Estonian policemen learn firsthand about American civil liberties

December 13, 1991|By John Rivera

Meelis Koitmae admits that the American concept of civil liberties sometimes leaves him baffled.

One of two Estonian police officers visiting the United States to learn Western police techniques, Mr. Koitmae had the notions of lawful searches and seizures and Miranda rights drummed into him during six weeks at the New Hampshire police academy.

But now he is having trouble equating this notion of individual rights with the unmarked police cruiser in which he is riding with a Maryland state trooper.

"Why is your cruiser without lights?" he asked Trooper Nicholas Over, who was taking Mr. Koitmae on a patrol on the Beltway.

"It's harder for people to see us," Trooper Over explained, making it easier to catch speeders.

That did not cut it with Mr. Koitmae, 20, a junior inspector with the Estonian National Police, who is taking supervisory and administrative training classes at the Maryland police academy.

"These people have civil rights, and maybe they can appeal against you because they can't see you," Mr. Koitmae protested. "It's not fair, they can say."

Trooper Over smiled and shrugged. "I guess it works both ways," he said. "They can have radar detectors, and we can have unmarked cars."

Such are the lessons that Mr. Koitmae and his 18-year-old colleague, Kardo Peetri, are absorbing during their five-month stay in the United States, arranged by an arm of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. They are members of the Estonian National Police, which was formed in March after the Baltic nation proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union.

They arrived in New Hampshire in early September and went through the normal police academy training for recruits. Then they came to Baltimore in late November for advanced training.

The two young Estonians are the first of what could be many young officers sent here by the newly formed national police force as it attempts to transform itself from a Soviet-style militia -- as the Soviet police are called -- to an independent Estonian police force.

Mr. Koitmae and Mr. Peetri both emphasize that they represent a new breed of officer and expressed contempt for the Soviet-era militia.

"In the social hierarchy, there were two lowest places: the militia and the fire department," Mr. Koitmae said. He added that there was a popular saying: "If you can't manage anywhere, you can manage in the militia."

The Soviet militia, with its gray uniform and red trim, was controlled by the Soviet Ministry of the Interior. The new Estonian police will wear uniforms adapted from the Finnish national police -- dark blue pants and blazer with brass buttons, a light blue shirt and a dark tie -- to express Estonia's cultural ties to Finland and to emphasize the separation from the old Soviet militia.

"The militia used rough methods toward people . . . you know, if someone doesn't want to talk about something, there are other methods to influence him," Mr. Koitmae said.

The two officers will go home in January and will serve as instructors in the police academy there. They said they will try to impart the lessons they've learned here to their colleagues, most valuable among them the procedures they have learned for dealing with the public and making arrests.

Mr. Koitmae admitted to some frustration with the endless legal processes that American police officers must follow. He noted that in Estonia, arrest warrants are not needed to detain a suspect and search warrants are not needed to locate and seize evidence.

"In Estonia, it's much easier," he said, although admitting that people should have more rights there than they've had in the past. "I prefer the Estonian way, actually."

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