The international project “Police Stations Visitors’ Week” by Altus, an independent association of NGOs, has practically come to an end in the republic of Mari El. The project was approved by the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation and has been taking place successfully over the last two years in the Republic of Mari El, along with tens of countries and hundreds of towns across Russia. This year, unfortunately, the human rights organization “Human being and Law”, which acts as the project coordinator in the Republic of Mari El, received an official refusal from the leadership of the Mari El Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The main aim of the initiative is to increase the level of public trust towards law-enforcement agencies and to create a positive image of the police. President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev has spoken time and again of the importance of increasing the level of openness of the police force. Unfortunately, in practice it turns out that these calls are of a purely declarative nature. One of the initiator’s of the Police Stations’ Visitors Week in Russia is the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman. Two years’ running the Ombudsman asked the regional NGO “Human being and Law” to coordinate the project in the Republic of Mari El. The human rights defenders sent the corresponding letter signed by Vladimir Lukin to the Mari El Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Ministry, for its part, determined which they considered to be the best police stations and worked up a schedule for visiting them.
On 24 October 2011, however, Irina Simakova, chairwoman of “Human being and Law”, received a reply from the Mari El Ministry of Internal Affairs explaining that only members of the Public Council of the Mari El Ministry of Internal Affairs and members of the Public Oversight Commission have the right to visit police stations. It therefore turns out that after changing the name of the force from “militia” to “police”, the agency has become even more closed to the public than it was before.
Before the official response from the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Mari El, human rights defenders had decided to continue their work and take part in the “Police Stations’ Visitors Week”, sending their feedback reflecting the real state of affairs in the Republic to Altus. In the end, visitors were only allowed into the Yurinsky district police station.
Over several days, activists and volunteers from the organization visited police stations in the capital (Zarechny, Zavodskoy and Tsentralny) as well as several regional police stations (in Yurinsky, Medvedevsky, Orshansky, Sernursky and Sovetsky regions). They went on behalf of ordinary citizens, residents of the Republic of Mari El, who had wanted to find out more about the level of services provided by the police. This included walking through the corridors, assessing the reception at the police station in terms of convenience for the visiting public, the availability of helpful and explanatory information for the public, cleanliness, order and so on.
As a result, the visitors found out that police stations in the Republic of Mari El are subject to a security regime and outsiders are prohibited from entering. In several police departments, the visitors were met by blatant rudeness on the part of police officers.
The first police department visits were the most revealing since there had not been time for news to spread through the agency that groups of civilians were carrying out Police Station Visits. In the majority of cases during the days following, visitors were politely refused access to premises, with the lack of any kind of instruction from senior authorities cited as the reason.
Particularly notable during those first visits was the head of the Sernursky police station who appeared before visitors in plain clothes (a sweater and cap), did not introduce himself and conducted the entire conversation with those who had arrived in a raised voice. After looking at Vladimir Lukin’s letter he accused the visitors of having forged the signature, and the document itself came under harsh criticism. He said the letter violated the basic principles of official correspondence: there was no stamp (despite the fact that it was written on the official headed notepaper of the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation) and the names of the visitors were not listed. In addition, the head of the police station suggested having the letter verified by the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Republic of Mari El, apparently having let it slip from his mind that such a person simply does not exist.
As it turned out, the biggest problem at many of the police stations was simply getting inside the building. The police hide behind heavy iron doors and in order to force them to open up, members of the public need to take a number of logical steps.
Visits to police departments have also shown that the legal requirement for police officers to identify themselves is largely ignored. When talking with the public, a significant proportion of police officers in Mari El did not consider it necessary to give their name or rank (whereas law-enforcement officers at nearly all of the police stations examined visitors’ identification documents with particular care). On the basis of the visits to police stations, the human rights defenders concluded that “Police Stations’ Visitors Week — 2011” in the Republic of Mari El was more revealing than previous ones, when visits were planned by senior police officers and the visitors were escorted by officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ press service. Visitors were expected and their arrival had been prepared for.
As a result, those who took part in the project saw just how far removed the police in Mari El are from ordinary citizens and just how great the desire is to conceal the inner life of the police from society. In this regard, police departments in Georgia, whose walls are made of glass and are completely transparent, seem like an unattainable ideal. It is possible to say more. The former militia was closer to the population than the police, which have undergone a re-evaluation. Furthermore, at the local level no attention is paid to the words of the Minister for Internal Affairs of the Russian Federation who is calling for a cooperative model of interaction with the public and says that assessment by society should serve as the basis for a police officer’s promotion.
The question of why the police exist remains rhetorical. From the point of view of human rights defenders, the police exist to SERVE the community and provide a SECURITY, but how our police force plans to achieve these goals when it stays inside its offices and distances itself from ordinary citizens, remains a mystery.