Mixed messages from Moscow’s 2009 crime figures

Moscow police chief Major General Vladimir Kolokoltsev managed a populist one-two punch on 20 January. While congratulating himself on a decline in overall crime rates in the city in a press conference, he also got to single out the city’s migrant population as especially criminal. Yet the hidden subtext is also the continuing problem with police corruption and criminality.

According to the figures he released, in 2009 murders fell by 36.2%, robberies an astonishing 76%, aggravated (violent) robberies 19.8% and car theft by 7.9%.

At the same time, crimes committed by migrants officially rose by 7%, accounting for 54,600, or 48.6% of all crimes solved. To give him his due, compared with some of his predecessors, who seemed all too happy to characterise the city’s migrant labour population as inherently crimogenic, Kolokoltsev recognised that the economic slowdown was a factor: “Many people from other cities, who had come to work in the capital at the moment when the crisis started, found themselves unemployed.”

In the main, there is no particular reason to disbelieve the figures, beyond an inevitable caution when dealing with official crime rates in general and Russian ones in particular. There are some suggestions, for example, that the impressive decline in robberies, is at least in part because some crimes which would once have been recorded as robberies are now being listed as other, less serious offences. Anecdotal evidence also points to a decline in reporting, as Muscovites choose not to bother bringing minor thefts to the attention of the police. (The average value of robberies, for example, is up: this supports these theses as there is no reason to believe that thieves, especially the desperate and unemployed, are getting choosy about their pickings. Instead, lower-value crimes are probably not reported at all or recorded under other headings.)

However, there are some paradoxes. First of all, do higher arrest and conviction rates for migrants (most of whom are so-called ‘blacks’ from the Caucasus or Central Asia) demonstrate that they are more criminal or simply more often arrested, charged and convicted? There is ample evidence to suggest that the police and judiciary are frankly racist, after all.

Just as important, if a growing arrest and conviction rate demonstrates higher levels of criminality, what does it say about the Moscow police? Kolokoltsev affirmed that while the number of complaints from citizens about police abuses “fell drastically in recent months,” the toll of police officers who faced various criminal charges rose by around 50%, while the number of senior officers disciplined for breaking administrative regulations was up 20%.

Putting aside the question of how many officers charged actually end up disciplined or convicted (a perennial problem), what he obviously and understandably regarded as a policy success — eating away at the culture of impunity facilitating police crime and corruption — might actually indicate not just better internal policing but possibly a growing problem.

Just as Kolokoltsev’s figures risk giving greater ammunition to the violent racists who are already such a problem for Moscow (he said that ten racist groups were disbanded last year, whose 33 members carried out 34 of the 62 violent attacks on people of ‘non-Slavic’ appearance, including 14 murders, but NGOs report a rising tide of such assaults and killings) they also underline the scale of the problem addressing police criminality and indiscipline, and the public’s rock-bottom respect for and trust in their ‘defenders’.

Nor is this just the view of Ivan in the street or an outmoded stereotype. According to Mikhail Vinogradov, director of the Moscow Center for Legal and Psychological Assistance in Extreme Situations, a third of all Russian police are alcoholics or psychopaths. Interviewed in Novaya Izvestiya, he made this pretty starting claim in part as a bid to see psychological screening reintroduced for all officers (in fairness it is worth noting that he might be considered to have a personal stake in this), as well as a heightened role for the Federal Security Service (FSB) in supervising the police. Meanwhile, he suggested that convicted cops should not be sent to special prisons or segregated wings but in regular camps, as a deterrent. (Given the brutality rife in most of Russia’s under-supervised prisons and the likelihood as a result that many such ex-cops would be targeted by inmates, this also sounds a little like advocating corporal or even capital punishment by the back door.)

Coming in the week in which a police lieutenant colonel shot and killed a snowplow driver for damaging his car, while one may quibble with Vinogradov’s specific figures or prescriptions, it is hard to ignore his overall view that reforming the police will take truly fundamental, generational change.

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