The Post-Soviet Country that’s a Model for Massive Police Reform

Completely overhauling any national institution isn’t easy, especially one as powerful and integral as law enforcement, seems like an insurmountable task. But the former Soviet republic of Georgia did just that, barely two decades into its independence as a small, fledgling country.

Writing in Foreign Policy, the president who led this effort, Mikeil Saakashvili, lays out just how troubled Georgian policing was:

The corruption of law enforcement empowered organized criminals, known in the former Soviet Union as vory v zakone, literally “thieves in law,” to fill the void. Gang leaders served not only as de facto police but also as judge, jury, and executioner. The police themselves were notorious for collaborating with organized crime. Suspicion of state institutions was deeply rooted in Georgian society: A survey of schoolchildren in 1993 found that a quarter of them wanted to be thieves in law when they grew up. Those youth had witnessed police systematically exploiting their communities. Of course, they held gangsters in higher regard than law enforcement.

Given that reality, police reform was not only a matter of restructuring institutions or implementing better policies. We had to change the mentality of a broken, cynical, and fearful society. Before people could begin to trust the police, we—the new political elites—had to earn their trust. Challenging the status quo was not enough. We had to destroy it and build something better. And we had to do it quickly. After the Rose Revolution, Georgian society united to demand reform. Reforms mean nothing without results that people can see.

So where do you even start when an entire system is rotten to the core, public trust and enthusiasm is at its nadir, and your country lacks the institutional development and civil society to help effect change? Apparently, you just go all in:

The first priority was to seize back control of state security functions from organized crime. Vano Merabishvili, then-interior minister, announced: “We will confiscate from all thieves in law the palaces they built with their dirty money and put police stations in their place.” And we did. Over a billion dollars’ worth of stolen property was recovered from thieves and returned to the state budget. New police stations were built all over Georgia, with floor-to-ceiling glass. This wasn’t just an aesthetic choice—building trust in law enforcement requires transparency.

Simultaneously, we dismantled the Soviet legacy of politicized policing and replaced it with equitable law enforcement. We eliminated redundant agencies and those beyond hope of rehabilitation. The Ministry of State Security, a KGB relic, was dissolved. We disbanded the Traffic Police, firing every one of the thousands of officers who had acted as state-sanctioned highway robbers. We replaced them with an entirely new force of Patrol Police, who had no background in law enforcement and thus no ties to old, corrupted elites. Recruits had to pass a competitive examination and complete a course in criminal procedure code. They were trained in persuasion, negotiation, and mediation skills to minimize the use of force.

In restaffing the streamlined law enforcement agencies, we chose quality over quantity. The total number of Ministry of Internal Affairs employees decreased from around 56,000 to 33,000. Violent crime fell by 66 percent after reforms were implemented. Carjackings and auto thefts, once commonplace, nearly disappeared. The overall crime rate dropped by over 50 percent, making Georgia one of the world’s safest countries in the world. We hadn’t needed so many police. We only needed good police.

Before my government’s reforms, talented people who wanted to serve their communities would never have considered careers in law enforcement. We had to change that. Without the right people, even the best policies would be doomed to fail. Besides revamping the hiring process, we established a Police Academy, issued modern uniforms, and imported new squad cars and equipment. These investments improved morale and professionalism of personnel.

At last, professional police earned professional salaries. Before my presidency, police officers were paid just $44 per month—with the unspoken expectation that they would supplement their meager incomes with bribes. By reducing the size of the force, jettisoning agencies and ministries, and hiring only qualified candidates, we increased salaries of police officers nearly tenfold. Now that officers were fairly compensated, we enforced zero tolerance for corruption. Public employees did not enjoy any special treatment from the criminal justice system. The Ministry of Internal Affairs created a reality TV show to broadcast raids at the homes of corrupt officers.

In short, Georgia basically tore down the whole rotten structure and started over. It took time, political will, and a lot of public support. It was probably controversial, and most certainly had its naysayers. But the results remain enduring: As of 2013, the police enjoy an approval rating of 87 percent—among the highest of any public institution in Georgia, and the highest in the world. The World Bank has called the country the “world’s best reformer”, with the biggest drop in corruption in all of Europe; the 95 percent of Georgians not having to pay a bribe to public officials.

The main takeaway from all this, according to the former president? “Half-measures don’t work”.

Those who benefit from the status quo will always abhor change. And vested interests tend to fight incremental measures with the same ferocity as they resist dramatic overhauls. So when the moment is ripe, why accept incremental progress when you can seize the opportunity for real transformation?

The push in some American cities to “defund the police” constitutes a dramatic overhaul, at least as bold as firing an entire small country’s police force. But, unlike post-revolutionary Georgia, most Americans do not support such a drastic measure. Cutting funds for police departments could result in privatization of security, with the wealthy hiring personal guards while the poor bear the brunt of increased crime. These risks deserve serious consideration—take it from someone who once lived in a country where mercenary forces owned by oligarchs and gangsters ruled the streets.

What are your thoughts? Is the U.S. ready and able to take a “full measure” approach to fixing law enforcement?

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