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Interior Ministry in new attempt to give municipal police right to use force

A local law enforcement unit van.
A local law enforcement unit van. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The Ministry of the Interior has resurrected a bill to give local government law enforcement units or the municipal police (MUPO) the right to use force and expandable batons.

Indrek Link, adviser at the Ministry of the Interior's law enforcement and criminal policy department, gave the example of a drunk person sleeping on a park bench when presenting draft legislation to give local law enforcement units more power. For example, Tallinn's municipal officers can do nothing except wake the person and ask them to go home. They do not currently have the right to measure level of intoxication and must call the police if the person needs to be taken home or to a sobering-up station.

"We want to get to a point where they would not immediately have to escalate and delegate and could take these initial steps themselves. Starting with using a breathalyzer to check level of intoxication," Link explained.

Having established intoxication, municipal officers would also be given the right to transport the person to a sobering-up station and check them for illegal items.

Municipal officers would be given a range of tools with which to check for intoxication, including testing for narcotics use, taking people to medical institutions and ordering a blood sample.

Those in breach of public order could be detained for 48 hours.

Municipal officers would get the right to detain people suspected of being in breach of public order for a period of up to 48 hours if the suspect tries to escape, cannot be identified any other way or is likely to continue committing misdemeanors. Link said that the maximum period of 48 hours is pursuant to existing legislation.

"In most cases, the period of detainment would be limited to the time it takes to carry out procedural acts and would not stretch to 48 hours," Link said, adding that Tallinn will not have to open a new detention center. "If someone needs to be detained for 48 hours, it can be done in cooperation with the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA)."

Use of force not allowed when checking for bus tickets

The draft legislation would allow local government law enforcement, when performing national law enforcement tasks, to use force if the person is refusing to follow instructions and all other means of getting them to comply have been exhausted.

The part about "national law enforcement tasks" is key here as use of force will not be allowed when performing municipal tasks, such as checking whether people have bought public transport tickets, Link stressed.

However, MUPO will be given the right to use force when checking compliance with the Public Transport Act, namely the capital's taxi market.

While Tallinn is making efforts to sort out the city's taxi market, drivers simply drive off, park illegally or use another person's license, with calling the police currently the only effective measure at MUPO's disposal. The ministry also wants to give MUPO the right to check public transport vehicle drivers for sobriety. "Unfortunately, cases where public transport drivers are working under the influence are not too rare," Indrek Link said.

Handcuffs, gas and batons

Link admitted that physical force alone might not be enough to call people to order, which is why the ministry wants to give municipal officers the right to use handcuffs, expandable batons and gas.

"This is primarily intended to ensure the safety of officials. Perpetrators can be unpredictable at times, more so if there are several of them."

The ministry spokesperson said that local law enforcement would only be allowed to use special equipment and weapons when absolutely necessary. For example, use of handcuffs would only be allowed if the person poses a threat to others, might resist detainment, destroy equipment or try to escape.

While many MUPO officials carry gas canisters today, they are only allowed to use them when assaulted. "The right to use gas canisters allows law enforcement agents to protect their life and health, for example, in the case of being attacked by a group of people, which is more likely if the persons have been drinking. For that reason, officers must also have the right to use batons," the bill's explanatory memo reads.

But Link also said that should perpetrators resort to knives or firearms, local law enforcement will still have to call the police. "We do not see ourselves giving them the same tools the police use," Link said.

Even though other countries' experience suggest electroshock weapons tend to be safer than batons, the former will remain out of reach for local law enforcement. While the PPA uses electroshock weapons, the rules governing their use are almost identical to those for firearms.

The Ministry of the Interior proposed lowering the use threshold of tasers to match that of batons earlier this year, while the provision did not make it into the bill.

Seven years of deliberations

The idea to give local law enforcement the right to use force was first introduced by the Ministry of the Interior in 2016. While the reasons given were similar to what they are now, the Ministry of Justice, under then minister Urmas Reinsalu, refused to approve the bill "before agreements are put in place for common law enforcement supervision, hiring principles for local law enforcement and funding."

The ministry made another attempt in 2019 under Mart Helme. Once more, the Ministry of Justice, then headed by Isamaa's Raivo Aeg, blocked the initiative, saying that the monopoly on use of force needs to remain in state hands. The ministry found at the time that delegating police tasks to local governments would need an objective reason, which shortage of police patrols or local governments' desire to police their own territory did not qualify as.

Indrek Link hopes the Ministry of Justice will be on board this time after several meetings to discuss relevant aspects.

He added that the bill leaves the PPA the right to exercise supervision over local law enforcement's use of force in the right to demand to see relevant reports.


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Editor: Mari Peegel, Marcus Turovski

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