I have written with regard to the title of this blog that Latvia, at worst, its a “failed state lite” and is nothing like a true, full-blooded failed state like Somalia, where gangs high on quat ride around in “technicals' shooting automatic weapons at dogs for their own amusement. That was a while ago.
After the shoot-out between two groups of Latvian police, one of which was off-duty and trying to rob a gambling hall in the town of Jēkabpils, I am not so sure. How far must the social order of a state degenerate in order for members of an elite national police unit (Alfa) to join up with violence-prone, corrupt cops from a small town and ride all the way across the country to stage an armed robbery and shoot their fellow policemen, killing one?
When parts of the police force of a country turn into a ruthless and inept (at picking a getaway route) gang with complete disregard for the lives of members of their own profession and innocent civilians, some kind of boundary has been crossed. A core function of the state is grievously damaged, not even the police can be trusted and another giant step has been taken toward Latvia spinning into the most pernicious kind of anarchy.
Don't get me wrong, I am no great fan of the state and of hierarchical authority. But what Latvia has experienced in a hail of bullets in Jēkabpils is the spectacle of the disintegration of an already badly damaged legitimacy. If the men and women in police uniforms can turn into armed robbers and murderers at any moment, what reason does anyone have to respect their authority or trust them to enforce the law? If members of the same elite police unit one would send to handle a botched robbery with hostages (one alternative scenario for what happened at the gambling hall) are actually staging the robbery, where is there left to go? Maybe it is time for good citizens to arm themselves and join with local, home-town police who can be trusted to patrol the streets? Such cooperation and solidarity is unlikely in a society that is as mistrustful and anomic as Latvia has become in the 20th year of its regained independence. So we are left with a society where the function of law enforcement is broken and trust in police shattered. One more reason to get out for anyone already considering that option.
Can anything be done? There are calls for the Minister of Internal Affairs, Linda Mūrniece, to resign. She has suspended some top police officials in the wake of the Jēkabpils shootout, but would her or anyone else's resignation excise the rot in the police? Probably not. Salary cuts and the resulting demoralization of the police force may have contributed to (but does not excuse) some policemen going rogue. However, years of low prestige and falling police pay have not exactly encouraged the best and brightest of Latvians to seek careers in the police, nor is there a tradition of police as a form of honorable national service (as in some parts of the US).
One solution could be to dissolve the “Alfa” unit and rebuild it from scratch, perhaps with assistance and supervision from another European elite police force. But in some cases, that would merely take the uniform off persons who are criminally inclined, trained with weapons, and potentially more dangerous with a likely grudge against the government that fired them. At best, this would be two steps forward, one step back in the direction of real state failure. So the failing state Latvia continues to slide slowly toward Somalia.