Police, Please Open Up!

28. January, 2007


Inese Avota

Foto: I..Kundziņa

Latvia is not rich enough to keep pouring money into the torn pockets of the police. We must take the measurements. Cut the cloth. And sew a new suit.

Until someone’s wallet or car is stolen or an individual falls victim to a more serious crime, all is well. Public safety and public order are ensured or so it seems during major events, when significant numbers of police officers are out in the streets.

However, when someone comes into close contact with the police he or she must ask why the police refuse to register a stolen wallet. Why does the victim have to prove that the theft occurred? Why is it that when one calls the police to say, I am looking out the window and I can see my neighbor’s car being stolen, the response is But is that your vehicle?

Shelved reforms

Since 1990, we have had 12 interior ministers in Latvia. Among their responsibilities is the development and oversight of the Sate Police. The large number of ministers creates concerns (alas, justified concerns) about the idea that long-term reforms are not being implemented at the State Police. All government operating declarations up to this point have included lots of noble promises vis-à-vis the State Police, but there has been a lack of political will and a lack of overall government support, as manifested in insufficient funding. Chiefs in the State Police, for their part, have proven unable to offer a view of long-term development, and so the political promises have been turned into empty drums.

Successive development of the State Police (SP) has not been ensured by any of the 12 ministers or by any of the former chiefs of the police so that the SP might move from a military structure to a democratic police force that is focused on public services. Janis Zascirinskis [a former chief of the SP] drafted a development concept in 2003, but the Interior Ministry did not approve it[1]. The former state secretary of the Interior Ministry, Juris Reksna, when asked about the lack of political succession in the ministry, said that the replacement of the minister every nine months, on average, meant that priorities changed and launched reforms were forgotten. Every once in awhile, therefore, the whole process has to start anew: An example is the five-year program to develop the motor vehicles of the State Police. The program was implemented under one minister, there were still results during the second, but then the concept was put on the shelf, and now we are back where we were two years ago. One step forward, two steps back.[2]

Once again we find ourselves in a situation in which the main job for the new leadership of the SP is to resolve a crisis, referred by police employees as a coma. Our aim in this article is to look at the priorities which have been proposed by SP chiefs and the interior minister [Ivars Godmanis] vis-à-vis the development of a democratic, community-oriented police force. We will refer to what we consider to be the main points of reference in these priorities.

Public Services

There are several documents, which allow us to look at the prospects for development in the police force. These include documents from the government, the Interior Ministry and the State Police — the Interior Ministry’s Operating Strategy for 2007 to 2009, the Interior Ministry’s Action Plan for 2007, the Declaration and Draft Action Plan of the government of Aigars Kalvitis, and, of course, the plan of Action of the State Police in 2007, although that is a classified document of limited availability. There is also a plan to improve the operations of the Sate Police between 2005 and 2008, which was approved on September 27, 2005. The aim there was to overcome a crisis in ensuring a sufficient number of police personnel.[3]

In countries to our East, Interior Ministries are usually power ministries, but we are a service ministry. The service that we provide to the public is security.[4] Those words were spoken in October 2005 by the now former state secretary of the Interior Ministry, Juris Reksna. The Declaration of the Aigars Kalvitis government, which was approved on November 7, 2006, has this to say about the units of the Interior Ministry: They will be changed from purely repressive institutions into institutions which provide services and serve the public interest. This suggests that the police in Latvia still have a long, long way to go before they rid themselves of the image of a militarized and repressive institution.

The Interior Ministry’s Operating Strategy for 2007-2009 contains a gentle formulation about the idea that it is gradually changing the attitudes of employees of the interior system, where each employee is a service-provider, not a representative of a repressive institution.[5] This is to be done through training of personnel and their supervisors in terms of their communications skills. Not less often than once a year there is to be a study of public opinion vis-à-vis the work that is done by the Interior Ministry’s subordinate institutions.[6]

This does not convince us that there are going to be any real changes in the system. Communications training for employees is going to be a drop in the bucket, given the rate of staff turnover in the police. It is important to include the values of a democratic police force, which is focused on the provision of services in basic laws and policy documents.

The Police Law at this time says, the police are an armed and militarized state or local government institution.[7] There must be changes to the definition of the police as an organization in the first article of the law. The police must be a service institution, which handles the jobs that are entrusted to it by law and uses repressive methods in pursuit of those duties when that is necessary.

In shaping the police as a service institution, there must be criteria to evaluate the quality of services that are provided and the changes that are made. The introduction of such criteria to evaluate police work will be pointless, however, if there is not a reevaluation of the system of values and the methods of work in the State Police itself.

Crime Solving and Prevention

Existing practice is to evaluate the quality of police operations on the basis of the number of solved crimes, but that is a surface and incomplete approach. When Ivars Godmanis became interior minister, he had this to say about the SP’s main problems: We must find out why the number of solved crimes has declined, we must improve the speed at which the police react to calls, we must develop cooperation with private security companies, we must look for people who are lost without a trace, and we must solve serious crimes. The new chief of the SP, Aldis Lieljuksis, when asked about his priorities, spoke about the shortage of employees (focusing mostly on getting former employees to return to the SP), raising salaries for SP employees, decentralizing the police, and solving serious and particularly serious crimes.[8]

There is no doubt that these are all serious problems which require solutions in the near future, but concerns are caused by this particular concentration on serious and particularly serious crimes and on strengthening the Criminal Police. Lieljuksis has said, there must be reforms in investigating serious crimes, because the work of the Criminal Police has not been sufficient effective.[9] The government declaration, too, says that the police forces will be focused on combating organized crime, serious crimes (including murder and armed robbery) and economic crimes.[10]

The fact that developing the work of the Criminal Police is a priority has been made clear in the public space and the annual plans of the SP. In 2007, the Criminal Police are to draft a development strategy for 2007-2012. There is no question but that this is necessary, but there should be a balanced development of all SP units, drafting a similar strategy of development for the Public Order Police, as well. The Draft Government Plan of Action speaks to drafting criteria for evaluating the operations of the Public Order Police in accordance with the specifics of the various services. This refers to patrol services, traffic police, and precinct inspectors, permit systems, etc. Is this not a premature step, given that the Public Order Police are suffering the largest personnel shortages, existing precinct inspectors are drowning in criminal procedures that have been started already, and it is by no means clear that in all local government administrative territories the State Police and local government police institutions are working together and that they all have a clear sense of the division of responsibilities.

The Police Law says that the job for the police is to guarantee the security of individuals and society, as well as to prevent and solve crimes.[11] This means that preventive processes are also a part of police work — proactive steps taken to reduce crime before it happens. There has been only one idea in the public arena as to how best to strengthen and develop the Public Order Police and the Prevention Bureau — to hire the employees of the Apsardze security firm as members of the Public Order Police.[12]

Great Britain, an EU country with very old traditions of democracy, is reforming the Metropolitan Police and has concluded that the police must work in two directions at once — improving work related to the solving of serious crimes and working on public order and safety violations which most often affect members of the public. Prevention of crime is strongly emphasized here so as to reduce fears among the public. (To be sure, these fears must first be studied and formulated.)

Public opinion surveys in Great Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands have shown that people are much more concerned about the presence and accessibility of the police than they are about the fight against organized crime. People are less afraid of crime and have a greater sense of security if they feel safe near their home as they go to work, return from a concert late at night, or await the return of their children after evening activities.

Our aim is not to claim that the police should ignore organized crime or that it should not improve the work aimed at solving greater numbers of serious crimes. The leadership of the State Police and the Interior Ministry, however, must divide up attention and resources between the fight against serious crime and the need to ensure public order and security. That is the job for the Public Order Police.

Assessment Measures

The number of solved crimes is not the only criterion in evaluating the quality of police work. The number of crimes registered by the police, similarly, says nothing about the situation with crime in a society. Alongside statistical data, the truest measuring stick to evaluate the quality of police work is the level of public satisfaction and trust in the police. Of particular importance are the views of people who have fallen victim to crime when it comes to their contacts with the police and the support, which has been rendered by the police.

If police work is evaluated just on the basis of serious or particularly serious crimes that are detected as a percentage of all registered crimes, that means forgetting about public needs. The risk is that people will be dissatisfied with police work, and the prestige of the police will decline in the public eye. If the police only focus on crimes and administrative violations, but not serious crimes, then governments and supervisory institutions will be dissatisfied.[13]

In Western democracies, the way in which the work of the police is organized has a lot to do with the way in which public, police and political priorities can be balanced out. The aim is to achieve a high level of public satisfaction with the work of the police while also ensuring a high number of solved crimes. This is a challenge for any police department in a country which is democratic and where the rule of law prevails. The key question is the percentage of solved crimes that the public are prepared to accept. In the Netherlands, for instance, people can be sure that any reported violation of the law will be registered, but that does not mean that the police will spend time in investigating the smallest theft.

The reciprocal link with the service recipient that is the public at large can be established through public opinion surveys. They are basically the only way to find out the level of quality in the work that is being done to enhance public security and to satisfy public needs. The Interior Ministry and SP have not been conducting public opinion surveys for several years now, but there are plans to introduce them in some form this year.[14]

It is wrong to think that a lower number of solved crimes tells us anything about how well or how poorly the police have done their job. The number of registered crimes does not reflect the true picture with crime, and the statistics are incomplete. In 1996, 1998 and 2000, the Criminology Research Center of the Justice Ministry conducted comparative research about crime victims in Latvia and found that the number of actual crimes and victims was several times higher than the officially registered number of crimes and victims — the police, it was found, had been told only about one-half of incidents which had elements of crimes.[15]

The latest public survey about how many people in Riga and the Riga District have been crime victims over the last 12 months was conducted back in 2004. It showed that only 5.6% of victims reported sexual crimes to the police, 22.8% reported the theft of personal property, and 24% reported attacks or threats of attack.[16] It is very important to determine why people are not going to the police in such cases. Victims have not told the police about crimes in some cases because they do not think that the police will want to do anything.[17]

The survey also found that only 5% of respondents in Riga and the Riga District said that the work of the police is very good, and 39.7% said that it is more bad than good. A public survey conducted in November 2003 as to the attitudes of the people of Latvia vis-à-vis the work of the police showed that of all respondents, 16% had no trust in the police at all, and 34.6% had more distrust than trust.[18]

Members of the public are not being given any chance to monitor the way in which the SP does its work and develops its strategic planning. The annual plans of the Statw Police are of limited availability, and only the procedure defined in the law on information openness makes it possible to review them. On special request, the authors of this paper managed to read the planning documents from the last several years, and it has to say that the content of these plans has nothing to say about national security or strategic operations. In a democratic countries where the rule of law prevails, in one in which the interior system has declared that it wants to work more closely together with the public, there would probably be no concern if members of the public were to learn about the decision of the SP to strengthen cooperation with NGOs, that it will focus particularly on the fight against illegal alcohol, or that it will prepare a report on the situation with crime in Latvia.

The principle of information openness in a democratic country is a system which ensure that government institutions act properly and that those who are in power in the country are overseen.[19] By ensuring that the public has free access to the working plans of the SP, the institution would create another element which would bring it a bit closer to the image of a police unit which is democratic and focused on the provision of services.

Veterans’ Contribution

Will the promise to bring former employees back to the ranks of the SP change the working methods of the police? An experienced SP employee is rotated away from a high-ranking position because of the idea that that person will not be able to reform his own unit after serving there so long. At the same time, however, someone with years of experience in senior positions in the SP is being told to design the entire SP development plan. Is that person going to be able to draft a development plan for an organization, which he helped to run for at least the last three years? There is no reason to talk of any consistent approach here.

The return of old or experienced employees is nothing good or bad in and of itself, but we must ask what contribution these people will make to the development of the SP. Are the old employees coming back with a new philosophy about police work, one that is focused on a democratic police force? Of is the main goal here to increase the number of solved crimes or to improve other statistics?

The Development Bureau of the SP, according to the BNS news agency, will soon have to design a development plan for the next five years.[20] The plan includes a developmental strategy for the police, plans as to the future of the Apsardze security firm, and ways of improving the quality of police work. One would like to hear why the Strategy Bureau of the NP Headquarters could not draft this development concept. That, after all, is specifically its function.

Certainly this document must be a breaking point in terms of launching SP reforms so that the SP are no longer a military organization and instead become a service provider that is focused on the public. It must move toward becoming an organization, which defines its priorities at three levels — the government, the ministry and SP, and the public at large. It must be an institution at which one of the main criteria for evaluating work is the level of satisfaction among the public at large, the service recipient, in the work of the police, not the number of crimes that are solved.

This concept should be discussed with the public at large, and a serious investment must be made in explaining why the reforms are necessary in the first place.

New Suit Needed

Failures in police reforms and responsibilities for the status of a coma are not the unilateral responsibility of the police chief. There must be political will to make reforms of the police system a priority. The interior minister must set a course, and the government must support the process so that the police are based on democratic values and those of the rule of law. That cannot be ensured just with pretty speeches at foreign meetings and various slogans in policy documents. Adequate financing is also needed. The money must be spent responsibly, making sure that the police themselves embody the values, which befit a democratic police force.

By trying to rejuvenate the methods of investigation, which date back to the Soviet militia, the SP will not bring new life into the institution. It is not the case that this segment of the interior system cannot be reformed and pulled out of its ditch, but it has to be said that management of supervision of this process has been a massive fiasco. Latvia is not rich enough to pour money into the torn pockets of the police. Measure the police. Cut the cloth. Sew a new suit entirely.


[1] Leitans I. “Uz jaunā policijas šefa pleciem būs liela nasta” (New Chief of State Police Is To Have a Big Burden on His Shoulders), Diena, 30 August, 2006.

[2] “Varu sastrādāties ar jebko, pat lāci’’ (I Can Cooperate with Anybody, Even a Bear) An interview with State Secretary of Ministry of Interior Juris Rekšņa by Inta Lase, 25 October, 2005.,

[3] The Interior Ministry’s Strategy for 2007 to 2009; The Action Plan of Ministry of Interior for 2007, The Declaration of the Aigars Kalvitis government, November 7, 2006; Draft Action Plan for implementation of The Declaration of the Aigars Kalvitis government. And the Action Plan of State Police for 2007, which is classified as limited access information. Besides these documents there is also the Action Plan for Improvement of State Police Performance for 2005.-2008, which was approved on September 27, 2005 and the Action Plan for Improvement of State Police Institutions (aimed at overcoming the crises in securing personal performance)

[4] “Varu sastrādāties ar jebko, pat lāci’’ (I Can Cooperate with Anybody, Even a Bear) An interview with State Secretary of Ministry of Interior Juris Rekšņa by Inta Lase, 25 October, 2005.,

[5] The Interior Ministry’s Strategy for 2007 to 2009, page 19.

[6] The Draft Action Plan for Implementation of The Declaration of the Aigars Kalvitis government

[7] The Police Law, Article 1, June 4, 1991.

[8] Leitans I., Konstantinovs N. “Sveiciens policijas dienā” (Greetings on the Occasion of Police Day), Diena, December 6, 2006.

[9] “Turpmāk Kriminālpoliciju vadīs Dailis Lūks” (From Now On, Dailis Luks Will Be In Charge of Criminal Police), , Janury 29, 2007.

[10] The Declaration of the Aigars Kalvitis government, November 7, 2006.

[11] The Police Law, Article 3, June 4, 1991.

[12] Lato L. “Ivars Godmanis “New Era””, , February 7, 2007.

[13] British experience in implementing Safer Neighborhoods Police Model,

[14] Interior Ministry’s Strategy for 2007 to 2009, Action Plan of Ministry of Interior for 2007.

[15] Zile J. “Cietušais krimināltiesisko zinātņu skatījumā” (Victim As Seen by Criminal Justice Sciences) Latvijas Vestnesis, 2002, page 35.

[16] Research conducted by Latvian Association of Independent Criminologists in cooperation with State Probation Service, published in “Likumpārkāpumi un sabiedrībai nevēlamās parādības Latvijā 2005” (Legal Offences and Undesirable Phenomena in Latvia. Year 2005.), Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia.

[17] Ibid, page 46.

[18] Ruķere I. “Sūdzību izskatīšana un policijas atbildība” (Review of Complaints and Police Accountability in Latvia) SPC PROVIDUS, 2004, page 11.

[19] Jarinovska K. “Publiskās informācijas pieejamības principi un prakse” (I) (Principles and Practice of Access to Public Information), Likums un tiesības, Volume 9, Nr. 1 (89), January 2007, page 2. raksts

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