Crime and occasional punishment

  • 2004-04-08
  • By Tim Ochser
RIGA - It's a typical story, with a typically unpleasant ending. One can't help staring at the poor man's face, severely swollen and bruised from a recent attack in Riga's Old Town.

Being typically Finnish looking, his pale visage only helps to exaggerate the disturbing appearance of his injuries. But when asked how it happened, he phlegmatically shrugs his shoulders.
"I honestly don't know. One minute I was in a bar, just a little bit drunk, and then the next thing I know is I'm lying in the street covered in blood," he says. "I have absolutely no memory of what happened. The only explanation is that whoever did this to me spiked my drink."
Such experiences are all too familiar in Riga. Foreign office Web sites routinely post warnings to tourists about the city's high levels of street crime. It's become a rampant social problem, with foreigners, who are considered a soft target by criminals, especially at risk. It seems that everybody knows somebody who has been a victim of street crime; everybody has a horror story to tell. The pressing question is: what are the police actually doing about it?
Mike Johnson knows Riga as well as anyone. As general manager of Patricia Tourist Office, it's his job to help foreigners - from businessmen looking to locate in the city, to tourists in town for just a few days – get set up in the city.
He acknowledges that there is a serious problem with street crime but lays the blame for it squarely on outdated and inadequate police procedures rather than the police department itself.
"My experience is that the individual police officers dealing with these cases are really very caring and helpful, but the administrative system just lets them down," he says.

As an example, he tells the story of when he was burglarized some two years ago. "A nice, friendly young police officer came over, but he had to fill out 11 different forms to report the crime. I asked him if they'd help in any way, and he said, 'No, not a bit.' We then drank tea and talked for a while, and he told me in great detail just what was wrong with the system, ranging from computers that didn't work to corrupt superiors."
Johnson is also convinced that a lot of attacks on foreigners are premeditated, a view which many people share.
"A ring of young Russians actually make a living by targeting foreigners," he explains. "They put girls in Old Town bars to look out for foreigners. The girls look at their wallets when they pay for drinks to see if they're worth robbing. Then, when they pick their mark, they'll go and tell the boys – who'll be somewhere nearby. If they can, the girls will spike the guy's drink, so that he'll collapse either in the bar or on the street. That's when the boys come into it. Speaking very good English, they'll offer to help, get him somewhere quiet, even back to his apartment, and then rob him after beating the hell out of him."

Challenging trends
Aleksei Loskutov is a criminologist working for the anti-corruption bureau. He offers a pretty grim assessment of why there is such rampant crime in Riga, and what might be done about it.
"We have a major problem with alcoholism in Latvia, especially with juvenile drinking. Most of those who commit street crime are under 18, and a lot of people who commit crimes of one sort or another are under the influence of alcohol," he explains.
"Another problem is that society demands nothing of our youth. Schools don't even check up on people when they're absent. In Soviet times young people led more structured lives, whereas now they have no obligations to anything or anybody."
Loskutov believes that such criminal behavior is as much a way of life as a means to an end. That's to say, criminality can earn a person respect in certain segments of society, and provide them with a sense of identity. He also dismisses the idea that American hip-hop culture, which is so notorious for its glamorization of criminal behavior, has had any effect on Latvian youth.
"Latvian hip-hop culture is essentially a nonaggressive subculture. It's more about style than violence," he says.
Of course, street crime is hardly unique to Riga. But while every city has to cope with varying degrees of criminal activity, the pressing question in the case of Riga is how the police can cope with it. An abundance of anecdotal evidence suggests not especially well, but official police statistics on the subject would suggest that most forms of crime are on the decrease.
According to the figures, robberies/assaults (laupisanas) have decreased from 3,160 reported cases in 2000 to 2,503 in 2003. Theft/burglaries (zadzibas) have decreased from 28,737 cases in 2000 to 26,984 in 2003. Only car theft has risen, from 2,932 in 2000 to 3,369 in 2003.
The murder rate has remained constant, at about 220 per year.
Needless to say that in all of these cases, the real figures are significantly higher.
Janis Vanda is chief of the central criminal police department. He believes that the police are on top of the situation but concedes that far more still needs to be done.
"I would agree in part that our bureaucracy isn't efficient in tackling crime," he says. "I've been living here [in Riga] for seven years, and I don't feel particularly safe myself. But the statistics show that we have a good success rate in catching criminals."
Vanda is sympathetic to the particular problem of foreigners being targeted, but he insists the police are doing what they can to protect them.
"I agree that in general there aren't enough police on the streets, but each May we put a significant number of extra policemen on patrol in Old Riga and the surrounding vicinity, as we are only too aware of the risks foreigners face, particularly in the summer," Vanda explains.
He also says that an amendment to the criminal procedure code, which is due to come into effect in December, will give police much greater powers in combating crime.
Another common complaint leveled at the police by the foreign community is the fact that it has such a paucity of foreign-language speakers on its staff. Vanda admits it's a serious problem but hopes that the new generation of police graduates will go some way to redressing the problem.
Furthermore, he says, the police department offers foreign language courses to all its officers.
To combat crime against foreigners, Vanda says a novel method of prevention will soon be introduced.
"We'll soon be issuing a booklet at borders and airports to foreigners entering the country that will make them aware of the risks they face in our country, and what they can do to try and avoid being a victim of crime. It creates a negative impression of Latvia, but we're determined to stamp out the problem. After all, we want to attract tourists to Latvia, and so we have to try and make it a safer place for them." o