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Former police chief: Paikuse Police and Border Guard College needs to be closed

Elmar Vaher.
Elmar Vaher. Source: Kirke Ert/ERR

Former PPA head Elmar Vaher proposes several internal security reform ideas in an interview to ERR. The ex-police chief would close the Paikuse Police and Border Guard College, moving the teaching of several subjects to universities, have three police prefectures instead of the current four and replace police officers with technology in traffic supervision.

Kirke Ert: Estonia has never had as few people working in internal security as it does today. Last week's Eesti Ekspress wrote that keywords repeated by former police officers and PPA Director Egert Belitšev are "overworked," "low salaries," and "burning out." Elmar Vaher, how has it come to this and what should be done?

Indeed, our [internal] security finds itself in the most difficult situation of the last 30 years. We've also never had fewer police – 4,500 employees. The number of police officers has fallen by 2,000-2,100 people over the last 13 years. It is a lot.

How did we get here? For one, we could say the police have fallen victim to their own efficiency.

Second, funds are appropriated in Estonia based on who asks as opposed to whether you've managed to change, reform the organization. In a way, change is punishable.

If the police have lost 2,000-2,100 people in the last 13 years, the rest of the public sector, which is not small, has shrunk by as much combined. Why are resources allocated this way in the state budget? If the interior minister tells you that you cannot lay people off while you also cannot hike salaries, those two guidelines are incompatible. You cannot follow both orders. If you want change, you must allow reforms, show trust and greenlight layoffs.

KE: We could also read in last week's Eesti Ekspress that working in the police are people who love the job, have suppressed their financial expectations and given up on having things, such as buying a home because their salary simply does not qualify them for a mortgage. How to make our leaders realize the problem is quite serious. There are around 400 vacancies at the PPA.

Just to add a few more figures. Around 500 people are working two jobs. Roughly 500 police officers do something else on the side on a daily basis. The PPA loses 300 people every year, while the academy yields just 150. This means that the decline is foreseeable. There is nothing you can do.

Perhaps another thing. Working as a police officer is a way of life. Graduating from police college makes you ready to work theoretically. Learning to control people using your words, call them to order, solve situations through use of professional speech, emotional constitution as opposed to your firearm... It does not happen automatically. It takes time and experience. Therefore, my dear fellow Estonians, we need to be prepared for there being less police around. And that means less security.

Janek Luts: Welcome to the club! Being a journalist is not just a way of life, it's a diagnosis. While you say that around 500 of your former colleagues make extra money working on the side, luckily, the time when police officers took road signs with them to make a little extra cash is over in Estonia.

Yes, those times are past, and I'm glad that internal affairs is keeping busy, making sure there is no corruption. Police officers can do whichever job on the side. The law is clear in that a police operative can work another job if it does not discredit the work of the police. Therefore, I see no profession a police officer cannot pursue today. People work as ambulance drivers, farm hands, in construction and the world of business.

KE: It is another matter whether someone who is responsible for the security of others should hold down a second job and whether they still have the strength to do their first job properly.

It raises the question of whether a police officer comes to work to rest or whether they rest from policework when driving an ambulance, for example. Whereas the question should be put to politicians. And again, change is needed. It is possible to make minor changes. We could further digitalize judicial proceedings, not have convoys taking people from court to jail, not have the police respond to every fender bender, while these are minor details. In truth, we could make a few major changes, which we can discuss.

KE: And what could those major changes be?

I believe that efforts to fine tune are being made. But we need to reform police education. Having every police officer come from the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences is no longer working. Estonia has three very strong universities: TalTech, the University of Tartu and Tallinn University teaching social skills at the master's and doctoral levels. Also law, engineering and information technology. Tallinn University and the University of Tartu even teach psychology for when you need to deal with children.

The other problem is the academy's location. We seem to be wealthy enough to have the academy in five separate places. That means having to maintain five buildings. The problem? The Finnish police are teaching people at a single location in Tampere. That is it. The higher education part is taken from universities.

We need to close the Police and Border Guard College in Paikuse (formerly the Paikuse Police School)! Politicians do not like the idea, while it has had its time. I'm a fan of the school and graduated in 1997. But the room I stayed in still looks the same today. [President] Alar Karis and I visited two years ago. Everything was the same. While the bed was a bit more modern, the linoleum was still nailed down with strips of sheet metal just as it was in 1996.

Or traffic supervision. Why couldn't we switch to average speed monitoring? The project the Transport Administration launched in September, measuring in a few select locations how quickly a car goes from A to B. And if it gets there faster than 90 kilometers per hour, the driver has probably resorted to speeding. Why should we use police officers for traffic monitoring? Why waste precious human resources where technology can get so much done.

A part of police officer training needs to be reduced to six months. The Poles and Lithuanians do it, training their border guards in six months. Our minimum study period is 1.7 years, while many go through three years of education.

Perhaps it is also time to switch to having three prefectures instead of the current four. To have one facing the eastern border, one facing the major islands – the sea border of Hiiumaa and Saaremaa – and the capital, which needs to remain separate as it is quite specific.

Down to having to consider single-officer patrols. A patrol needs to have at least two officers today, while it would be sensible to switch to single patrols in densely populated areas, provided backup is never more than 5-7 minutes away. /.../ There is a lot the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) can do itself, while it is primarily the task of the Ministry of the Interior.

JL: Elmar Vaher, you said that change is punishable, which also harks back to when you were PPA director for a long time. You introduced change, your initiative was punished, which in turn has led to a situation today where we have a shortage of trained police personnel?

I'm emphasizing the need for change today because we know that we will not see additional funding over the next three or four years. Teachers are set to go on strike. When will nurses follow suit? Police officers are not allowed to strike, while rescue workers are striking and seeing higher salaries. That is why I'm suggesting change is absolutely necessary. Change needs to be encouraged instead of suppressed. There is no other way for the PPA to successfully perform its tasks.

KE: We heard several excellent ideas. Have any of them ever gone further, or do they get swept under the rug immediately?

They have been discussed but make for sensitive topics. I cannot think of a single interior minister having disagreed in terms of closing the college in Paikuse in private conversation. But it never got anywhere in my ten years in office and under ten ministers.

Police training needs to be taken to another level, training needs to be reoriented. Higher education on the master's level needs to be sourced from universities in full. From the University of Tartu, Tallinn University and TalTech where the best specialists work. Why should the Academy of Security Sciences duplicate these things? The academy must offer specific and effective police training, instead of competing with other universities in terms of general subjects.

KE: We are short a colossal number of police officers, police wages are very low, and yet, interior ministers are reluctant to make the changes. How to motivate them?

Life will motivate them eventually. But I was asked before what needs to happen. Unfortunately, something major and terrible needs to happen, something like the Bronze Night. It is tragic and harsh, but I'm not ashamed to say that things only start happening in Estonia after something happens. Let us take the ID-card crisis. Somehow, the resources needed to boost the security of ID-cards were found [after a series of incidents].

Covid is another such example. We know what happened, what started to change. Police work changed quite a lot. Let's also be honest in admitting that Eston Kohver's case was why Estonia started developing its [eastern] border. Half a year before, it was said on the level of the central government that nothing needs to be built. That we'll wait for EU funding, which will be made available eventually. We know what happened. We're making great progress on the border today. Therefore, something needs to happen first.

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Editor: Urmas Kook, Marcus Turovski

Source: Vikerraadio

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