Opinion: Reforming the police is not impossible, just look at Georgia

For the past year, Thailand has seen street protests calling for a reform of many institutions within Thai society including the education system and the constitution of the country. One of the areas also being pressed on by protesters is reform of the police.

Seen as corrupt and willing to serve the coup leaders, critics admit that reforming a monolithic force like the Royal Thai Police seems like a Herculean task. But there are case studies around the world that show successful police reform is possible.

After Georgia seceded from the Soviet Union in April 1991, it inherited a dysfunctional police force.

According to a case study written by Matthew Devlin, “A senior police official recalled that until the end of Shevardnadze’s presidency in 2003, ‘you could not drive 10 kilometres without at least a few traffic policemen stopping your car and asking for a couple of dollars bribe’.” A survey at the time confirmed the point, with just 2.3% of Georgians having a positive view of the police.

The leader of Georgia from 1992 until 2003 was Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, who reigned with an iron fist and kept his connections with the former Russian oligarchs.

In 2003 however, something changed.

The Rose Revolution began with protests against Georgian parliamentary elections results which were deemed to be unfair. These protests resulted in Eduard Shevardnadze’s resignation and the beginning of Mikheil Saakashvili’s premiership, one of the Rose Revolution leaders.

Mikheil Saakashvili was just 36 years old at the time but he was exceptionally qualified for the task, having studied law at Columbia University and serving as the Minister of Justice under Shevardnadze in 2000.

In 2001 he resigned from his post citing a lack of will to deal with the problem of endemic corruption.

After Saakashvili took over the premiership in 2003, he started implementing a series of reforms to modernise Georgia. The most notable from the Georgian people’s perspective is making the police force modern and professional.

In 2004, 30,000 (approximately 85%) Ministry of Internal Affairs (MoIA) employees, including the police force, were fired, half of them in a single day. What followed was a rush to hire new recruits. It was said, at the time, that Georgians lived without traffic police for three months. After reforms, the number of employees dropped from 60,000 to 33,000, and there was a zero-tolerance of bribes with raids on corrupt officials happening on local TV.

A police academy was set up with an initial training period of only two weeks; this gradually increased to 12. The reason that was given for the brief amount of time for training was that new, young and motivated recruits with relatively low levels of training could not be any worse than what was already out there.

The cardinal rule for new recruits is that they cannot accept bribes. Acceptance of bribes as little as $50 is enough to send an officer to jail, and according to a report by Erica Marat, the new police force, “…expressed high satisfaction with their job, saying they honour their professional mission to serve and protect ordinary citizens.”

The end result is that the latest survey, nearly a decade later, shows that 87 per cent of people trust the police, while 98 per cent said they never give bribes.

It goes to show that reforming a force like the police is not impossible. It merely requires a strong will and capable leadership. For Thailand, the latter must come first before reform is broached by as Georgia shows, nothing is impossible.

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