March 5, 2022

The tragedy in Ukraine, and a personal story


Dear PERF members,

The images from Ukraine are horrifying. I wonder if watching the videos of the war may be especially difficult for police officers around the world, because cops are not accustomed to watching crimes occurring in plain sight and being unable to do anything about it.

But at the same time, it’s uplifting to see Ukrainians standing together in the face of danger. Outnumbered, but doing everything they can. Gathering empty bottles to make Molotov cocktails. Risking their lives and taking up arms, even though they have never fired a gun before. A brave and proud people.

Over the past week, I’ve been getting text messages from a retired Ukrainian police official I met 16 years ago, when I spent a week in that country.  I’m not going to mention my friend’s real name, because I’m afraid it might somehow increase the danger he’s in. In this column, I’ll call him Olek.

Here’s how I met Olek.  In 2006 I got a call from the U.S. State Department, asking if I would go to Ukraine. A police academy was interested in having us assess their training and their approach to many of the same issues facing American police – citizen involvement in crime prevention, drug and weapons crimes, human trafficking, etc.

I thought it fascinating that a former Communist country was now looking to America for perspectives on policing. So yes, I was honored to go.  And fortunately, my longtime friend Bob Olson was able to join me. Bob had been police chief in Minneapolis and several other cities, and he also had international experience in Jamaica. 

This past Thursday, I reached out to Bob, and we talked about our trip. We both had a strong memory of Olek. And Bob still had files detailing the substance of our trip, about the people we met and the roundtable discussions we had with Ukrainian police officials and cadets. We talked a lot about community policing and building connections between police and the public.

We also remembered some of the funny things that happened, like when we got on a Ukrainian plane and noticed that the tires were so worn out, you could see the cords holding the rubber together. And then a pickup truck came over to jump-start one of the plane’s engines! And Bob's luggage was lost, so I wound up sharing some of my clothes with him.  His bag never showed up until the last day of the trip!

When Bob and I arrived in Ukraine, we spent some time in the capital city of Kyiv, and then went to Kharkiv, which is one of the cities that has been hardest hit by the current Russian invasion.  We remembered an enormous statue of Lenin at the city’s Freedom Square. They were projecting music videos at the statue, and we thought that Lenin must have been rolling in his grave.  (The statue was torn down in 2014.)

One night, our hosts asked if we would like to go to a rural city near the Russian border. Yes, we said enthusiastically. And so we drove a long way to a police station, where the Commander eagerly showed us around. I remember he showed us an office where the KGB used to have an outpost.

After a few hours, as our meeting was winding down, the Commander looked to the back of the room. The doors flew open, and some assistants walked in, carrying trays of caviar. The Commander then opened a drawer, and out came a bottle of vodka.

It became a magical evening, sitting together as we toasted each other, told stories and laughed, and felt like old friends. I will never forget how total strangers became friends that night. 

So I’ve been texting Olek over the last week.  Here’s the text of our exchanges:

Me: Are you OK, I hope and pray?

Olek:  We were out of electricity, internet and mobile network. Now it is very bad.  We are always under attack. Me and my family, most of the time spending on the floor in the corridor.

Me:  Is there anything we can tell the people back here?

Olek:  Ask your President to call constantly Putin and persuade him to stop bombing. Maybe by releasing sanctions or whatever else. Just to stop the war. We are here on the front line, a lot of inhabitant dwellings are damaged and ruined.  Stop the WAR.

Me:  What is the role of the police now?

Olek:  The function is the same – public order, prevention and detection of offenses. But now they are more armed.

Me:  Are they involved in defending the country?

Olek:  There are too many marauders in the city.  Kharkiv is waiting for a mass bombing after 18:00.  I pray that my family will stay alive.

Then, for several days, Olek stopped answering my texts.  I was getting very concerned about him, but finally I reached him yesterday afternoon by phone!  We spoke for 10 minutes. 

He told me he was on his second day of driving with his entire family -- his mother, father, mother-in-law, wife, and son. They were fleeing their home, and not sure how far they would get. But he said everyone is searching for options. Olek has a family friend who was thinking they might be able to reach Poland or even try to escape to Israel.

As they were driving on Friday, their immediate goal was to meet up with Olek’s father-in-law. “If we get that far, we will have a family meeting to decide what to do next,” he said.

Olek said that driving is very difficult, “because a lot of people are trying to leave their homes and go far away from bombing, from attacks, from fires, from this hell.”  Most gas stations are closed, he said. Some are open for a certain period of time, and some only sell 10 or 20 liters of fuel per car. But so far, they had travelled about 200 kilometers.

I asked Olek if he had a message for American police officials, and he said, “I would like American police to know about the entire situation happening in Ukraine. This is happening all over Ukraine.  Your colleagues should know that the Russian Federation is attacking us all the time, bombing us. We don’t know why. We want to find a willingness to stop the war in a peaceful way, to find consensus, to find the decision that both sides will accept. This is the wish of every Ukrainian person. They all want to come back to their homes and to continue their lives.”

Let’s pray for an end to the carnage in Ukraine.