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Two Countries Dismantled Their Police to Start Fresh. It Worked—Up to a Point

Ukraine and Georgia dissolved and rebuilt their forces only to find that still-bigger changes were needed

Members of Ukraine’s Berkut police force, disbanded by the new government in Kyiv in 2014, appeared at a pro-Russia rally in the eastern city of Donetsk that March.

Fury over police misconduct isn’t unique to the U.S.: In recent times, it pushed two nations, Georgia and Ukraine, to dissolve their police forces and try rebuilding law-enforcement from scratch.

While those countries are different from the U.S. in many ways, their experiences offer lessons for American cities looking to reform their police forces. Minneapolis, in particular, is considering plans to disband its police department after the killing of George Floyd in police custody and the protests against police brutality and racial prejudice that have followed.

Georgia and Ukraine had inherited corrupt and often violent police forces that retained many bad habits of the Soviet past. Georgia disbanded its force after the 2004 revolution, and Ukraine began a similar process in 2014.

Both recorded initial successes, with their rebranded and restaffed police forces gaining new popularity and trust.

Yet the payoff, while significant, proved to be limited because other parts of the justice system—and society at large—remained reluctant to change.

‘You have to be well prepared,’ said Ekaterine Zguladze, who oversaw police overhauls in Georgia and later in Ukraine, where this 2015 photo was taken.

“Police is part of the criminal justice system, so for the police reform to be successful all the other players in this chain have to be reformed,” said Ekaterine Zguladze , who oversaw the revamping of policing in both countries, first as Georgia’s deputy interior minister from 2006 to 2012 and then in the same post in Ukraine in 2014-2016.

“You have to be well prepared before you start shaking that boat,” she said. “Resistance from the system will be there, no matter the context and circumstances.”

Both Georgia, a nation as populous as Oklahoma, and Ukraine, a much bigger country with a population the size of California, began to tackle police reform on the crest of mass popular movements seeking radical change.

“In both cases, there was a conclusion that creating a new institution would be easier and more efficient than trying to fix the old one,” said Steven Pifer , a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “It was not as successful as it could have been because they didn’t have the resources to make it work. Now, with the resources that would be available for police services in an American city, it might be a different situation.”

In Georgia, the government fired some 16,000 police officers soon after Mikheil Saakashvili became president in the aftermath of 2004 mass protests. That included the entire traffic police, who routinely stopped cars to extort bribes from drivers and were often on the payroll of local gangs.

For several months, while a new, vetted force was being recruited and trained, at higher salaries, nobody patrolled Georgia’s streets. Yet, crime remained in check.

“It could not have been more dramatic,” said Giorgi Gogia , a Tbilisi-based expert for Human Rights Watch. “The practice of bribery completely stopped. Police turned from having zero trust to becoming one of the most trusted institutions in the country.”

Reforming the remainder of the police force proved more difficult. Police unions fought tooth and nail. The government ended up abolishing the unions.

“They were one of the most vocal opponents of any reform effort,” said Ms. Zguladze, who now teaches at Sciences Po university in Paris.

Union opposition, to her eye, is a key parallel between Georgia and the U.S.

Georgia’s new police force wasn’t isolated from the rough politics of a country that faced a Russian invasion in 2008 and economic troubles. Though the patrol police remain broadly respected, other parts of the law-enforcement system were dragged into settling political scores under Mr. Saakashvili, who was in power until 2013, and under his successor. Last summer, Tbilisi’s riot police violently put down opposition demonstrations sparked by the visit of a Russian nationalist politician.

“Unfortunately, police reform is backsliding because of political factors,” said Khatia Dekanoidze , who headed Georgia’s new police academy under Mr. Saakashvili and then in 2015-2016 served as head of Ukraine’s new National Police.

In Ukraine, the 2014 revolution was a direct result of police brutality: What was initially a small student protest encampment on Kyiv’s Maidan square drew tens of thousands of outraged citizens after riot police used force to dispersed it. Some 100 people died during months of protests, many of them killed by members of the so-called Berkut special police units.

Once pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country to Russia in February that year, many Berkut officers followed suit, and the new government dissolved the entire force. Hundreds of unemployed Berkut members joined Russian security agencies in mainland Russia or in Crimea, the Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia in 2014; some fought alongside Russian-backed troops in the occupied Donbas region of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s regular police force, too, was in crisis, and Kyiv’s solution was to import reformers with a track record from Georgia.

“There were months in 2014 when police in Ukraine refused to go to the streets to undertake their duties because they were afraid of citizens’ reaction should they wear the uniform,” said Ms. Zguladze. “The very first goal was to rebrand and reorganize the police in a way that it became part of the national system once again, and was not seen as an enemy.”

Just like in Georgia, Ukraine abolished the old traffic police and recruited a brand-new force to patrol its cities, replacing Soviet-style uniforms with new American-looking attire.

“The beginning was very good. In Ukraine, the patrol police has always been a symbol of corruption, but after the first phase of the reform the very phenomenon of giving a bribe to the cop stopping you on the road simply disappeared,” said Daria Kaleniuk , executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre in Kyiv. “Yet after that, the reform just came to a stop.”

A key part of that overhaul was the revetting of remaining officers, a process that, by 2016, resulted in the dismissal of some 9,000 officers suspected of abuses or possessing unexplained wealth.

However, a majority of these police officers have since been reinstated by the court system, which remains largely unchanged, said Ms. Dekanoidze, Ukraine’s former police chief: “Old-system judges realized that if these officers are fired from the system, then probably the next step would be a new approach to the judges themselves.”

Even some former Berkut officers regained their jobs—while many of the new police officers have chosen to quit.

“What upsets these new police officers who joined in 2014-2015 is that they effectively remain subordinated to the old police structure,” said lawmaker Inna Sovsun .

If the U.S. has any lessons to draw from the Ukrainian experience, it’s that it must avoid hasty moves, said Denis Monastyrski , head of the Ukrainian parliament’s law-enforcement committee. “The reset was necessary, but it was too quick. The new police just didn’t know what to do in many ordinary situations,” he said. “There was also an acute conflict between the new patrol police and the rest of the force. It’s only now, five years later, that there is a certain mutual acceptance and a movement of staff between the patrol police and other units.”

Protests against police abuses—including rowdy demonstrations outside the Ukrainian parliament—broke out in the wake of an incident in May in the town of Kaharlyk, near Kyiv. There, a young woman was summoned to the local precinct, ostensibly as a potential witness in a burglary case, and then allegedly tortured and raped through the night by two drunk officers.

“When they finally let her go, they told her that if anyone finds out, we will kill you,” said the woman’s attorney, Yevhen Melnychenko .

Undeterred, the woman made a complaint the next day. Unlike in the past, there was no attempt to cover up the incident. Within hours, Ukraine disbanded the entire Kaharlyk police department, taking some 60 officers off the force pending an investigation, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov told this month’s parliament hearing.

The two officers, who maintain their innocence, have been detained without bail and could face up to 12 years behind bars.

“In every police force in the world, negative events occur,” Mr. Avakov said. “But what happened in Kaharlyk required the harshest of reactions, and that is what has taken place.”


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