U.S. labors to reform Haiti's untrustworthy police


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Dealing with the Haitian police, a force with a horrendous record of brutality and victimization, is proving to be one of the most complicated of challenges facing U.S. officials, who effectively rule this country.

The plan since U.S. forces landed here had been to employ the police in helping to keep order and to use some to form the core of a new force. But the police haven't been there to help, or when they've tried to intervene, they've been humiliated.

Some angry Haitian policemen have burned a uniform, handed in their identity cards, and resigned to protest their treatment at the hands of the U.S. troops.

The protests were prompted by the new U.S. military assertiveness, including the detention of 10 Haitian policemen for displaying "hostile intent" during a U.S. raid on a paramilitary headquarters this week.

The Haitian police were driven back to their precinct in handcuffs and released. Three of them later emerged from the station, laid a uniform on the ground, doused it with gasoline, and ignited it.

"The police thing is important," said a senior U.S. diplomat here. "It's an issue of emotion. There is some loss of faith in their future as a result of what happened to those police."

The future of Haiti's police force has also been clouded by its inability or unwillingness to cooperate with the United States on major security issues.

When the U.S. military left security for a peaceful pro-democracy march to the Haitian police last week, five demonstrators died and more than 60 were injured without any police intervention.

Despite such setbacks, the Clinton administration is determined not to take over the policing of this explosive country, and continues to rely on the Haitian police for everyday law and order.

For example, when a store owner shot into a crowd of looters early yesterday, killing one and injuring several others, U.S. forces intervened to help the wounded and disperse the crowd. But Col. Barry Willey, spokesman for the U.S. intervention force, said: "We are not in the investigating mode. We don't do police investigations. We will not be doing any kind of investigation of whether this owner was in the right or not."

The long-term U.S. plan is to create a totally new police force, recruited from the population at large, and trained in the concept human rights and dignity, at an American-style police academy that has yet to be constructed.

Rule by terror

As part of the army, the police have been an extension of the

military dictatorships that have terrorized this country for much of this century.

The former police chief of Port-au-Prince, Lt. Col. Michel Francois, who fled into exile in Santo Domingo this week, initiated the 1991 coup against democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The Haitian Parliament, meeting under U.S. guard here to prepare the way for the return of Father Aristide, is considering a law that would separate the police from the army, making it a civil organization. It was also working on an amnesty law to define the limits of retribution against police and army officers.

In the short term, the United Nations is sending 1,000 police monitors from as many as 30 countries to try to eliminate the excesses of the current force.

Former New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, a former Marine, is in charge of the international police monitors, who are being dispatched to precincts throughout the country and are accompanying Haitian police patrols.

"It is clear the police here have been used as an instrument of suppression," Mr. Kelly said. "That has been the long history in the country, unfortunately.

"Haiti doesn't have a police force in the classic sense. It is part of the army. They have not received formalized training. The goal here is ultimately to start from a clean sheet of paper to reconstruct the police force." Asked how a population that has lived in fear of the police for decades could be persuaded to trust them, Mr. Kelly said: "With great difficulty.

"I think as people see that it is based on democratic principles, based on a democratic selection process, you will begin to earn their trust, but it is no easy process."

The international police monitors are scrutinizing the records of the current force to see which officers have been involved in the worst atrocities. They are also consulting with human rights organizations to identify known thugs. And they are watching how individual officers now operate on patrol.

Those police identified as abusers will be disarmed and thrown out of the force. But they may be offered other government jobs, in an effort to avoid totally destroying police morale. While the new force is being formed, the current police will continue to operate, but under intense international scrutiny.

"They will not be given full license to go out and act as they have in the past," said Jan Stromsen, assistant director for operations the International Criminal Investigation Training Assistance Program, run by the U.S. Justice Department.

The Justice Department is heading the effort to create a new force, setting standards for recruitment, vetting the suitability of current officers for continuing service, and preparing to open and run the new police academy Dec. 15.

It will be a multimillion-dollar program -- no precise cost is available here -- that will last for three to five years, at the end of which Haiti should have up to 6,000 police officers steeped in democratic methods of maintaining law and order.

The United States has a mixed record in reforming police forces in Central America. In Panama, the new police force was created out of the old one, and critics charge that human-rights violations continue. In Colombia, a country with almost systemic political and judicial assassination, the police reforms were limited to training in techniques of executive protection.

In El Salvador, as a new force was created, the old force was progressively disbanded. "As far as models are concerned, we much prefer the El Salvador model," Ms. Stromsen said.

The plan is for a class of 375 police cadets to start at the new academy Dec. 15. New classes will be recruited monthly until a capacity of 1,500 students is reached. The course will emphasize legal restraints on police, and human rights and dignity.

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