Saturday, April 23, 2011

Two Hours in a Kutaisi Police Station

On the evening of Sunday, April 17, 2011, approximately between 1900 hours and 1915 hours I lost my wallet on the street or in a minibus in Kutaisi, Georgia. It was pink. It contained 150 lari, my bank cards (American and Georgian), my health insurance cards (American and Georgian), my American driver's license, and several hundred dollars in American gift cards. I know these details quite well now because I spent two hours in a police station explaining the contents of my wallet and the events surrounding its disappearance.

I now sincerely regret going to the Kutaisi police because of a simple wallet that I will undoubtedly never see again, a fact I have now come to terms with. But upon the realization that it was gone I panicked slightly, it being the first time I had ever lost a wallet. I was in Kutaisi traveling with a friend, both of us are English teachers in the eastern part of Georgia, about a 5 hour drive away (if you are lucky enough to have your own car and not the public buses). As I was traveling and away from my town and I had never lost a wallet before I had no clue what I should do. I called up Teach and Learn with Georgia (TLG), the teaching program I work for, and they told me to go to the police. And thus began an epic endeavor that would color not only that evening, but the entirety of my three days in Kutaisi.

My friend and I arrived at the police station a little before 10 o'clock at night. There was a detective working there who spoke a little bit of English. However, to be on the safe side, I called TLG to help me translate. I gave them a description of my wallet, where I lost it, and what it contained. After hanging up with TLG the female detective who spoke English told us to sit down upstairs. It would only be another 10 or 15 minutes.

Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, has been pouring money into police departments all over the country to renovate the police stations. The aesthetic is all glass facades- a symbol of transparency. The Kutaisi police station had clearly been recently renovated- the walls and floors were all shiny white marble and you could see the pristine condition of the desks in the upstairs office. But the facade was not glass. It was the standard pink stucco of most Georgian buildings. I'm sure they didn't opt out of the glass facade in order to continue their corrupt ways or anything, don't think I'm alluding to that. Although I did find it odd to have renovated the police station top to bottom (there were before and after pictures hanging on the wall), but neglect to give it the standard Saakashvili touch.

When I went to the office upstairs I was offered a seat in a large, barren office area. There were the new desks arranged in two clusters of four. Most of them were empty, save a few papers and personal items. Definitely no computers in sight. I sat down and watched a James Bond movie that had been left on in the empty room. After 20 minutes the female detective came upstairs and I asked her if they had tried calling the other police stations to see if anyone had turned in my wallet. It had been over 3 hours since I lost it. My primary hope in going to the police in the first place was for them to contact the other stations in the city. I did not expect any crack detective work, I just wanted to see if anyone had turned it in somewhere.

About half an hour after arriving I was informed that a local English teacher would be coming to help get my statement, which I had already given to them via the TLG translator on the phone when I first arrived. My friend and I were shuffled into a smaller office. Despite the fact that the office had all of the lights off and the door had been locked, the television in there had also been left on, and it remained turned on during the entirety of my interview.

After waiting another half an hour I was introduced to a rather unsavory looking detective who's gun was rather hastily shoved into the waistband of his trousers. Although he seemed friendly enough, I got the impression that I would not want to be on the wrong side of the interview table from him. To kill time before the English translator arrived I was given the usual Georgian line of questioning, “Do you like Georgia?” “Do you like Georgian food? Khachapuri? Khinkali?” “What are you going to see while you are here?” It was our first night in Kutaisi, so I gave a list of the sights we were planning on seeing, something I would later come to regret.

The English teacher finally arrived and we went through a long hour of repeating the same basic facts. "I got my wallet out to get money while waiting for the 1 bus." "I shoved it in my bag as I saw the bus coming." "No, no one was around me at the time. No, no one saw how much money was in my wallet." "No, no one could have stuck their hand in my bag. It was on my lap the entire time." "Did someone steal it? Probably not. I don't know."

There were many times I wanted to say that if I knew exactly how I lost it I wouldn't be here in the first place. But I figured that would not be the best thing to say to these rather greasy looking detectives. Shortly before midnight I finally signed my statement-which had been entirely hand written by a yawning officer on a blank piece of computer paper. And before I left I was instructed to come back in the morning at 11 o'clock to pick up my "official documents- free of charge." I had to suppress a groan at the thought of returning to the police station. And I had to suppress a laugh at the thought of being charged for paperwork- damn right it'll be free of charge. I don't have any way of paying you, anyway.

At 10:55 the next morning I trudged my way to the station. The officer at the front desk looked at me uncomprehendingly when I tried to explain that I had been there the night before because I lost my wallet. No English. He went to find someone that could understand me. "Khuti tsuti" (5 minutes), and he raced upstairs. The person sent down to understand me also had a bit of a problem. "Please wait here five minutes." He also raced upstairs and returned with a rather tall, friendly looking man who arrived to state quite bluntly, "Our computers are down. Come back later."

"When?" I asked with a sinking feeling developing in my stomach.

The man turned to the clock behind him (11:20). "After 5 o'clock." Presumably, his shift was over at 5 o'clock.

So what more could I do but leave? By this point I was determined not to let this bother me or my trip. My friend had offered to lend me some money and it was only my first day in Kutaisi. So we went out for the day to see the sights. We returned to the city center around 7 and I had very little desire to spend another night at the police station. We returned to the apartment where we were couchsurfing. I was plenty happy to call my wallet gone for good. The police could not do anything to help, and I doubted they would even try. So why should I dedicate more time to a lost cause?

Around 11 o'clock that night my friend and I were sitting around in our guest bedroom talking, when suddenly we heard the large metal front door creaking open and someone shouting, "Chase?" (the name of our host) We heard Chase come out of his room and say, "You can't just come in, you need to knock before you come in." He said it in a rather even, if slightly irritated, tone. The intrusive speaker, who I would find out later was Chase's landlord, mumbled something of which the only word I could understand was "police." I let out a groan and hauled myself into the living room. The detective from the night before (the one with the gun shoved into his waistband) was standing in the middle of the room, looking like he owned the place- and rightfully so, as his wide girth seemed to make the room look smaller.

"You did not come to the police station today," Chase's landlord said.

"Yes, I did," I stated, without doing much to veil my exasperation. "I came at 11 o'clock. They said their computers were down."

"They need your passport. You must come."

"Now?" I piped in a high pitched tone.

He conversed with the detective in Georgian for a second and responded, "No, you may come tomorrow morning at 11."


They left and the apartment felt bigger again. Safer. I apologized profusely to Chase, whom I had only met the day before and who's kindness I was dependent upon for my housing. My mother has always told me to never trust the police. She was a public defense attorney in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Boston. Her voice was running through my head the entire time I was at the police station. They wanted to know where I was staying in Kutaisi. As I said, I was couchsurfing with this guy. He did not have to let me stay there, and considering that the police barged into his apartment looking for me I'm surprised he didn't kick me out then and there. The police had my phone number. If they really needed to find me they could have easily called me. But instead they walked into someone's house without permission and without even knocking. I realized that I had no choice but to deal with them, no matter how much I just wanted to forget about the whole ordeal.

Once again, at 11 o'clock the next morning I found myself back at the police station. This time their computers were working and the English speaking female detective was there. After having my passport xeroxed and receiving 7 copies of the same piece of paper without any explanation of what these paper were for- they were entirely in Georgian, save my name- I thought I was free to leave. But the female detective asked where my friend and I were going that day. We wanted to go out of town to the Sataplia caves.

"Yes. We will have a police officer drive you," she responded.

"No, no. That is alright. We are going to get a taxi. We do not need a police officer." But there was no point in arguing. We were getting a police officer to drive us. We were also instructed to come back to the police station the next morning, the morning of our departure to Tbilisi, in order to get a ride from the police to the bus station.

We were handed over to a police officer in uniform and a plain clothes detective (with a gun sticking out of his waistband). We got into a large SUV with no sign that it was a police vehicle other than a siren attached to it somewhere (which they used to break up the line at the gas station). The SUV took us to the edge of town where they pulled over to the side of the road next to a waiting taxi. The uniformed officer got out and spoke to the cab driver, then returned to open my door and repeat, "Sataplia, Sataplia." I have no idea why we needed to go so far just to be put into a cab. Maybe it was cheaper away from the city center? Maybe the police officer knew this driver? I have no clue. Due to the language barrier, most of my interactions with the Kutaisi Police Department went unexplained.

The next morning I prepared a note for the English speaking female detective explaining we had left for Tbilisi. My friend and I could not be bothered to go through a whole ordeal of getting a ride from the police again. So I wrote the note in the hopes that the detective was not working and I would be able to escape the city unnoticed. This was the one time I was glad not to find someone who spoke English. I went to the officer at the front desk, handed him the note and said the detective's name. The officer told me she would not be in until 10. I tried to convey that it was okay- "Kargi. Kargi" (Good. Good). He started to get his phone out, clearly with the intent of calling her. And I said, "No, no." and mimed him giving her the letter. Eventually he got it and I left quickly.

I can not help but think that all of my interactions with the police in Kutaisi were so absurd and quite unnecessary. The first night did not need to last as long as it did, and the succeeding days did not really require a daily trip to the police station. Every day I was in Kutaisi I went to the police station once. I'm sure all of this transpired because of two factors- the language barrier and the fact that I am a foreigner. Because of the language barrier everything took longer and there were miscommunications. Because I was a foreigner they were clearly going out of their way for me. I'm sure most Georgians would not go to the police if they lost their wallet, which would probably explain the fact that it took them two hours to get my written statement together. And I know that if a Georgian were in the same position as I had been in, they probably would not offer them rides around town. I don't know if this was the famous Georgian hospitality kicking in, or if their hope was to impress me, but whatever the reason I was disgusted with the whole affair.

Saakashvili considers his reforms of the Georgian police to be his most major achievement. Of his reforms he has said, “Together with you [police officers], we have created one of the most successful, one of the most well-equipped, one of the most efficient police force in the country, where the reputation of police was extremely bad just several years ago.” (Civil Georgia, 'Saakashvili Hails Georgian Police as "Most Efficient,"' 24 June, 2006 <>) I wish I could say I agree with him. It is clear the Saakashvili administration has put a lot of money into the police force, but from my experience this money appears to be going towards making things look nice, but not improving the roots of the problems. Saakashvili claims the police are "well-equipped." I saw only one computer at the station in Kutaisi. Saakashvili says they are efficient. The officer taking my statement did not know what to do- his supervisor had to dictate everything to him, while several other detectives sat around watching television. If I have witnessed the result of years worth of reform, I am truly afraid to think about the state of the Georgian police ten years ago.


  1. I like it!

    FYI - I just spoke with an English teacher in Tbilisi on my marshutka ride back home and she said that 10 years ago she would never go outside when it was dark. Hhmmmm...

  2. Well, I'm not going to the midnight Easter service because my host cousin doesn't want to leave the house without a male escort. Even though there will be two of us. (Maybe I have a blase attitude because I have no money to be stolen from me anyway. But I DARE someone to mess with me after the week we've had)