Estonian officers visit Baltimore to learn justice, American style

December 13, 1991|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Evening Sun Staff

For a guy who was dodging the Soviet draft in Estonia last year, Meelis Koitmae has come a long way.

Koitmae, 20, and his Estonian friend Kardo Peetri, 18, are now national police officers in their newly independent country.

They've been visiting police agencies and training academies in the United States since September, gathering information that can be used as Estonia seeks to make its militia an instrument of the populace rather than a tool of an oppressive government.

Koitmae and Meelis wore new, blue jumpsuit-style uniforms, with thick leather belts and black combat boots, pale blue shirts and ties yesterday for their meeting with Maryland Public Safety Secretary Bishop Robinson in his Reisterstown Plaza office.

What his nation's new leaders want, Meelis said, is to make a clean break with the past and start with new people and new thinking about how to police their community.

That's why such young, pink-cheeked recruits were sent here for training, Meelis and Kardo said.

Both speak excellent English, and their superiors want them to absorb Western attitudes, without the burden of having first learned their trade under Soviet rule. Both are nearly raw recruits and spent just a few months on the job before coming here for training.

First, Kardo and Meelis went to New Hampshire for basic training at that state's police training academy. Now they're in Maryland for courses in supervisory and administrative training -- and a little sightseeing.

They visited Washington and even got souvenir ice hockey sticks courtesy of the Washington Capitals. "We're already rotten capitalists," Kardo joked.

In between, they've been staying with Marylanders of Estonian descent, and sometimes with the families of Baltimore County police officers and state troopers they've accompanied on patrol.

In Estonia today, Meelis said, most patrolling by the older militiamen is done inside the station house. "They stay in the station and waste time . . . they can't think," the young man said. this is one of the things Estonia is trying to change.

Police in the U.S., he continued, "are in a hurry all the time. It's crazy."

Estonian people are Nordic in heritage, he said, and are often quite stoic and unemotional, so things are calmer. Still there are thieves, drunk drivers and even occasional murderers in Estonia, where members of the public don't own handguns but often do own shotguns for hunting.

Koitmae said he was impressed by the lengthy procedure Maryland state troopers follow in making an arrest for drunk driving.

In Estonia, he said, it's, "You are drunk? You go to jail."

In serious drunk-driving cases, jail is not always the result, however. Meelis said he knows of one man who stole a car, got drunk and was involved in a collision in which a woman was killed.

But he did not go to jail because her family refused to prosecute, believing it was entirely accidental.

Life is a lot slower, too, he said, in the rural villages and small towns where the two tall, blond young men grew up.

Most people do not have telephones, for example. If trouble erupts, someone must run to the stationhouse or to the nearest house that does have a phone.

A touchier subject is the behavior of Soviet soldiers still stationed in the Baltic nation.

Meelis said he arrested a soldier for stealing car radios, and turned him over to Soviet military authorities for punishment.

The press, too, is free now in Estonia, both men said. Sometimes too free, Meelis added, in what may be a policeman's universal lament.

"They print anything now. They write against the government, and sometimes it's very personal. It's not fair," he said.

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