Life on the Beat for Ukraine’s Cops: The Drunk, the Disorderly and Drones
In another time, in another place, the call to the police in Kyiv might have been dismissed as a crank. A resident living along the river had spotted a suspicious red light in the distance and was worried.
In wartime Ukraine, the reason for the concern was obvious: It could be an agent of Moscow directing a Russian missile to its target.
So Officer Dmytro Subota and his partner, Officer Anatoliy Kochylo, raced to investigate.
“There is nothing really that can surprise us anymore,” Officer Subota said as they sped along empty streets just after midnight. They decided the caller had mistaken a red light on a construction crane for something nefarious, and continued their night patrol.
Such is the head-spinning nature of being a beat cop in a city of 3.3 million that is under bombardment, struggling with blackouts and gripped by uncertainty. Around Ukraine, the Patrol Police, a division of the National Police responsible for public order, now deals with the ordinary and the extraordinary.
In Kyiv, the capital, officers make a traffic stop in the morning and then rush to the site of a drone strike in the afternoon, where they perform first aid. They deal with drunks out after curfew, people trapped in elevators when the power fails, traumatized families and scofflaws.
Nearly a year ago, on the morning of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, every officer was issued a rifle to help defend the country. They helped orchestrate the exodus of millions of people, battled with Russians outside the city of Chernihiv, hunted down Russian saboteurs in Kyiv and stood shoulder to shoulder with soldiers in the southern port city of Mariupol that ultimately fell.
Now, as the government seeks to root out corruption and abuse in state institutions, Ukrainian officials, Western advisers and local activists hope the trust earned by the Patrol Police can prove enduring and serve as an example for other parts of a sprawling state security apparatus still mired by abuses.
Built from scratch with financial and technical assistance from the United States and Europe, the Patrol Police is seen as a visible example of Ukraine’s desire to embrace Western values and end a culture of corruption that was a legacy of Soviet rule. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has increasingly focused on the issue as he seeks to bolster Western alliances and set the country on a path to join the European Union.
For much of the past year, as the country united against a common enemy and fought for survival, issues related to corruption receded into the background. But graffiti on a wall by the banks of the Dnipro River serves as a reminder of the depth of distrust of law enforcement and the broader criminal justice system: “Who do you call when the police kill you?”
It was a question the whole nation was asking in 2014, in the midst of the Maidan revolution that swept a Kremlin-loyal government out of power. Back then, a special branch of the police force, called the Berkut division, shot and killed around 100 protesters among the thousands gathered in central Kyiv demanding reform.
“The brutal actions of the police were the catalyst for people outraged by corruption, the roll back of European integration, and forced ‘Russification,’” wrote Halyna Kokhan, who worked for the European Anti-Corruption Initiative in Ukraine, which advised the country on the overhaul of its law enforcement agencies.
After Viktor F. Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine and an ally of the Kremlin, was ousted from office, police reform topped the priority list of the new government.
The Berkut division was disbanded. The name of the national police force was changed from Militsiya, the same name as in Soviet times, to Politsiya. And the Patrol Police was formed, replacing two divisions that had the most day-to-day contact with the public but were rife with corruption.
A new police academy was created, and officers were given new Prius cars and outfitted with uniforms modeled on departments in the United States. American trainers were sent to work with recruits in a country where the idea of neighborhood policing was a foreign concept.
But the group makes up just 25,000 of the roughly 150,000 members of the National Police and, as broader reforms have stalled, Ukrainians have expressed frustration that abuses have continued.
Roman Sinitsyn, who led some of the commissions set up in 2015 to root out police abuse, said the Patrol Police had been successful because it was created as a new force rather than just refashioned from an old one. It hired almost entirely from among educated young people who had not previously served in law enforcement.
The leaders of the Patrol Police recognize that this period could define the force’s reputation. “The police have to be as close to the people as ever,” said Oleksiy Biloshytskiy, first deputy chief of the Patrol Police. “We need to be seen as their defenders. If we fail during this time, we will lose their trust forever.”
As wave after wave of Russian attacks have plunged cities into darkness and cut off towns from basic services, the Patrol Police have taken a lead in trying to ensure a sense of security for a weary and traumatized public.
Svitlana Lukianenkova, 30, joined the force in 2016. She was trained by police officers from Canada and the United States.
The training did not include lessons on drone strikes, she said. But the basics of neighborhood-based policing are useful in these trying times.
“We work without any holidays or weekends because we need to provide security,” she said.
Road accidents soared during the blackouts, and hundreds of pedestrians in Kyiv and other cities have been killed or injured. But even with the blackouts, Kyiv has recorded a remarkable drop in crime. Robbery, assaults and homicides have all plunged 50 to 60 percent from the same 10-month period a year ago.
“All of these statistics will need to be researched to understand the complex set of circumstances at play,” said Deputy Chief Biloshytskiy. “But it certainly is a reflection of the unity of the society right now.”
And the job is by no means unfinished. The National Police said on Thursday that the workload for some elements of the police was up 80 percent. The most challenging areas are the parts of the country that have been freed from Russian occupation, with some 80,000 cases of looting being reported.
“Part of the police officers are working in the freed territories, the workload is crazy, but to date we have not lost control of the criminal situation in the country,” said Ihor Klymenko, Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs.
Officer Lukianenkova, who sent her daughter, Eva, out of the country at the start of the war, recalls every moment of a missile strike she responded to in Kyiv. The missile hit next to a school and as she arrived, another rocket hit an apartment building across the street. She heard someone screaming from an apartment on fire, but there was nothing she could do. It is a memory etched in her mind, she said, and one reason she finds officers abusing their positions intolerable.
Officer Lukianenkova and her partner, Stanislav Skrypnyk, 28, said that there are still incidents of police abuse, but that their superiors are quick to take action.
“There are people who don’t like police because police give them fines. It is normal,” Officer Skrypnyk said. “But after the 24th of February, people would bring us food, thank us, look at us as heroes.”
Officer Lukianenkova agreed, noting that most days are spent on the rather ordinary tasks of policing, even in moments of high drama.
“I remember one day there was a small car accident at the same time as a Russian missile was flying overhead,” she recalled. Even though the officers needed to quickly get to the site of the strike, the people involved in the accident wanted their paperwork signed first.
“Our people are undefeatable because even when missiles are flying and there are explosions, they are thinking about the administration of their car,” Officer Skrypnyk said, with a smile.