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Pulitzer Center Update July 25, 2016

In Both Ukraine and U.S. Police Reform Poses a Challenge

Media: Author:
Kiev arrest
Patrol Police make an arrest in the Kiev city center as a crowd watches. Image by Misha Friedman. Ukraine, 2015.

In 2015, Pulitzer Center grantee Misha Friedman spoke with Ukrainian police cadet Oksana Kapitanska about her U.S.-sponsored training program. "The American approach is too tender," she told Friedman, pointing to her instructors' emphasis on avoiding excessive force. "Everything is based on respect for personal freedom. Maybe that kind of thing works in the U.S."

Nearly a year later, many Americans would disagree. After police shot African-American suspects in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Florida, and gunmen shot five officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge, tension between police and minority groups is at its highest in decades. In this situation, some Americans see little hope for common ground. At the Republican National Convention in mid-July, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump declared, "an attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans."

More moderate politicians and pundits, meanwhile, have called for new policies that will discourage police from using deadly force or profiling minorities. Dallas Police Chief David Brown argued that activists can best achieve these goals by working within the system. "We're hiring," he told reporters. "Get off that protest line and and put an application in. We'll put you in your neighborhood and we will help you resolve some of the problems you're protesting about."

Friedman saw this same idea at work while reporting last year in Ukraine. In 2014, the country's previous government was overthrown by protests against rampant corruption among police and other public officials. The country's old police force, the millitsya, was so resented that the new government decided to gain the public's confidence by creating a new force to patrol the streets in Kiev.

Kapitanska, like many of the cadets Friedman profiled in his articles and photo essays, signed up out of a desire to strengthen the new Ukrainian state. "They are inspired," Khatia Dekanoidze, who oversees the new program, told Friedman. "You can see it in their eyes when they come back from their shift, tired, but their eyes are burning."

However, this idealism exists alongside the legacy of Ukraine's old police system. For now, this new police force can only patrol the streets of Kiev. It shares headquarters with the old, unpopular millitsya, which still processes detainees and investigates crimes. By putting a new, less corrupt force on the ground, the government hopes it can improve citizens' attitudes. To this end, it has issued uniforms and squad cars distinct from those of the millitsya, and created a social media campaign dubbed "My new police." Once the public has pride and confidence in Ukraine's beat cops, the thinking goes, institutional change will trickle inward.

The United States has invested in this approach. In 2015, amid rising concerns about police brutality at home, the U.S. government spent $1.6 billion on security sector reform in developing countries. About $1 million of these funds went to Ukraine: Oksana's new uniform was made by an American firm; she received her training on avoiding excessive force from the California Highway Patrol.

The irony of America building a new, more friendly police force abroad while wrestling with police reform at home was not lost on Friedman. When Oksana complained that her American trainers had taught gentleness, he remarked, even in the wake of police shootings in Ferguson and Baltimore, "that's the ideal America exports."