Anvelt on police’s labor crisis: nothing more to do

Andres Anvelt.

PHOTO: Madis Sinivee

Minister of the Interior Andres Anvelt (SDE) is not panicking over the police’s looming labor crisis and avoids referring to the situation as such. He also does not believe the ministry has left anything undone.

Postimees has written on several occasions this week of the Police and Border Guard Board’s (PPA) ranks breaking up and the possibility of up to a third of officers retiring in the coming years. Director General of the PPA Elmar Vaher referred to the situation as a crisis.

Experienced officers are looking around as they will only qualify for special pension if they leave the PPA. Anvelt hopes to prevent mass retirement using an amendment that would allow officers receiving special pension to continue working at the PPA, but coalition partner Pro Patria remains steadfastly against it.

It seems that a friendly agreement is out of the question. The interior minister hopes Riigikogu elections and new lines of force they will draw can provide a solution.

The police have 150 vacancies today. Can you honestly say our internal security is safe in this situation?

I definitely can. We do not have a single field where we have no one. These missing positions are scattered all over the organization. The PPA has 5,000 positions, and having 150 vacancies in different fields is not something that can bring internal security to its knees. True, people are not as keen on working the streets as they are on sitting in warm offices. But the salaries of patrol officers will equal those of office workers next year, which is something that could improve matters.

PPA Director General Elmar Vaher told Postimees in an interview that the agency is on the precipice of a crisis. To what extent do you agree?

I agree with his point of view, but society as a whole is nearing the greatest demographic crisis re-independent Estonia has seen. No area will be left untouched by it.

While it is very good this matter has been picked up by the press, it is nothing new for us. We have been looking at this situation and searching for solutions for years.

A crisis is a high-sounding term. I would rather describe it as a time for special measures. We need to make great efforts to make policework attractive in the eyes of young people. Invest in new buildings and study places and raise salaries.

We are recruiting people from outside our field as a special measure. We got a part of our new constables from local governments after the administrative reform. We put together a special study program for them.

We could only recruit people with specialist higher education before, but now people with secondary specialized education can also work in the police. It has given us 135 new people. We are also increasing the number of available study places at the internal security college as interest is there. Therefore, all manner of special measures have already been taken.

You believe there will be a crisis irrespective of what you do at the ministry? That it is inevitable?

There is a measure of inevitability in everything. No one has been sitting around, waiting for it to happen. We have persistently pursued optimization: made work processes more straightforward and cultivated the mindset that good people need to be paid good salary. The result is that we’re still standing. With a structure like we had a decade ago, the PPA would have gone under some time ago. Unfortunately, restructuration has come with criticism. A notable part of people leaving the PPA give dissatisfaction with constant changes and reforms as the reason. But it has to be done.

Where would it hit the hardest should we see a third of officers retire over the next five years?

I’m sure the number of officers who will choose retirement will not be one thousand. That is a worse case scenario. I do not believe people will retire en masse. But we will try to improve the situation with our bill.

Retirement is becoming more common, and a lot of experienced people are leaving places where that experience is most needed.

True. The part of police that conducts proceedings will likely take the worst hit. That is where experience matters. But we might also lose middle managers and experienced criminal officers. People in charge of more complicated tasks leaving is the greatest risk.

You see paying special pensions to officers who will stay with the PPA as a solution. Pro Patria ministers are dead set on opposing you. Is the draft legislation mired in political point-scoring?

I would not call it point-scoring. It is… political discussion. We formed a workgroup in the coalition, talked things through, and no one had a problem with the bill there. The setback came in the first round of coordination. I gather that Pro Patria feels the bill no longer serves the idea of special pension – yes and no.

In the early 1990s, the idea of special pension was to attract young people without having to pay them a good salary. That cannot be a serious argument today. Pro Patria also said that people could have other reasons for working in the police, not just pension. That’s debatable. Many people would not work based on patriotism alone in a situation where they could do the same thing over at the tax board and receive monthly special pension.

I believe it is discrimination of police officers that everywhere else people have the opportunity to get a pension and get paid at the same time.

Pro Patria leader Helir-Valdor Seeder wrote in his blog that the amendment would allow you to go back to the PPA and earn a comfy pension on the side after your career in politics. What do you call that if not political point-scoring?

Ah! That is political aggression. It is ridiculous. I have made my choices, and I cannot imagine going back to the police after serving as minister. Let’s just say that people project how they would act in certain situations on others.

Another argument of your opponents is that you’re only trying to postpone the inevitable. That even if these people decide to stay with the force for another five years, things will be just as bad when they eventually retire.

I do not follow this logic. Doctors are also just postponing problems if we look at it like that. Why treat people when they’ll die in the end. Besides, special pensions will disappear in the future. People receiving special pensions will also run out.

You are hoping the conflict can be resolved after Riigikogu elections. Is there really no other way to reach an agreement?

There’s always hope. We have talked about this to several parties, and we hope they will take it into account in their election programs. We will see what can be done in those nine weeks the current Riigikogu has left.

But based on my experience – the Riigikogu is reluctant to discuss or pass such major bills at the last minute. There would not be enough time for such a massive and important bill to be heard anyway.

It is possible lines of force will still be against you after March.

Absolutely. Anything is possible. But coalition partners behave very differently based on whether the coalition is new or old. Motivations change over time. Nothing is set in stone and compromises are possible.

Will we have enough policemen three or five years from now?

I believe we will. It has to be a priority for me and my successors, and it must be the number one question of state budget deliberations. We can buy cars and aircraft, but keeping our people is paramount.

What if there will not be enough policemen? Will it be your fault in the end?

Well, the interior minister always takes the blame. I suppose it would mean efforts were not sufficient. But I feel we have launched everything that can be launched. We will not be importing police officers from abroad.