Council pulls plug on officers’ Ukraine police training

RPD-and-Ukrainian-Graduating-ClassUSA Today – by Anjeanette Damon

RENO, Nev. — The Department of Justice’s effort to help Ukraine develop a professional civilian police force has hit a roadblock — the Reno City Council.

In a stunning reversal of the city police chief’s decision to deploy five officers to Kiev to help train Ukrainian police, a divided council voted last week to order the officers home mid-mission. Four of the seven council members, including Mayor Hillary Schieve, cited concerns about the officers’ safety in a war-torn country, the city’s liability should one of them get hurt and the department’s depleted staffing level.  

The council’s decision — made over a reported plea by the Ukrainian prime minister to continue the training — curtailed the DOJ’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program to help Kiev transition from a Russian-style militia to a patrol-based civilian police force trained by the United States. The program is central to the United States’ effort to combat corruption and protect human rights in developing countries.

The invitation by the DOJ for Reno police to train 60 Ukrainian officers in community policing techniques was seen as an honor for the Reno Police Department, which has been recognized as a leader in community policing at a time when the DOJ has been cracking down on departments for civil rights issues.

Reno’s police chief, Steve Pitts, also has a decades-long relationship with Ron Glensor, a former deputy chief in Reno who is one of the managers of the DOJ program in Kiev.

The assignment was to conduct two academies to train Ukrainian officers who would then help train the rest of the force — an initial step in the DOJ’s work in Kiev. The Reno Police Department was the first tapped to conduct the training, Pitts said.

Before he elected to send the five officers to Kiev, Pitts said he carefully analyzed his staffing levels, the backgrounds of the officers who volunteered to go, any potential costs to the city and conducted a detailed risk assessment of the security situation in Kiev —an assessment that included a classified briefing by the FBI.

“I would never send our people into any environment recklessly and utilized probably the most advanced and detailed agencies to evaluate risk and provide coverage for our team,” Pitts said.

Pitts, however, neglected to conduct an at-home political assessment of the Reno City Council. And while he briefed the city manager on his decision, he opted not to notify the elected council until the five officers were already on a plane to Kiev. The council learned of the deployment in a Friday afternoon memo the same day the officers left, Jan. 30.

“I got the memo, and that evening the big story on the news was the violence in the Ukraine,” Councilwoman Naomi Duerr said to Pitts. “And not knowing we had already gone, I was going to call you and say, ‘Please, don’t go.'”

Most of the violence from the separatist fighting in the country is occurring along its eastern border with Russia, in the region surrounding Donetsk. That’s more than 300 miles from Kiev.

That didn’t settle the minds of the council members, however. Since news broke that the officers were deployed to Kiev, Schieve and other council members said they were inundated with emails and phone calls from residents concerned about the officers’ safety. Questions also arose about whether Reno’s public safety, which has seen police staffing levels drop precipitously since the recession, would suffer in their absence.

On Feb. 25, the council asked for a presentation on the deployment. Pitts did his best to alleviate the council’s concerns, even quoting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

“This training is historic for police reforms and will establish the foundation for a “New Professional Police” for our country,” Yatsenyuk said. “If these reforms stop it will be to the disappointment of 50 million people who have been waiting patiently for change.”

In the end, the council overrode Pitts’ decision.

“Quite frankly, I’d like to bring them home,” Schieve said at the meeting. “If something should happen to them over there, I would feel horrible, absolutely horrible.”

On Friday, the Reno police officers wrapped up their first training academy, graduating a class of 26 Ukrainian officers. On Saturday, they hopped on a plane home, canceling the second academy meant to train 34 officers.

“I spoke with their representative and explained the (decision) by council,” Pitts said. “They were very graceful and commented that the RPD team has made a huge impact on the program in the Ukraine and they were disappointed the team is heading home.”

Pitts said the interruption of the program will set back the effort by the DOJ, which had said that “speed is critical for the success of this transformation.”

A DOJ spokesman commended the work by Reno police.

“The 24 Ukrainian tactical instructors trained by Reno PD will in turn produce some 1,500 patrol officers, who, by the end of June, will constitute the first police force in the history of the former Soviet Republic,” said spokesman Peter Carr.

Carr said the department was able to salvage the second academy that Reno police were expected to lead by recruiting federal law enforcement officers through the U.S. State Department.

Damon also reports for the Reno Gazette-Journal.

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