Thursday, February 18, 2010

Medvedev Promises Police Reform, But Proposals Are Off the Mark

BROOKLYN, New York -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is talking tough about police reform.

On Thursday, Medvedev dismissed two high-ranking officials in the Interior Ministry, as well as 16 regional ministry officers, 15 of whom are generals. According to the Russian daily Kommersant, half of these dismissals were tied high-profile incidents of police criminality and corruption, while the rest were the result of scheduled position rotations within the ministry.

The changes were announced in a speech before senior officials of the Interior Ministry, in which Medvedev said the country needed to "cleanse this evil from the state and municipal structures."

(Agence France-Press translated that phrase as "cleanse the state structures of evil," which could be interpreted to mean that Russia's security agencies are "state structures of evil." The original Russian phrase was, "очистить государственные и муниципальные структуры от этого зла." Either way, I think the misinterpreted phrase is closer to the truth.)

Among other reforms announced by the president was a plan to cut the Interior Ministry's bloated general staff in Moscow by half from its current size of 20,000. He also called on Prime Minister Vladmir Putin to draft a sweeping reform proposal for the country's law enforcement agencies, which is to be submitted to parliament by December 1. Medvedev stated that he would maintain personal control over the reform project, but giving Prime Minister Putin a central role is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

While the housecleaning and tough talk about corruption are somewhat heartening, I remain skeptical (an opinion I've expressed before here and here). In the past several months, the country has been rocked by shocking criminal acts by police officers, including well-publicized beatings, mysterious deaths, and a not-so-mysterious video-taped mass killing. Some commanding officers have lost their posts as a result of these incidents (though not their jobs or their pensions), but almost none of the guilty officers have seen the inside of a courtroom, and jail time seems like a remote possibility.

One thing that Medvedev said betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or, more likely, an intentional misinterpretation) of how democratic policing works and how the country's law enforcement structures should be reformed. While his principal target of reform should be dismantling the police's culture of corruption and bringing dirty cops to justice, he has taken elsewhere: clearance rates.

"Only one in every two crimes is cleared annually. There are over 1.3 million unsolved crimes in Russia each year, and a quarter of these are serious or very serious crimes," he said Thursday.

The clearance rate is the proportion of reported crimes that lead to an arrest –they are "cleared" when the case is turned over to the courts for prosecution. The political reasoning behind Medvedev's statement is clear – people want the police to solve more crimes, because they think it will put more criminals in jail and will make them safer. It is true that solving more crimes is a good thing, but setting your sights on clearance rates is highly problematic.

Clearance rates are easily manipulated. Especially within an embedded culture of corruption, there is a powerful temptation to doctor figures. This can be done in two basic ways – by not filing reported crimes, thus reducing the overall crime figures, or by making knowingly erroneous arrests, which moves the case off the police department's ledger and into the hands of prosecutors. Medvedev said about these supposedly paltry numbers, "Most importantly, behind [these figures] lie the fate of real people – of victims, their loved ones, their family members." He should remember that there are also countless victims of bad police work and police corruption who get caught up in this chase for ratings.

Law enforcement agencies in the Soviet Union were obsessed with clearance rates, and every department was mandated to keep theirs at 95% or above until that target was scrapped in the 1980's. This is an impossible figure, but like so many other statistics in the USSR, it was doctored and fudged, often by ignoring crime reports, planting evidence, throwing innocent people in jail, and coercing confessions through torture. None of these things are acceptable from police in a democratic society, yet they were and remain commonplace in Russia.

No up-to-date statistics are available on Russia's clearance rate nationwide (if you can find them, please let me know), but the regional figures fluctuate wildly and are highly unreliable. For certain crimes, like murder, many jurisdictions report preposterous rates of 90 to 100%. Regardless, Medvedev's ballpark figure of 50% is absurdly high – if he believes that it is too low, then it suggests that he is not aiming for accurate, accountable figures, but the phantom rates of the Soviet days that will dupe citizens into thinking that the police keep them safe.

By comparison, in the United States, 45.1% of violent crimes were cleared in 2008, and 17.1% of property crimes (theft, burglary, etc.), according to the FBI. America's law enforcement system is by no means perfect, nor is it fundamentally broken like Russia's – so why are the figures so low? Because the clearance rate only tells a small part of the story. It does not tell you how officers go about solving crimes, and whether they do it legally.

Boosting clearance rates can be part of a successful crime control strategy, but only part, and not when corruption is so widespread. Cities like New York used clearance rate targets to reduce crime, but the NYPD also meticulously maintains its databases and they are subject to regular audits. Even then, the system is prone to manipulation, and many have criticized the department for being too focused on clearance and crime rate numbers. Statistics are only worthwhile if they are accurate and reliable, and even then, they are only part of the answer.

Medvedev's focus on police reform is admirable, and it is certainly more genuine than the promises of his predecessor, who remains irretrievably entrenched in the rottenness of the Soviet security apparatus. But this endeavor looks doomed to repeat the mistakes of past reform efforts by focusing on top-down, statistically-driven initiatives that pay no attention to the institutional problems of Russian law enforcement.

UPDATE: For more on the topic of policing statistics and fudging the numbers, check out this post from Peter Moskos on his blog, Cop in the Hood - "Juking the Stats."

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