America has the best cops in the world. Without question, the men and women who serve in blue uniform in the United States are the braver and more professional than the police forces of any other country. That is a plain fact that too many people forget in their eagerness to pin the blame on our police for society’s ills, and brazenly ignored by those whose vocation is to slander those who serve our communities.
Sometimes people don’t fully appreciate something good until they don’t have it anymore. That was the case with me before I moved to Russia. I have always highly respected the police. And the times I have lived in high crime neighborhoods, I always felt safer when I saw a police cruiser rolling by or a cop walking the beat.
But over the many years I have spent living here in Moscow I have learned to cross the street if I see two cops walking my way (Russians police are always in pairs.) A policeman in Russia doesn’t serve to protect, he serves to collect. To collect bribes from criminals and to extort money from the innocent.
All of my experiences with Russian police have been unpleasant. Most typically it has been when they hear me speak and realize I’m a foreigner, and most likely American. That leads to the inevitable demand “documents, please.” (Oh, and unlike everywhere in Europe, not one cop in Russia speaks a word of English, the international language of tourism.)
Now this is where things can get difficult. Russia requires a lot of documents with a lot of little stamps, it is a culture famous for its excessive bureaucracy. So in one instance, I was stopped on Red Square on New Year’s Day. My documents were demanded, and I had my passport, my driver’s license, my Russian visa, my residence permit and my immigration card. But I didn’t have my work permit, as I had assumed that the only place I needed to show my work permit was at work. Well, two beefy guys named Ivan and Igor place me under arrest for not having my work permit, and I had neither a lawyer nor internet access to determine whether my arrest might conceivably be legal.
And the bargaining commenced. I could be held up to a week without counsel or bail, even if I had broken no law. Or: I could pay a “non-official fine” of $1000 in U.S. dollars. I didn’t want to give these mutts a thousand bucks, but I sure didn’t want to spend a week in a Russian prison either. After two hours they decided a hundred bucks would do, and I wrote it off as a cost of living in Russia. Oh, and I found out later I was correct about not having to carry my work permit at all times, but the cops rely on Russia’s overly complex and often nonsensical legal codes to make extortion easier.
More often, I have been able to intimidate the cops here into backing off, by screaming loudly and making my own threats. More than once I have claimed to be friends with some major Kremlin official, and these bozos paused to think, maybe this American is bluffing, but maybe he’s not. And although it was kind of amusing the first one or two or three times, being shaken down by the police quickly becomes a draining and unpleasant experience.
More frightening is the realization that in a life threatening situation I have no leverage or recourse to any sort of help or justice. If I were badly hurt in an accident, I have no confidence that the cops are going to let me get medical attention without a payoff. And if some crazy drunk Russian nationalist assaults me, it is more likely that I get a jail sentence than the person who attacks me.
Police corruption is a sad fact of life in most of the world. In Mexico and much of the rest of Latin America, the federal and local police forces are thoroughly infiltrated by the drug cartels. In most of Africa and the Middle East the police are simply thugs in uniform, dedicated to upholding the autocratic governments that pay their salaries.
Too many Americans do not fully appreciate the fine job our police do, often in difficult and even dangerous circumstances. Some critics of the police even seem determined to slander and defame these fine men and women with grossly false accusations. These are people with no appreciation for how important our cops are to keeping our streets and communities safe, and our society civilized.
Every time I am back in America and I see a cop, I think “you guys really are the best the world, and thank you for the great job you do protecting us.”