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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Police Cook the Books on Solving Crime

Police in one Russian city this year knew the exact location of a drug den but preferred not to arrest the dealer. Instead, they regularly seized the users who bought his drugs.

According to Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov, this was not conventional corruption but a bizarre scam by which Russian police exaggerate their success in solving crime.

Police avoided busting the drug den so they could claim a high success rate for arresting scores of addicts, a result that looks much better than a lone arrest of one pusher.

At a news conference last week, Skuratov said this was just one example of a widespread practice used by Russian police to boost their "closure" rates, the statistics on how successful they are in solving crimes.

Russian police report closure rates far higher than in the West, but this does not reflect any particular success in sleuthing. Senior officials are now admitting the statistics are the product of a flawed salary system for police that links career advancement and salaries to reported closure rates.

Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin and Skuratov have publicly called on the police to stop doctoring statistics, something detectives describe as "chopping sticks."

A new system is being drafted to evaluate the efficiency of separate police units. More accurate tests, for example, are opinion surveys of the population, Skuratov said.

Closure rates will play a reduced role. For instance, only closure rates on serious crimes will be factored in, not on all petty crimes as is done now, he said.

The new system, which is being jointly drafted by the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor General's Office, is to be submitted to President Boris Yeltsin's consideration later this year, Skuratov said.

The average closure rate for Russia, reported by the Interior Ministry, was more than 76 percent last year. Ingushetia, a troubled republic in the Caucasus where kidnapping and murder are rife, reported a stunning rate of 98 percent.

Russian police's rosy statistics look all the more doubtful when compared to an average closure rate of less than 40 percent in most Western police forces. Russian law enforcement officials admit that the real closure rate in Russia is no better.

Russian police achieve these fantastic figures by either covering up or avoiding registration of crimes that could be difficult to solve, such as apartment thefts and economic crimes, Skuratov said.

While Skuratov says Russia needs a true picture of policing, rank-and-file detectives say the true story is too grim to tell. Hard-to-solve crimes currently are left out of official statistics, but if they were added, the total number of crimes would jump.

"People will drown them all, including the Papa [Yeltsin], if we send the real figures up," one detective at the Moscow police's Dorogomilovo district said last month. He asked not to be identified.

The Interior Ministry, which is by far the biggest and busiest of the crime-fighting agencies in Russia, registered some 2.39 million crimes last year, while the real number of crimes was closer to 8.5 million, according to Skuratov.

Because of the stress on closure rates, Russian policemen are increasingly covering up not just minor offenses but also more serious crimes. A recent check of the St. Petersburg police by prosecutors revealed that more than 600 crimes, including 20 murders and 30 armed robberies, were committed in the city last year, but not registered.

In one case, St. Petersburg police found parts of a mutilated body, but did not open a criminal investigation, arguing that there were no witnesses to prove it was a murder.

Even when there is a witness or a victim, detectives sometimes try to convince them not to report the crime, according to Moscow's First Deputy Prosecutor Yury Sinelshchikov.

"They [police] even tell the victim that they will try hard to resolve the crime only if he withdraws his report," Sinelshchikov said in an interview.

Police even warn witnesses and victims that if they report their crimes, they will lay themselves open to retribution from criminals.

The Russian press and human rights organizations also allege that Russian detectives often extract confessions by torture to boost their closure rates.

More innocent methods of boosting closure rates include re-categorizing a single solved case as a multitude of solved component crimes. For instance, the theft of five watches from a shop becomes five cases of theft.

The General Prosecutor's Office is the only Russian law enforcement agency that has systematically tried to expose the problems caused by the stress on boosting closure rates. Police themselves have only exposed isolated cases.

Last year, prosecutors reversed more than 50,000 cases in which detectives either refused to register or investigate hard-to-solve crimes.

Some 7,000 policemen were disciplined for covering up crimes and whitewashing statistics last year, but only a few dozen cases went to court, according to the Russian press.

In most cases, police who cook the books are let off with a verbal reprimand by their superiors, who themselves encourage rosy statistics to get early promotions, Sinelshchikov said.

Sinelshchikov believes that the criminal code should be amended to have all law enforcers punished more severely for skewing statistics.

Detectives argue they have little choice because, on their meager monthly salaries of $300 or less, they need the extra benefits that come with high closure rates.

"It is strangling me ... but I still have to sit here and waste my time with these pieces of paper rather than get down to earth and try to resolve something" real, complained one officer.