Most U.S. citizens
can go their entire lives without a scary police encounter. When those same people travel overseas, however, a law enforcement problem is often only a matter of time.
My first confrontation took place on the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia. Walking down Nevsky Prospekt late one night during the 2006 White Nights Festival, I noticed a military vehicle creeping up behind me, and I knew I was the target when someone called out in not-so-sober English. Having just left a nightclub, my initial impression was that the bouncer alerted the officers about the American tourist ripe for robbing. Within moments, machine gun-toting thugs who epitomized the Evil Empire stereotype surrounded me on all sides, and the lead officer broke into a mischievous smile as he requested my passport. Under the guise of a drug search, the officer searched my wallet and returned it with a much slimmer profile. Highlighting the poor state of the American economy in 2006, the police took the rubles and euros and left the dollars.
My next run-in occurred in 2011 at the backpackers haunt Taganga on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. My fiance and I hit the bar Pachamama on a Friday night with two European friends who worked for a certain embassy in Bogotá. As we exited the bar, several police officers stood there waiting for their next victim. After searching the guys, the lead officer said my fiance had to spend the night in jail until a woman could search her in the morning. The police wanted a bribe, but our Spanish-fluent friends would not have it. They informed the officers that we would physically resist such a move forcing them to explain the origin of a conflict with a U.S. citizen and two Europeans carrying diplomatic passports. Like Steve Harvey in a card-reading competition, the police quickly conceded.
My third police encounter, however, did land me behind bars. In late summer 2009, I spent several weeks in Kiev, the original capital of what became Russia and the current capital of Ukraine. At the time, the two hottest clubs were Faberge and Arena, and the latter was a 20-minute walk along a major street from my hostel. Opting to avoid the shady-looking taxis outside Arena, I decided to walk back after a long night drinking Kauffman vodka shots. Halfway home, I saw a group of police officers hanging out on the street corner, and their eyes lit up at the sight of a well-dressed tourist (IMHO) walking toward them. I became an instant target with no time or place to escape.
“Come,” said an officer, waving me toward them. “American?”
This particular man, who spoke limited English, did all the talking, while the other officers stared coldly. If I had to guess, all four of them had gone to the barber with a picture of Ivan Drago’s haircut.
“I am an American.”
My mind raced. The underpaid officers were bored and tipsy, and anti-American sentiment was high at the time due to the U.S. conflict in Iraq. The cold chill running through my spine quickly sobered me up. I sensed this was going to end badly.
“Passport and immigration card,” the officer demanded.
U.S. citizens can visit Ukraine visa-free for 90 days, but upon arrival, tourists must fill out an immigration card that the authorities date and stamp. This card keeps track of how many days a tourist spent in the country, and when leaving Ukraine, people can have problems if they lost the card. When moving around the city, travelers should leave their passports and immigration cards in the room and carry photocopies along with a valid identification card (e.g., a driver’s license) that is more easily replaced. In this scenario, I had my original passport and immigration card on me, and I handed them over.
“How long have you been in Ukraine?” the officer asked.
“Three weeks. Here and Lviv.”
“Where are you coming from?” he continued.
“We need to search you,” the officer said, as expected.
The lead officer nodded to the others, and one of them motioned for me to lift my arms. I complied. The officer did check my legs, arms and midsection, but his focus was on finding my wallet, which I had in my left front pocket. He handed the wallet to the lead officer, who proceeded to search it thoroughly. My wallet contained less than 100 hryvnia. The Russian-led unrest has devastated the local currency, which traded at 24 to the dollar in December 2015, but the rate was still eight hryvnia to the dollar back in 2009. In other words, the police found the equivalent of $9 in my wallet, and they were none too thrilled.
I was actually
carrying significantly more hryvnia, just not in my pockets. As evidenced by all three negative encounters, the peak period for robberies—by the police or otherwise—is at night after leaving a bar or club. With this in mind, I went into the bathroom before leaving Arena and tucked the 100- and 200-hryvnia notes into my socks. I left the smaller denominations in my wallet. If asked, I would have said I spent all my money at the club, which is why I left, but the police never asked. Instead, they searched me again, including every millimeter of my wallet, and found nothing.
“You must come back to the station,” the officer insisted.
“My passport and immigration card are both current,” I responded. “You have no reason to take me to the station.”
“We must verify your passport,” he replied. “We go now.”
We walked for several blocks, and I started to spin the situation as best I could. “I am a guest of the Ukrainian tourism bureau. I own a travel company, and they want me to lead tours here,” I said, lying through my teeth. “They want me to report to them at the end of my stay. Maybe we can call them from the station so you can explain why my company won’t be doing tours here.”
The officers did not understand, did not care or did not buy my bullshit. Regardless, I kept spinning as best I could, but I nearly became speechless. The officer said “down there” as we turned a corner, and down there was a long, dark, empty alley. If I go, I thought, they will beat me to a pulp or worse. My heartbeat accelerated immediately.
“Embassy, embassy, embassy, embassy,” I started repeating.
“I will not,” I replied. “Call my embassy now. There is no police station down there!”
“Go now!” the officer repeated.
“If you are going to hurt me, do it here. I will not walk down there.”
The officer was angry, but I would not move.
“Wait,” he said before proceeding down the alley himself. After two minutes, he returned with more men, which suggested there really was a station back there or that they now have more men to force me if necessary. Either way, I sensed the need to comply, and I moved cautiously down the dark alley. At the end in a cul-de-sac, we came upon a dilapidated police station tucked away in the corner. The officers escorted me inside and straight into a cell.
“Embassy please. Will someone please call the U.S. embassy and let them know you have me in a cell?” I tried to insist.
An officer pulled up a chair on the other side of the bars, sat down and kept watch. My passport did not say Houdini, so it’s not like I could escape, but maybe they wanted someone available in case I suddenly found money in, like, my socks. I continued to ask for the embassy, but the guard just sat there quietly and emotionless. Unless my eyes deceived me, I don’t think he even blinked.
I ultimately sat on the ground in the cell for about two hours. The space did not have a chair, but luckily I did not have any cellmates either. The difficult question was whether or not I should try to bribe my way out, and it must seem strange that I did not. During my 2006 encounter in St. Petersburg, the sense of danger was such that I did not fight the theft. I truly felt the Russian police would have no problem fucking me up. In Kiev, there were terrifying moments, particularly in the alley, but I wanted to hold out as long as I could. The Russians saw the money, the Ukrainians did not, and if I pulled out a 1,000 or so hryvnia from my socks, would they start to demand more? Would I be strip searched? Would I have to retrieve my ATM card from the hostel and do maximum withdrawals?
The lead officer eventually returned, opened the door and returned my documents. He did not say a word, and neither did I as I bolted back to the hostel. When I returned, a few friends who left Arena earlier were drinking beers in the common area.
“You stayed late,” said a British hostel mate. “We were getting worried.”
I replied, “Let’s just say I hit a few bars on the way back.”
Photo: Petri Damstén, CC-BY
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.