Vaher: police on the precipice of crisis

Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) Director General Elmar Vaher.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu / Postimees

Rampant domestic violence, increasingly common cybercrime and preparations for a crime wave associated with migration. These are the challenges awaiting Estonian police on its one hundredth anniversary today. All in a situation where every fourth officer might be tempted to seize the opportunity for special pension and retire from the force in the next five years.

“We need to start passing on calls where lives are not at stake. If the choice is between giving a lecture at a high school or catching a murderer, I have to take door number two,” Director General of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) Elmar Vaher (43) says.

Our interview is published on the police’s centenary. What is your biggest concern today?

A year ago, my team and I were wondering what to gift Estonia for its hundredth anniversary. Our gift is putting every cell of our being into making sure Estonian families and children stay safe.

We are working on domestic violence to bring it to a minimum. If we do not help that child today, they will be in lockup 15-20 years from now. We have made great efforts in this regard, but I know we can do even better.

When politicians ask me about the police’s budget, I can tell them what we need for the next two or five years. Talking about the more distant future, we should invest everything we have in children – education, support services, hobby activities. It will make Estonia a lot safer in 20 years’ time.

The police investigate some 3,000 cases of domestic violence every year but receive 15,000 reports. Studies suggest 60 percent of cases are never even reported. These figures suggest a hundred people suffer from domestic violence every day. Why does the Estonian man beat his wife and children at home?

The Estonian man comes from a society where violence has been standard behavior. If a person hits once, they will hit again. The legacy of the Soviet period stays with us.

Secondly, Estonians are world champions when it comes to drinking. Looking at cases of domestic violence, more than half are associated with alcohol.

I would point out as the third problem that we do not root for the victim. We do not care enough. The state cannot revictimize people by forcing them to describe and relive their ordeal several times.

We will be adopting uniform cameras next year. This will help spare and protect victims, especially of domestic violence. The entire scene seen by officers responding to the call will be recorded and can be used as evidence.

I presume police officers have the best idea of what is really going on in our families and society. To what extent does society seem stressed that manifests in beatings and drinking?

It is part of Estonian culture to work very hard. The drive to be successful is so great that very little time is left for personal matters. It is the same in the police.

A few weeks ago, I was standing in the courtyard of the police headquarters at eight p.m. I knew there were no major cases that required immediate investigation. I was glad to see no lights in offices. I realized people were home with their families.

How many of those windows are dark because more people are leaving the force than joining it?

Yes, more people are leaving than joining. It is a choice we must accept. All the changes we’ve made in recent years have been aimed at giving officers in the street better pay.

Next year will be pivotal for us. Neither I nor my colleagues remember a 10-percent wage hike from the past.

It is reflected in people’s attitudes. One of the main criticisms of the police is that you are nowhere to be seen. Daily Sakala recently used the rhetorical question of when was the last time you saw the police in one of its headlines. The first half of the year brought a record number of tragic traffic accidents. People’s first reaction was that the police are not visible in the street.

It is sad when we have to develop traffic culture using police measures.

Early summer was tragic. We boosted traffic supervision by 40 percent at the expense of other activities in August to achieve rapid effect. The number of accidents started falling in the second half of the month, and we have restored normal traffic situation by today.

We often talk about police visibility. Count bodies and accidents. We need to keep in mind that the number of vehicles has grown by 100,000 in the last five years alone. Traffic density has grown by a fifth. In short: people drive more kilometers as they can afford to buy cars and fuel.

As director general, I think about the sheer number of tasks the police have. If you go to Tallinn Airport, you are searched for weapons and explosives by G4S. If two cars collide in Kadriorg – even if it is just a fender bender – the police are obligated to respond. It is absurd!

What should the police be like? Some people think you must be strict and issue fines. The police want to be friendly and promote proper behavior instead.

A recent study looked at phone use behind the wheel. More than 70 percent of people admitted they have not only been on the phone but read messages while driving. It’s not holding the phone to your ear that is the most dangerous, it’s what you do before that.

The very same people said the police should issue more fines. They want the police to fine them. The police must first and foremost be friendly, instead of desperately looking for places where to catch speeders.

When the first snow came a few weeks back, we packed our things and took to the streets. We used our presence to calm down traffic. We told people that while it is legal for you to drive on summer tires, please don’t, because you’ll be a danger to yourself and others. People understood. This shows that we cannot operate just as a ticket machine.

We have finally reached a situation where the salaries of our people in offices and those in the street are similar. It is a question of cast of mind – you do not want to visit a policeman in their office. If something happens, the police show up and help you. You do not need the patrol to show up, take down what happened and still ask you to visit the station the next day. It took us a long time to get there.

Around 1,000 officers will reach retirement age over the next five years. The number of new cadets is modest, while policemen continue to leave for other sectors. What is the outlook?

We are entering a crisis. The PPA currently has 3,800 police officers 900 of whom will soon get the chance to retire and receive a special pension. They are people in their early fifties – young, physically capable but at the same time experienced people.

Their choice is simple: retiring from the force gives them a special pension and the chance to find another job to complement their income. If they stay with the police, they will have to give up their special pension. Could leaving the force become just a little too tempting?

Exactly. Special pension is much bigger than ordinary pension – over €800 a month on average. A person will not stay home when they’re 50.

What are the solutions? Next year’s salary hike will mean that a graduate of the security sciences academy will make €1,400 a month before taxes right out of the gate. That will be complemented by a regional salary component of €200 or €300 in Tallinn or Narva respectively. This creates motivation for people to pursue this exciting work.

Another chance would be to allow those who have reached retirement age to qualify for the special pension and still keep working with us. The state will have to pay their pensions either way. A lot of people who retire from the police go to other state agencies, like the tax board, prisons, local governments. It is something the state could do. Draft legislation exists, but we do not know where it will end up.

I presume the PPA will nevertheless continue to lose people. How much more can you cut back?

The police have already been filed so thin that there is no more room for cuts. We would immediately hire 150 people. The next step would be to cut activities, start passing up cases where lives are not in danger. This could mean longer queues for passports.

Prevention is another thing. If I have to choose between giving a lecture at a high school or catching a murderer, I have to take door number two.

The number of officers doing traffic supervision or looking for stolen bicycles will inevitably fall too.

Absolutely. Also, will we have the strength to investigate criminal organizations?

After the murder of Nikolai Tarankov (killed in September of 2016; Juri Vorobei sentenced to ten years – ed.), we find ourselves in a situation where the criminal world is leaderless. We know two people who would really like to take over. One would likely bring more violence. We need to prevent that.

Or let us say we will not be able to maintain helicopter or sea rescue capacity. We can also rethink regional constable services.

Let us come back to protecting the weaker side. The so-called rape drug GHB has been written about a lot lately. Urban legends suggest secretly slipping GHB into people’s drinks in night clubs is standard practice. These people look to the police but are told the police cannot see anything.

There is no danger of strangers poisoning people in public places. The police can verify these claims undercover. We cannot rule out the possibility altogether, but while we’ve had some suspicions, no arrests have been made.

The danger of being poisoned in night clubs is a myth?

We have talked to people making those claims. We have sought them out and discovered that most of these stories are from a few years ago. Checks have not revealed a single case where someone has been raped because something was slipped into their drink. As director general, I can only proceed based on facts, and I can assure you we have paid this matter a lot of attention and will continue to do so.

Are they lying?

We often arrive at the conclusion that people thought it was GHB, while it was actually ecstasy or alcohol that caused them to black out and not remember details. I’m not saying there have not been cases involving GHB, and I am convinced there are people out there who would like to take advantage of others in such a manner, but we do not have a single case to take to trial.

It is crucial for the victim to give their consent for testing as soon as they come to the police or the ER to determine the substance we’re dealing with. Traces of GHB quickly disappear from the human body. Just a few hours later, we can determine intoxication but not what caused it. Testing is needed to ascertain the truth and for us to be a good partner for the victim, to believe them.

Postimees’ experiment found a cup that had contained GHB at one time. Forensic analysis found such a small dose of the substance that the glass was very likely simply washed without care.

Another conflict of the younger generation with the police is cannabis. The Estonian police are very vocally rigid in all things concerning cannabis. Cannabis culture is becoming more normal by the day among young people. Even Lithuania legalized medical marijuana. Aren’t the police a bit too rigid here?

We see a spiral. Cannabis is several times more addictive than alcohol. We see how quickly a cannabis user ends up on the needle.

How extensive is that connection?

Estonia has 8,000 shooting drug addicts. Most have started with other substances, no one goes straight for the needle. There are plenty of examples where people quickly go from marijuana to shooting up and from there to thievery.

To compare Estonia to Western Europe and North America, where marijuana is becoming increasingly normal and permitted, in what does Estonian society differ so fundamentally?

The Canadian police are not over the moon about this decision. It is not up to me to gauge whether our society is more prone to addiction.

Looking at Estonians who drink the most in the world, perhaps we are also the biggest potheads. Crossing the line is second nature here.

A ceremony called “Police 100” will take place at the Tallinn TV Tower on Monday (today – ed.). What will be your message for colleagues?

I have never been too forthcoming with praise. Our teams have made efforts that are worthy of recognition, but there is a lot we could do better.

We are very good at patrolling the streets as we’ve had decades of practice, but we must learn to patrol social media more. We do not have to wait for people to file complaints when we can reach victims by being proactive. Including people who feel so cornered they would not turn to the police on their own.