An approaching police officer has long been an unwelcome sight for many Ukrainians, with the force widely seen as protecting and serving the authorities, rather than the public.
The much-hyped formation of a rebranded police service in Kyiv aims to change that attitude.
Following the events of the EuroMaidan Revolution last year, the police’s reputation, already low from associations with corruption and incompetence, took a nosedive. According to a poll conducted by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think tank earlier this year, only 2 percent of Ukrainians completely trust the police.
In an attempt to rebuild the shattered image of Ukraine’s police, the Interior Ministry started recruiting new patrol officers for Kyiv on Jan. 20. The new officers will carry out the functions of patrol officers and traffic police, replacing the highly corrupt DAI, or State Automobile Inspectorate, which is being abolished.
Ekaterina Zguladze, the Georgian-born deputy interior minister, said that the ministry wants to create a brand new system of law enforcement when she announced the recruitment drive. The ministry was especially looking for athletic people aged 18-35, she said.
One of those who answered the call – 29-year-old Oleksandr Kharchenko – recalled listening to Zguladze being interviewed in January while deciding on whether to apply.
“Zguladze said she couldn’t be sure the new police officers wouldn’t take bribes – some of them could try to, but when they end up in jail, the situation will change,” Kharchenko says. “It was a sign that she’s a smart manager. After all, taking bribes is – ultimately – a question of values.”
Kharchenko is one of the 2,000 newcomers to Kyiv’s police patrol. He has no illusions that changes will come about immediately, however.
“It’s not like flicking a switch (from the old to a new police force) – it’s a long process, and the new police force will also have its problems,” Kharchenko told the Kyiv Post. “Our goal is to make people more consolidated and move from a caste-based society.”
After completing three 12-hour shifts over five days, Kharchenko told the Kyiv Post that the nation deserves better police officers because it paid a high price for real change during the EuroMaidan Revolution and the war in the east.
“Many of the new police officers understand they are the epitome of the reforms in this country,” Kharchenko told the Kyiv Post.
But it’s very important to understand that there will always be people serving in the police force who shouldn’t be there, he adds.
“Our goal is to bring this percentage close to zero,” Kharchenko said, adding that the second round of recruitment would help. According to Zguladze, a fresh batch of new officers will be hired in late summer.
Kharchenko said the salary of the new police officers – starting at Hr 8,000 ($376) a month – was not enough to live well, but was bearable.
“I wouldn’t have enrolled in the police if I wasn’t sure that I could make a living,” Kharchenko said.
He said he had no plans to become a police officer before the EuroMaidan protests. He worked as an information technology lawyer after he got a degree in law from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and then went on to complete a master’s in law and information technology in Stockholm. But he had wanted to try serving the public.
“I thought that the police might suit my plans. And, well, I just have a heightened sense of justice,” Kharchenko said.
The intensive, three-month training program, which had both theoretical and practical elements, turned out to be a good test of motivation for the would-be police officers, who had to attend numerous classes, six days a week, starting at 8:20 a.m.
Ksenia Prokonova, a lawyer brought in by the Interior Ministry to help train the new police recruits, said she was amazed at the kind of people who decided to join the new force.
“I saw interest sparked in their eyes, and the level of their discussions was incomparable with their predecessors,” Prokonova said. “It’s cool that [the ministry] brought in human rights activists, lawyers, and experts. [The ministry] had a chance to hear from the people who were on the other side of the barricades.”
Following the rollout, the changes are set to go nationwide in the coming months. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on July 8 that he would soon sign a law on a national police force that was approved by Parliament on July 2.
Kharchenko said the new police service still needs time develop, but he was positive about the project’s future. He said some of his friends had even told them they aren’t so nervous now they know that he’s patrolling the city streets.
“I guess they might be joking,” Kharchenko adds. “After all, this is something from my childhood dreams – it’s cool to go around with a gun, riding in a car with flashing lights.”