Police chief Vaher: Estonia has fewer police officers than ever before

Meinhard Pulk
, ajakirjanik
The salary of starting police officers is 400 euros away from normality. Rescuers are no longer even given home loans.
The salary of starting police officers is 400 euros away from normality. Rescuers are no longer even given home loans. Photo: Marianne Loorents
  • The year of the corona protests brought fast drop in the strength of the police force.
  • The number of rescue workers is in decline; budget cuts have hit hard.
  • Salary must rise to 1.2 of national average.

Over the past decade, the number of internal security personnel has decreased by a fifth. But the trend of the last year and a half is startling even compared to previous years.

Between 2017 and 2020, in three years out of four, the number of people leaving the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) exceeded the number of people who joined up. The gap, admittedly, was not too wide, and since in 2018 the “employment rate” was 86, there was even an increase by five employees over the four years. But last year, the year of the corona protests, there was a hard downturn. The PPA lost 615 employees. Only 260 replaced them.

In the entire sphere of internal security, the personnel replacement rate was -401, which means that the change is noticeable compared to previous years. In the first nine months of this year, the number of people resigning from service will again exceed that of newcomers by more than 300. PPA has been hit the hardest again: 58 percent of the 662 people leaving the internal security sphere are from PPA, 19 percent from the Rescue Board.

Four hundred euros per person short of goal

As always, it's about money and salary, which gives Elmar Vaher, serving his final year as the PPA director general, reason to note that “in the current dangerous security situation, we have fewer police officers than ever before”. The PPA has had for years 200-250 vacancies which cannot be filled with current salaries. “We have a systemic shortage of people,” he stated.

According to Vaher, there are no regional differences and recruiting new police officers is difficult everywhere in Estonia. However, according to experts in the field who spoke to Postimees, Southeast Estonia and its border areas stand out as the most problematic region. On the other hand, in East Viru County it has been possible to prevent a deeper crisis with salaries several hundred euros higher than in the other “outlying areas”.

Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets has set the goal that in four years the salary of rescue workers and police officers could rise to 1.2 of the average salary in Estonia. In PPA, the salary of a police officer is 400 euros short of the goal. In addition to everything else, PPA will be hit by a budget cut of two million next year, and 25 percent inflation cannot be ignored either. “Due to internal changes, we were able to raise the salary of employees by an average of five percent in August, but this 75-euro increase in the salary of a patrol police officer is far from serious considering the rate of inflation,” Vaher said.

Twice as many officers from the academy

According to Minister of the Interior Läänemets, his area of ​​responsibility has reached the limit where it is no longer possible to save a single cent from the sphere's internal resources, i.e. at the expense of layoffs. “It is true, there have been opportunities to a certain extent to raise salaries through the state budget, but in order to stay competitive compared with other areas of life and keep up with the increase in the cost of living, we had to make internal cuts to raise salaries,” he said.

Läänemets reminded that both during the corona crisis, the emergency situation, during the hybrid attack on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, as well as during the Russian aggression against Ukraine, and also while assisting Ukrainian war refugees, the sphere of internal security has been operating under an extraordinary additional work load. “The personnel of the Ministry of the Interior have contributed significantly to the resolution of these crises by performing additional tasks, thereby ensuring the safety of all of us. All this means, however, that stressful work with specific competence must be properly remunerated.”

If one goal is the salary, which should rise to 120 percent of the Estonian average, on the other hand, Läänemets wants to double the number of people entering the Academy of Security Sciences. Currently, 150 police officers are trained there annually.

Elmar Vaher shares the same goal. "The Academy of Security Sciences wants to teach more students but the resources for this are limited by both the number of study places and the salary of employees. At the same time, the personnel of the sphere is aging and new colleagues are very much needed in the area,” Läänemets said.

In addition to police officers working on the front line, the PPA lacks people in those positions where their salary has to compete with the private sector and with other state institutions, such as HR workers, logisticians, and people in the IT field.

In addition to the salary, the workforce is affected by high workload and the number of employees retiring. Projections show that an average of 139 police officers and 37 first responders will retire annually over the next five years. This is almost twice as much as before.

Rescuers facing cuts

The situation in the Rescue Board is also difficult, where 127 employees have left in eight months. Last year, 37 more people left the service than joined up. According to Minister Läänemets, the situation there has become absurd: “You are doing a work so important for the security of the country, but you get so low a salary that you are not even granted a home loan and you cannot ensure the safety of your family.”

Compared with the PPA with its shortage of police officers, the Rescue Board's problems are more diverse. Thus it admits that it is very difficult to find good employees for the position of chemical and radiation protection specialists and technicians, and it is also difficult to find lawyers and safety supervision experts. “The salaries of all them are low compared with the offers on the labor market. Since there are other and more profitable job offers on the labor market for people with the same skills, this makes recruitment very difficult for the Rescue Board,” said Silver Kuusik, communications specialist of the Board.

While 74 out of 127 have left voluntarily this year, 50 people were hit by the cuts and their positions were made redundant. A little more than a quarter of those who left did so due to non-compliance with regulations (e.g. lack of physical fitness or language skills).

In case of the Rescue Board different factors emerge from region to region. For example, in Eastern Estonia, insufficient knowledge of the Estonian language continues to be an obstacle, even if the candidate meets other requirements, Kuusik noted.

However, here again the main problems – especially wages – are nationwide. “The skill set of the employees of the Rescue Board is large and there are other job providers of a similar nature on the labor market, and therefore we are competing with other employers. Since the Rescue Board has been allocated insufficient funds for salary increase, it weakens us as an employer weaker in the competition,” Kuusik said. Nationwide salary increases in organizations and companies in 2022 have raised salary expectations, but the competitiveness of the Rescue Board salaries has unfortunately fallen.

The lack of physical fitness of young applicants is also a concern. “But since appropriate physical fitness is very important for a rescue worker, no concessions can be made in this regard, and therefore the Rescue Board does not foresee any changes in the norms of physical tests at the moment," Kuusik stated.