Argument

I Abolished and Rebuilt the Police. The United States Can Do the Same.

The former president of Georgia explains how to restore public trust and beat corruption.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is greeted by his supporters after his arriving in Kyiv's Boryspil Airport on May 29, 2019.
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is greeted by his supporters after his arriving in Kyiv's Boryspil Airport on May 29, 2019. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

After Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2004, I became president of a failed state. Law enforcement agencies functioned like criminal gangs. Officers demanded bribes, trafficked narcotics and weapons, and worked for political and business elites as a mercenary security force. Georgia was a textbook example of “predatory policing”: Police did not perform the basic responsibilities of ensuring public safety, instead enriching themselves and their patrons by extorting citizens. A 2003 survey found that just 2.3 percent of Georgians held a positive view of police. In just a few years, we transformed this—offering a model for other countries, such as the United States, struggling with police reform.

The corruption of law enforcement empowered organized criminals, known in the former Soviet Union as vory v zakone, literally “thieves in law,” to fill the void. Gang leaders served not only as de facto police but also as judge, jury, and executioner. The police themselves were notorious for collaborating with organized crime. Suspicion of state institutions was deeply rooted in Georgian society: A survey of schoolchildren in 1993 found that a quarter of them wanted to be thieves in law when they grew up. Those youth had witnessed police systematically exploiting their communities. Of course, they held gangsters in higher regard than law enforcement.

Given that reality, police reform was not only a matter of restructuring institutions or implementing better policies. We had to change the mentality of a broken, cynical, and fearful society. Before people could begin to trust the police, we—the new political elites—had to earn their trust. Challenging the status quo was not enough. We had to destroy it and build something better. And we had to do it quickly. After the Rose Revolution, Georgian society united to demand reform. Reforms mean nothing without results that people can see.

The first priority was to seize back control of state security functions from organized crime. Vano Merabishvili, then-interior minister, announced: “We will confiscate from all thieves in law the palaces they built with their dirty money and put police stations in their place.” And we did. Over a billion dollars’ worth of stolen property was recovered from thieves and returned to the state budget. New police stations were built all over Georgia, with floor-to-ceiling glass. This wasn’t just an aesthetic choice—building trust in law enforcement requires transparency.

Simultaneously, we dismantled the Soviet legacy of politicized policing and replaced it with equitable law enforcement. We eliminated redundant agencies and those beyond hope of rehabilitation. The Ministry of State Security, a KGB relic, was dissolved. We disbanded the Traffic Police, firing every one of the thousands of officers who had acted as state-sanctioned highway robbers. We replaced them with an entirely new force of Patrol Police, who had no background in law enforcement and thus no ties to old, corrupted elites. Recruits had to pass a competitive examination and complete a course in criminal procedure code. They were trained in persuasion, negotiation, and mediation skills to minimize the use of force.

In restaffing the streamlined law enforcement agencies, we chose quality over quantity. The total number of Ministry of Internal Affairs employees decreased from around 56,000 to 33,000. Violent crime fell by 66 percent after reforms were implemented. Carjackings and auto thefts, once commonplace, nearly disappeared. The overall crime rate dropped by over 50 percent, making Georgia one of the world’s safest countries in the world. We hadn’t needed so many police. We only needed good police.

Before my government’s reforms, talented people who wanted to serve their communities would never have considered careers in law enforcement. We had to change that. Without the right people, even the best policies would be doomed to fail. Besides revamping the hiring process, we established a Police Academy, issued modern uniforms, and imported new squad cars and equipment. These investments improved morale and professionalism of personnel.

At last, professional police earned professional salaries. Before my presidency, police officers were paid just $44 per month—with the unspoken expectation that they would supplement their meager incomes with bribes. By reducing the size of the force, jettisoning agencies and ministries, and hiring only qualified candidates, we increased salaries of police officers nearly tenfold. Now that officers were fairly compensated, we enforced zero tolerance for corruption. Public employees did not enjoy any special treatment from the criminal justice system. The Ministry of Internal Affairs created a reality TV show to broadcast raids at the homes of corrupt officers.

With these tactics, some time-tested and some unconventional, we managed to break the backbone of the post-Soviet patronage system. Police no longer exploited the people whom they took an oath to protect. In place of cash bribes, they gained the public’s trust. At the end of my presidency in 2013, law enforcement ranked among the most respected institutions in the country, with an 87 percent approval rating. This figure was one of the highest in the world.

If leading Georgia from a failed state to, in the World Bank’s estimation, the “world’s best reformer” taught me one thing, it’s that half-measures don’t work. Those who benefit from the status quo will always abhor change. And vested interests tend to fight incremental measures with the same ferocity as they resist dramatic overhauls. So when the moment is ripe, why accept incremental progress when you can seize the opportunity for real transformation?

The push in some American cities to “defund the police” constitutes a dramatic overhaul, at least as bold as firing an entire small country’s police force. But, unlike post-revolutionary Georgia, most Americans do not support such a drastic measure. Cutting funds for police departments could result in privatization of security, with the wealthy hiring personal guards while the poor bear the brunt of increased crime. These risks deserve serious consideration—take it from someone who once lived in a country where mercenary forces owned by oligarchs and gangsters ruled the streets.

Creative destruction requires a better replacement for the current system. Perhaps in certain cities, alternatives to traditional policing could be tested. Innovative policies can be piloted in localities and, if successful, may be replicated and scaled across the United States. Georgia’s population is about 3.7 million—not much more than the Minneapolis metro area. But size alone does not explain Georgia’s success. When I was elected, the people of Georgia gave me a mandate to destroy a system that no longer worked for them. The top-down transformation of law enforcement was possible because citizens and government united to achieve it.

The United States today is much more fragmented than Georgia was in 2004. But as the massive ongoing protests demonstrate, Americans are dissatisfied with the status quo. According to recent polls, two-thirds of Americans think their country is headed in the wrong direction. Change seems urgent and necessary. But what kind of change will work for America?

First, transparency is key. Police departments nationwide must operate under clear, succinct, uniform guidelines. A set of national standards should be developed for training officers on crisis management and conflict resolution; federal funding should be contingent on local departments meeting these standards. Technology can enhance transparency and rebuild trust. Civilians are now driving the police accountability movement by livestreaming videos of misconduct from their smartphones. Departments could use the same technology for internal accountability. Police could be required to wear body cameras that continually upload footage to the cloud for monitoring by law enforcement agencies and independent experts.

Second, those who enforce the law cannot be above the law. The doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which has drawn criticism for protecting officers accused of misconduct from legal repercussions, can undermine public trust in police. While acknowledging that officers must sometimes make split-second, life-or-death decisions, and that human error is inevitable, the legal system should not enshrine double standards.

Third, a solid public relations strategy is essential. In Georgia, we rehabilitated the sullied image of law enforcement with modern uniforms, new cars, and glass police stations. This rebrand was not merely cosmetic but part of a broader effort to raise public awareness of the structural and policy changes in law enforcement. U.S. police departments could use constructive approaches to connect with their communities. Events and education, in partnership with community leaders, close the gap between police and the people they are expected to protect.

Last but not least, human resources management should be revamped. Supporters of the status quo maintain that police are generally good, but “a few bad apples”—like Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer who has been charged with second-degree murder in the killing of George Floyd—cause undue damage to the reputation of the institution. I would caution those who agree with this statement to recall the rest of it: A few bad apples spoil the barrel. In Georgia, we had more than a few bad apples. To transform a rotten system, we had to remove all of them.

Watchdog groups and policy researchers could develop new standards for law enforcement personnel. Police must represent the diverse communities they serve. Law enforcement agencies should also consider steps to improve working conditions to mitigate risks for police and civilians alike. Long shifts and unpredictable hours can devastate officers’ mental and physical health. Departments may increase resources for employee wellness, including counseling. Procedures for advancement, punishment, and termination of staff should be reviewed to ensure that incentives for police are aligned with the public interest.

Distrust of police is symptomatic of a widespread sentiment: The system is built to protect the interests of elites. If we could solve this problem in Georgia, so can Americans. With that said, reform in any society is a continuous process because backsliding is always a danger. In the seven years since I left Georgia, the current ruling party has done nothing but erode the institutions that my government built. Approval of police dropped precipitously from 87 percent to 59 percent following the violent dispersal of peaceful protests in Tbilisi last summer.

Law enforcement institutions must evolve to meet the needs of the people they serve. This can only happen if civil society is vigilant in holding the authorities accountable. Americans and Georgians take this responsibility seriously, and that is one reason for optimism.

Mikheil Saakashvili is head of the National Reform Council of Ukraine and was president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013.

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