Adventure draws alumnus to Ukraine

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Felix Tam, BA’77, was never one who answered, ‘I want to be a police officer’ when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up.

But the Sociology graduate, now 64 and a professional police officer for more than three decades, has more than made up for lost time.

The veteran Toronto police officer recently returned from Ukraine where he spent a year helping to train the country’s new National Police.

“It’s a sense of adventure, I guess. A few of my friends in their 40 and 50s are buying motorcycles, but I’m being paid to work in a foreign country,” said Tam.

While living abroad may sound like a cushy assignment, it was an intense time for Tam and the other 20-plus officers who were in the country as part of aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution, where Ukrainian security forces fired on protesters and killed about 100 people.

The new government, under Petro Poroshenko, held the Berkut special police force largely responsible and, in response, initiated a plan to reform Ukrainian law enforcement by replacing the old patrol police force (the militsiya) and dissolve the Berkut completely.

In July 2015, a new patrol police force was launched in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and in regional capitals across the country. Tam spent his year in Kyiv.

“We have officers down there teaching tactics, public safety instructor courses. Sort of training the trainers, so they can train their own officers,” said Tam. “Our role, as community policing advisors, is we try to train them to be far away from the Soviet model of what they used to call the militsiya, and to be more people-friendly, back to community policing.

“It’s like 20,000-ton freighter in the ocean, you don’t turn on a dime, but I think we are making progress because they have hired a lot of young officers who are very enthusiastic (and who) buy into the community policing concept.”

During the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution, almost 20,000 officers were fired, but a short time later the government was ordered to re-hire a majority of them, so there is no denying some of the ‘old guards’ are still there, he added.

But great example of making steps in the right direction occurred with a simple gesture over the holidays, said Tam.

“The new officers are the younger generation,” he said. “Over Christmas they blocked off some streets and had their cruisers parked and were allowing children to play with sirens and meet the officers. Under Soviet rule, that never would have happened. They are catching on in some ways, but it will be some time before it is complete.”

Tam had previously applied to head to Afghanistan and Sudan before receiving his assignment in Ukraine where he said local police were encouraged by the Canadian officers’ presence.

“They welcomed us with open arms. We’ve been there since 2016, I was the second batch of officers,” said Tam. “We’re still developing new courses by finding out what their needs are, rather than telling them this is what we’re going to do for you.”

The diversity of Toronto’s police force intrigued them, he said. Compared to them, “we’re like the United Nations,” said Tam, adding their idea of multi-cultural is people from Russia and neighbouring countries like Hungary or Bulgaria.

“I would show them videos of Toronto, the police interacting with the Somalia community, or attending Carribana – they don’t see things like that,” he said.

There have been stumbling blocks in attracting new officers.

“They are not that well paid and they do have a problem with retention,” said Tam. “They deal with similar problems as we do as officers in Canada, but are not compensated accordingly. You get young people joining thinking they’re going to be part of the reform and change the country for the better and then they get discouraged.”

Tam said the experience has also enriched his life.

“I certainly learned from them. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I’m a better person coming back, having opened my eyes and seeing a different way of life. Travel is one of the best forms of education.”