«State should be stricter with handing out budget money»

Risto Berendson
, reporter
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Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

Praised by the fresh National Audit Office report for management of Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), its director-general Elmar Vaher (40) says that distribution of money from state budget should be preceded by pointedly asking recipients what they have done to cut costs. 

-How many times have you worked thru the audit?


-For you, what are the most important thinks in it?

Would be good if we could investigate each crime as thoroughly as the murder of little Varvara [Ivanova] four years back where lots and lots of other things surfaced. The incident clearly revealed we do have the skills but our hands are short. But what would be most important for me…

In 2014, it was understood that many doubted in the merger of PPA. Among politicians and opinion leaders alike. And what really scared me – in the end it all served to demoralise our staff. The whole time some message was being given that at any moment something will change. Any moment, we will again have border guard, and the central criminal police which indeed does need to be a bit separate due to its covertness.  

We needed somebody objectively say, from the outside, how things really were. Not, national Audit Office has done it. They did a good X-ray on us and for me it contains lots of good criticism and wise proposals. Very important, that the threats pointed out by the audit are real. These are not stuff like let’s see what will be.

-The audit states several things: that the police staff is ageing and the organisation will end up running out of people, as well as that state budget money has been distributed to the broader public sector much more generously than to police. What, for you, would be the most important point?

The acknowledgement that our services haven’t grown worse. On the contrary, some things have even improved. That despite us having fewer people.

What boosted the confidence moist was that the much-criticised guarding of the border has actually essentially improved. We are talking about the actual act of guarding the border, not administration of it.

-What has become better there?

You see, no war in this world begins by a tank driving across the border. Wars begin at a much earlier phase. Let me bring an actual example. Two, three or four months ago we could say that Estonian criminal organisations were not involved with arranging illegal immigration. Today, they are already doing it.

I cannot talk about everything, but we are controlling the situation. We have proceedings underway, and surveillance operations. Three months ago, we did not have that problem. The task of the police is to avoid that crisis.

As I said before, we are not able to investigate all crimes. But if there is an increasing amount of petty crimes which we cannot investigate, then in a classical sense it will be that when thefts are not investigated, they will be very many. Then, it is very realistic for that bunch of thieves to spawn a leader of sorts and the whole thing will eventually be subject to some higher boss and what we then have is a criminal organisation. There are bandits who tax the thieves, and there are thieves who systemically steal. That destabilises the situation.

-The audit points out that border guards used to be paid more than policemen. Like in the Eastern prefecture the difference was a whopping third to the border guard benefit. How come?

The organisations developed differently. This will not be a good example, but in an average infringement, a lawyer speaking in court makes €130 an hour. For comparison: the policeman conducting proceedings and collecting evidence on behalf of the state makes €10 per hour. Also not fair.

But back to the question; this actually was part of the goal of the merger that officials doing same sort of work could not be paid differently. Like in Eastern prefecture, the number of border guards has actually arisen, from 2009 their wages are up by €430 i.e. by half, about. Their equipment has improved as well.

We have made no tiger leap in the equipment. Little by little, we have climbed out of the hole regarding border guard’s equipment. For quite a while, crooks have night vision and very fast machines. We are only catching up. Now, our equipment is getting to their level. No «wow» has happened, actually.

But three-four years ago, it was much worse – a border guard did not see the border. He knew not what was happening at the border. Today, we are headed towards knowing. Hence the strike teams created on the border.

We cannot beat the crooks with known routed by our patrols which they are aware of. We had to form a unit which, if needed, will lurk in the woods for three days and come out at the right moment. We needed teams who would act on intelligence information and would know the landscape like own back yard. Whose whereabouts the other border guard groups would need no real-time knowledge.

-We hear the strike teams staff is currently being expanded. Both in the special K-commando and in border guard.

Our aim is boosting strike team capability. Obviously, whether it be criminals or foreign intelligence units – the initial shootout will be with Police and Border Guard Board people. Estonia has no other structural unit who would take these bullets in our place.

Our capacity must be in having the information. Likewise, what is important is cooperation with the community. Talking about criminal organisations: if we do not control them, we have lost half the battle. If the intelligence misses something, strike team is the second move. And it will already be too late, actually.

-Boosting that capacity requires new money and with this, says the audit, police is worse off than the rest of the public sector. Why are you lagging behind?

By our reforms, we have internally collected the money to create the border guard strike teams. Actually, we got very little outside money to create that capacity. For the most part, we drew it on account of inner resources such as managers, planners, document management staff.

But, long-term, cutting the planning is not prudent. You must know what is coming. In the audit, also, we are respectfully upbraided for not having a long-term plan at the moment. As director-general for instance, I do not know my personnel options in the next four years. I don’t even know the next year. But is it today that we need to take these decisions – regarding the staff, acquiring equipment, build buildings. Would be prudent for me to know for how many people I must buy equipment. We have already done what we can do.

There remains but one more move – as director-general, I am continually of the opinion that police cannot be in a miserable situation. We have 500 policemen working at other jobs. Why do they do that? Not that they like some other work. They are just making and meet.

In Tallinn, our people get €1,000 after taxes. With a family, what do they get for that? That’s what pushes them to other work. But after that, he comes to do police work tired. Imagine a situation where clear decisions need to be taken. In crisis situations, tiredness is a major risk of making mistakes.

If a policeman gets a call, he must be a jurist and a psychologist combined, able to separate different people purely by his posture. If we cannot keep of hire such people, we will end up spending considerably more money to have somebody hired, he finally starts to get a hang of things, and then leaves. And then we begin to again train a new person. At school, we spend enormous money on people who study to be policemen.

-€1,000 after taxes surely isn’t a small salary, even in Tallinn...

Yes, but it’s another matter what a policeman must do to get it. He gets called God knows where, never knowing what’s coming …

-Might get killed…

Absolutely, we have had 21 policemen killed. Personally, I have two holes in my back, I know what it is like.

A policeman cannot choose what he must do. He must have a big baggage of skills, must know the law, and then also a psychologist.

-What would be a salary worthy of a patrolling policeman?

€1,500 gross. With that, we’d have a queue.

-The audit says that should this continue, then due to average age of policemen rising, in ten years the police will lose fifth of staff.

I have been talking about that on several occasions, to the young policemen – when they used to say come to police and you will have a special pension; this is not correct. That will happen in some 30 years. But we don’t even know what will be in 30 years. To give them this hope is actually cheating them. They need the salary today.

I have a concrete proposal – let’s stop the pensions nonsense, take the money spent on that, lift it to the police salary line and immediately we’ll get 20 more patrols. Or else we can raise the salaries so people can go to theatre, buy a music workbook. So when they think to start a family, they would not be thinking – I do have this cool job but a family would be beyond my means.

-The politicians are saying that domestic security and fighting crime are our national priority. In reality, this promise is hollow. As also shown in the audit, in the public sector domestic security keeps getting the lowest sums of money, year in year out. Why the gap?

I think that everybody just keeps asking for money but they are never asked, in return, what have you already done to find money within the organisation. What have you changed, what have you made more efficient.  

I feel such demands are absent in Estonia. All at helm of the state are spending all these working hours to decide where to get extra money and who to give it to. And they never ask what have you done yourself?

If an ordinary person knows his salary will be the same the next five years, he will take that into account. He will be watching his electricity bill and habits – like not buying an ice-cream at Statoil but get it cheaper in Rimi, say.

The audit did explicitly show that police service has improved without extra money from the state budget. What we have done is shown statesmanship is use of state money. I can with honest eyes look anybody in the eye and say we have done all we could to put the state money in the right place.

-The real estate used by police has shrunk by third while the cists have grown by two thirds. Mathematically, this seems absurd.

Let me put it like it is: I am not satisfied with the service by Sate Real Estate Ltd. Take the real estate market – in private sector, it is impossible to have an organisation providing services with its trust at mere 30 percent according to polls. Meanwhile, they charge very much for the real estate.

In private sector, when a client is not satisfied with real estate service he will swap operators. We cannot do that. After justice ministry, we are their second largest partner. With such low satisfaction and the prices above market price, in private sector the contract would be ditched promptly. But I have no options. Hence the gap.