reforms for the people. While Ukrainians will only be able to judge the fruits of some reforms later, police reform or deadlock is something they can experience simply by being outside.

A poll carried out by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiative Foundation and Razumkov Center showed that from late 2016 till late 2017, the population’s trust towards the patrol police dropped by 24%. It proves that political games have spoiled the positive initiatives emanating out of the post-Euromaidan period. Delaying police reform poses a risk not only for the trust of citizens in the government, but for overall safety, with the ongoing war in the Donbas and increasing crime rates.

Read also:

Edited by: Michael Garrood, Alya Shandra
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