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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Pete Cops Fight Crime With Crime

When three carloads of police officers showed up last week at a St. Petersburg electronic goods store to investigate a robbery, the security guard who reported the crime thought that help was finally at hand.

But according to St. Petersburg prosecutors, he was mistaken. Prosecutors say that while one detective distracted the guard with questions about the robbery, the other policemen finished off the job the thieves had begun by pilfering VCRs, electric tea kettles, television sets and curling irons f loading them into their patrol cars and driving off.

Neither the security guard nor the store's management notified the authorities that the police detectives were moonlighting as thieves. Prosecutors said the incident only came to light when an officer boasted about the crime to a colleague, who reported it to the police's internal affairs department, which fights corruption in police ranks.

Not reporting police harrassment is nothing new in St. Petersburg, where cops have helped press gang reluctant conscripts at metro stations and jaywalking on Nevsky Prospekt routinely lands one in the back of a paddy wagon until a miserly bribe has been paid.

Last year then-chief Anatoly Ponidelko himself complained that his troops were "fat, incompetent and corrupt," and apologized to the foreign community over a spate of unprovoked police beatings of expatriates and Russians.

In last week's burglary case, eight police officers, members of the two rapid reaction units that were called to the scene of the initial crime, now face theft charges and, if convicted, could spend up to 10 years in jail.

Meanwhile, the original burglars, who broke into the store and tied up the security guard, are still on the run.

When internal security department officers went to the apartments of three policemen suspected of involvement in the heist, they found stashes of electronic equipment.

The three police officers have been charged with theft and abuse of power and are awaiting trial in jail. Another five officers have been relieved of their duties and ordered not to leave St. Petersburg, said Boris Larionov, chief of the Vyborgsky district prosecutor's office who is heading up the investigation.

The suspects range in rank from major to sergeant.

The police detectives allegedly saw their opportunity to earn some easy money when, in the early hours of Oct. 2, a man who identified himself as a security guard at the store, on St. Petersburg's Ploshchad Muzhestva, telephoned the 19th police precinct and reported a robbery.

Two rapid reaction units rushed to the store, where they quickly began stealing the electrical goods that the first set of thieves had been unable to take with them, Larionov said. The loot was loaded into two cars, belonging to the 19th precinct, and one regular patrol car that had also been summoned to the store.

"One detective was questioning the guard in a room while the others were loading the equipment," Larionov said in a telephone interview Thursday.

Vyacheslav Zharikov, deputy chief of St. Petersburg's Vyborgsky district police force, said Thursday that most of the suspects are officers with the 19th precinct, though at least two of them belong to the city's patrol service.

Larionov said his office is still struggling to determine exactly how much of the electrical equipment had been taken away by the police officers and how much by the original thieves.

He said the store's managers have reported that equipment, worth a total of 450,000 rubles ($28,445), had gone missing. Reached by telephone on Thursday, a female employee of the store declined to comment and denied anything had been stolen.

Larionov said this is not the first time St. Petersburg policemen had been charged with theft. He said poorly paid policemen sometimes steal articles they find at the scene of a crime and later blame it all on criminals.

Both Larionov and Zharikov said the average St. Petersburg policeman is paid less than $100 per month with his wage regularly delayed.

But that cannot justify theft, they said. "I'm also paid a low salary. Why don't I steal things?" the deputy chief of the Vyborgsky district police force asked rhetorically.

"I've been to plenty of crime scenes [and] if I had taken advantage of such opportunities I would have been living like a sheik long ago," said Zharikov who has been investigating crime in St. Petersburg for the past 13 years.

Larionov was confident the suspects would be brought to justice. "It is not a very complicated case we will have no problems passing it over to the court," he said. If convicted the police officers could be sentenced to between five and 10 years in jail and have their property confiscated, the prosecutor added.

More than 7,000 policemen have been convicted of various crimes between 1996 and 1997, according to a report prepared specially for The Moscow Times by the Interior Ministry's internal security department.

The number of crimes committed by policemen grew by 35 percent last year, according to the report.

"The difficult socio-economic and political situation in the country doesn't allow us to predict any fall it the number of crimes committed by policemen," the report concluded.