MOSCOW -- Russians call them ''werewolves in uniform" -- police who abuse their power to extort and rob the citizens they are supposed to safeguard. They are the legacy of an unreformed, Soviet-era police force whose officers often think their purpose is to punish and extort rather than protect and serve.
''Werewolves" are the reason many Russians fear police as much as criminals. One out of every four Russians has been a victim of police abuse, including bribery, extortion, beatings, and sexual assault, suggests a survey released last week.
Russia's police commanders have taken up President Vladimir V. Putin's call to eliminate corruption. Their campaign against the werewolves has yielded several high-profile arrests, including last week's detentions, broadcast on national television, of traffic police officers who were allegedly running a car theft ring.
But most Russians are convinced the crackdown is just for show and that crooked cops continue to thrive. Police specialists, and some officers, say corruption is the only way Russia's unwieldy, underpaid 1.5-million-member force can make a living, even as the police themselves rue the public's loss of trust.
''People have lost confidence in the police, and nothing will return us to the situation we once had when they feared and respected us," said a Moscow police lieutenant who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ''Now they just fear us."
Democracy advocates have long argued that Russia no longer needs the police force of a Communist police state, but senior commanders have consistently resisted change. In March, Putin appointed a fellow former KGB officer, Rashid Nurgaliyev, as Russia's top cop, with orders to push through an overhaul.
''All of the complaints about the police must be checked, and if needed, the most harsh measures should be taken," Nurgaliyev said in April. ''Citizens should see in police officers their defenders."
Despite his pledge, 80 percent of Russians polled earlier this month said nothing can protect them from police abuse. The survey, by veteran Russian pollster Yuri Levada, also found that nearly 60 percent said extortion and racketeering have become as integral an activity for police as patrolling the streets.
''For many Russians, it is not clear who is worse, police or criminals," said Georgy Satarov, head of the INDEM Center for Applied Political Studies, a leading Moscow think tank.
Making money has replaced making the streets safe as the priority for some officers, said Lieutenant Colonel Viktor Klimchuk, a former Moscow precinct chief who was fired after he wrote an open letter to Putin, signed by 70 of his men, complaining that their wages had not been paid and that conditions were poor.
Even police officers who would like to stay clean rarely solve serious crimes, Klimchuk told the Moscow daily Gazeta this month. The Russian system rewards police for the quantity of cases solved, and as a result, Klimchuk said, precincts go after minor offenders. The most common catch: violators of Russia's arcane document and residency rules.
''Sure, sometimes crimes are solved, but usually it's by accident," Klimchuk said. ''There is no fight against crime."
Instead, the Moscow police lieutenant said, poorly equipped precincts purposely undermine one another's work. Officers deliberately withhold information on serious crimes to lower the crime rate in their own precincts. And they keep track of unsolved crimes in other precincts, information they disclose only if a station appears to be solving crimes at a higher rate than their own.
Police go through all this trouble to avoid the suspension of pay and benefits they incur for falling behind on conviction rates.
''Many police look at their work first of all as a business," Klimchuk said. ''Ordinary officers see the cars generals ride around in and know what kind of apartments they live in and what kind of mansions they are building for themselves . . . and so they ask, 'Why shouldn't we?' "
''Werewolves" became a household word last year with the arrest of seven law enforcement officers on charges that they had extorted $500,000 from businessmen and trumped up charges against anyone who refused to pay.
Boris Gryzlov, Russia's top police official at the time, proclaimed the arrests part of a ''war on organized crime and corruption."
Many Russians dismissed the campaign as a publicity stunt for Gryzlov, also head of the pro-Putin party that won most of the seats in last year's parliamentary vote.
''People know the arrests were only the tip of the iceberg," said Pavel Chikov of Public Verdict, a new Moscow group formed to assist victims of police abuse.
Extortion is so widespread that Russians in 2001 paid $368 million in bribes to traffic police alone and $275 million to ''win justice in court," according to a study Satarov's think tank conducted with the World Bank.
Police and prosecutors even offer their services to competing businessmen, according to the Russian magazine Mergers and Acquisitions, which last year published a price list: To plant heroin on someone and arrest him, police reputedly charge between $10,000 and $30,000; to seize an office, the fee starts at $20,000. To open a criminal case, the article said, prosecutors charge $50,000; to close it, up to $35,000.
These shocking numbers do not represent the worst of Russia's ''finest."
''The use of torture and ill-treatment by police to extract confessions from detainees is virtually routine," Amnesty International said in a report last week.
Chikov cited the case of a 23-year-old woman in the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod who says police raped her after summoning her to their precinct to testify as a witness in a criminal case. Prosecutors dropped the charges; the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, is now reviewing the case.
Police often resort to intimidation to silence whistle-blowers, Chikov said. A human rights group in the central Russian city of Kazan persuaded prosecutors to investigate 11 cases of police wrongdoing over the last 12 months. So far four officers have been found guilty and six are awaiting trial, Chikov said. Police have responded by ordering numerous checks of the group's finances and threatening its employees with imprisonment.
Worse things can happen to those who take on the werewolves.
One day in February German Galdetsky, a 19-year-old math student, launched a one-man campaign into police brutality after officers in a Moscow subway station detained a female friend.
When they let her go, Galdetsky told the human rights website Kolokol.ru in February, ''she was shaking and crying, and then she said that they had threatened her . . . and told her that if she didn't have sex with them they would lock her up for good."
''They said if she told anyone, they'd find her and kill her," Galdetsky said. ''I couldn't believe it. I decided we couldn't let that go without punishment."
Galdetsky filed a complaint, but prosecutors and police took no action, citing a lack of evidence. This prompted him to begin a single-handed, monthlong inquiry that unearthed what he said was rampant sexual abuse.
In March, Galdetsky was shot in the head during a meeting with two unidentified men outside a Moscow train station. Police say robbers attacked him. Friends and supporters say it was the werewolves of Moscow.
Now, he lies in a hospital bed, partially paralyzed and unable to speak.
''It is hard to persuade people to see a man in uniform as their defender, and not a bandit," Ludmila Alekseyeva, a human rights advocate at the Moscow Helsinki Group, said last week. ''For that we need a different police force."
Irina Balakhonova, a researcher for the Globe's Moscow bureau, contributed to this report.