Post-Soviet Georgia Works to Reform Police

Police officers in the former Soviet republic of Georgia used to be known for being corrupt and inefficient. One of the first acts of the new government was to fire nearly 55,000 police. New officers are being paid a wage they can live on and the government has tried to re-fashion the image of the police.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, its former republics saw their police become increasingly corrupt. That was the case in Georgia, but Georgia has made police reform a priority since a new government came to power two years ago. NPR's Lawrence Sheets reports from the capital Tblisi.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE SHEETS reporting:

It's a rainy night in the rundown Gldani district in the foothills around the capital. Twenty-six-year-old policeman Goga Shantra Ashrili(ph) is at the wheel of his Volkswagen patrol car.

Officer GOGA SHANTRA ASHRILI (Policeman): As you can see, there is no kind of (unintelligible) bars or ...(unintelligible) shops, something like that. You can see a lot of little shops. They sell cigarettes, drinks and something like that.

(Soundbite of car horn)

Off. SHANTRA ASHRILI: It's a working-class area, and most the people work hard here.

SHEETS: A call comes through from a dispatcher.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

SHEETS: Shantra Ashrili pulls the car up to a curbside. An unconscious man is sleeping face-up in the rain. Shantra Ashrili gets out of the car and helps three bystanders wake the man up.

Off. SHANTRA ASHRILI: He's a drunk man and can't get home.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Off. SHANTRA ASHRILI: He cannot tell us his address, and we have to leave him here, because there is no law which includes to take him home. And tomorrow morning, he will go home if he wants, of course.

SHEETS: Shantra Ashrili calls it the kind of case that no one would have bothered calling the police about a few years ago. The old Soviet-style cops used to man checkpoints where they harassed motorists for handouts. Twenty-year-old student Zarab Ahalia(ph) says the police also planted drugs on suspects or even stole the drugs for their own use.

Mr. ZARAB AHALIA (Student): If a policeman caught some guy and took dope or something, he didn't take this dope to the police station. They used it.

Off. SHANTRA ASHRILI: Yes.

Mr. AHALIA: They smoked the dope.

Off. SHANTRA ASHRILI: All the policemen were drug addicted.

SHEETS: After Georgia's discredited old leadership was driven out of power in 2003, it made police reform its top priority. Thousands of officers were fired, and the old traffic division was completely eliminated. Officers used to wear Communist-style drab gray uniforms. The new police wear light blue shirts and caps that one might expect to see in a small American town. An ordinary police officer now gets about $215 a month. That's above the average Georgian wage. Previously, it was assumed police had to take bribes to make ends meet. The new head of the Tblisi patrol police, Goga Grigalashvili, says the wages attract more qualified recruits. Seventy percent of the patrol police now have college degrees, and they are changing public attitudes.

Mr. GOGA GRIGALASHVILI (Head of Tblisi Patrol Police): (Through Translator) When people saw how well the police could do their jobs, they changed their views. People became convinced that the police were honest and competent.

SHEETS: Despite the police improvements, the reform of Georgia's legal system is still a work in progress. The country's prisons are becoming evermore overcrowded, and opposition leaders say the judicial system is under the influence of the government. Even so, Tinatin Khidasheli, a leader of Georgia's main opposition party, says reform of the patrol police has been a success.

Ms. TINATIN KHIDASHELI (Opposition Party Leader): That truly is the only thing at this stage can--this government can be proud of. It's quick. It's immediate response. You really--the stories you hear are true. They do come immediately.

SHEETS: Back in the capital's Gldani district, Officer Goga Shantra Ashrili is responding to another call. A young woman has called the patrol because she says her ex-husband has stolen her cell phone and is threatening her.

Off. SHANTRA ASHRILI: We can try to find out where lives her ex-husband. We'll make a case. We'll tell him to leave this woman alone, because she's not his wife anymore.

SHEETS: Shantra Ashrili has been on the force only a year. He admits routine police work can be tedious, but he's proud that he and his colleagues are now trusted by people who once hated and feared the police. Lawrence Sheets, NPR News, Tblisi, Georgia.

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