Moscow police set off in hot pursuit of popularity

A new TV show featuring high-speed chases of pretend car thieves is attracting high ratings in Russia.
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The Independent Online
Those who venture into the snowy streets of Moscow this morning should be careful not to jump to any conclusions if they happen to see the police - sirens wailing, lights flashing - chasing a fleeing car.

Do not assume that this is another drunk-driver or car thief on the run. The leather-clad, gun-wielding cops are real enough, but it could just be that their prey is not a villain, but a contestant in a television show.

Despite (or, perhaps, because of) their reputation for doing far more to add to crime than to crush it, Moscow's traffic police have become eager participants in a new weekly TV game in which they chase pretend car thieves around the city, aided by a helicopter.

The programme, called Intercept, has been introduced into Russia by David Gamburg, 47, a Latvian turned American citizen, who claims that it is receiving higher ratings than the main television news show on its popular host channel, NTV.

Mr Gamburg admits he was influenced by many years in California, where the local television stations regularly interrupt their programmes to broadcast live pictures, taken from helicopters, of the police chasing people around the freeways. He is well acquainted with the world headquarters of armchair human hunting - Los Angeles, scene of the greatest example of the form, the pursuit of OJ Simpson.

Watched by a studio audience, mostly comprising cheering Russian men, the "thief" pretends to pick the lock of a car which is equipped with an anti-theft system called Lo/Jack which (surprise, surprise) is one of the show's sponsors. Using the device, the traffic police track down the vehicle and try to catch it, using three police cars and a helicopter.

While working on the first case, a second "thief" strikes. If the participants can evade the cops for 35 minutes, they win a Daewoo (another sponsor). The programme is entirely devoted to dramatic footage of the chases, taken by a network of 25 cameras, including several inside the vehicles.

At first glance, this all seems wildly irresponsible, not least because of the risk of an accident on the city's pot-holed and ice-bound streets. But Mr Gamburg says that - though unknown to the cops - the routes are planned beforehand, and that there is a police inspector in each contestant's car to make sure they don't break the law. Moreover Intercept ("Perekhvat") is only filmed when the traffic is quiet, for example at weekends.

These arguments may sound fair enough, but he is on shakier ground when he outlines his other ambition: to improve the image of the Moscow traffic police, or GAI. It is a tall order: their appetite for bribes and their non-stop harassment of motorists has produced both fear and loathing. A more unpopular force would be hard to imagine.

This he hopes to change. "Most of the time, people in the States have a positive feeling about the police. There are TV reality shows there - like Cops - which give them a good image. Here there's nothing like that. The cops are seen as corrupt, drinkers, and so on. We are basically trying to improve their image, and they understand that." He says that the force is not paid for taking part, although their cars receive free parts and servicing.

Whether his ambition will be realised is uncertain, although the Moscow policemen seem every bit as star-struck as their swaggering counterparts on the so-called American reality shows. They have yet to turn public sympathy around. In one recent edition of Intercept, the audience jeered happily when a police car broke down, laughed heartily when they got lost and remained on the side of the "thieves" throughout. The officers didn't help matters much: their dialogue was regularly bleeped out because of swearing.

And how do the police justify spending their time in this fashion in a city in which some 18,000 cars are stolen a year, not to mention an epidemic of murders, burglaries, arsons and muggings? Mr Gamburg says it is good training in modern technology.

The police simply say that it doesn't affect their work. "We never shoot this programme on weekdays because of heavy traffic. Our people only ever do the show in their free time," said spokesman Major Leonid Omelchenko. "And if something happens, they are immediately switched over to it." As something always seems to be happening in this crime-drenched city, it is amazing that Intercept ever gets made at all.