Many residents of the European Union's most corrupt and violent member state say that apart from the uniforms there's little difference between Bulgaria's cops and mobsters. But over at the Simeonovo Police Academy, on the sprawling eastern edge of the capital, cadets Elena Kolcheva and Danail Velichkov are champing at the bit to get the bad guys.
"My family and friends don't trust the police to be effective," says Ms. Kolcheva, who's ranked second in her class and hopes to someday investigate murders. "But now they see the younger generation is motivated to change the system.
"Brussels bemoans that as many as 150 assassinations over recent years have produced no prosecutions in Bulgaria. Locals blame a police and court system infested with bribery. A common joke in the business community here is, "we don't invest in lawyers, we invest in judges."
But there's also a glimmer of hope that the next generation of police and judges will take a more professional approach to justice. Cadet Kolcheva says a major corruption conviction would embolden her and her fellow cadets. This view is shared by Nelly Koutzkova, former president of the Bulgarian Judges Association.
"A young colleague complained to me, 'When I'm in the courtroom, I feel everyone look at me like I'm for sale,' " Ms. Koutzkova says. "We need a moral cleansing of the system, where even one prosecution would show people, inside and outside, there's justice for the justices as well."
Public perceptions of the police are tougher to change. For 40 years, they were dreaded foot soldiers of the communist regime, defending the system, not society. Today, however, the police academy proudly displays the uniforms, patches, and other knickknacks from fellow officers in the US and European Union, who have come here preaching the virtues of protecting and serving the public.
Admission to the academy has become tougher, says Dean Nikolay Nikolov, holding forth in a conference room lined with centuries-old Orthodox icons that the police have seized from art smugglers.Graduates are guaranteed a job – a serious consideration in the EU's poorest member – but Mr. Nikolov concedes it's also more esteemed work than in his day.Motioning to Kolcheva and Mr. Velichkov, he adds, "Our top graduates typically choose the toughest jobs, because they want to prove themselves.
"Indeed, Velichkov says he'll soon return to his small town, to follow in the footsteps of his father – a high-ranking police investigator. But young Velichkov, who is simultaneously studying finance, will also come home armed with modern skills to catch crooks."I know who I need to fight against," he says. "I know the faces of corruption."