U.S. Support for Haiti's Rookie Police Force

September 25, 2007

On February 17, 1996, the ninth class of police cadets graduated from the National Police Training Center just outside Port-au-Prince, bringing the first phase of a U.S.-sponsored pro- gram to create a new Haitian National Police (HNP) to a close. The program took shape in the after- math of the 1994 U.S. invasion of Haiti, which restored President Jean-Bertrand Aristide-who had been ousted three years earlier by the Haitian security forces-as head of state. Just 16 months after Aristide's return, 5,300 newly recruited and trained police men and women were deployed throughout Haiti. The cadets were trained by the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP), an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice that was involved in police reform in Panama following the 1989 U.S. invasion, and in El Salvador as part of the peace accords. Cadets received four months of training, including human rights instruction, a course on "human dignity," and lectures on the "police mission and its role in a democratic society." ICITAP also assisted the Haitian authorities with such fundamentals as standard operating procedures, codes of conduct, and disci- plinary measures. U.S. support will continue over the next five years to oversee the institutional development of this new police force. This U.S.-sponsored reform process seeks to create the first professional police force in Haitian history. Prior to the reforms, the police were little more than a subordinate branch of the military, which dominated the Haitian security forces. Rather than serve as the guardians of public order, the security forces acted as the henchmen of Haiti's tiny elite in their predatory quest for more power and wealth. After Aristide's return, observers agreed that democratizing Haiti required removing the military from all internal security functions and setting up a new, independent police force. The armed forces were to be maintained, but would be reduced from 6,000 to 1,500 personnel. In December, 1995, how- Rachel Neild is Senior Associate at the Washington Office on Latin America in Washington, D.C ever, Aristide dismissed all military personnel, de facto abolishing Haiti's military. Eliminating the institution responsible for coup after coup has prob- ably provided the single greatest guarantee for Haitian democracy since the invasion. an easy task. Qualified civilian leadership has been hard to come by. As a result, both Aristide and current President Rene Preval have recruited for- mer military officers into the ranks of the new police, ruffling feathers in the Haitian Parliament and among U.S. officials. Observers also agree that more than four months of training is required for police officers to be fully prepared to carry out their duties. Resources are tight, and equipment, including such basic items as radios, vehicles, chairs and desks, is scarce at all levels. As of June, 1996, many stations still lacked copies of the disciplinary codes and stan- dard operating procedures, and only 30 of 185 field commanders were in place. In some rural areas, the police were pulled back to nearby urban centers because their stations were in complete disrepair. Institutional hurdles aside, the "police in pam- pers"-as some have labeled this novice force-face the formidable task of policing Haiti. While most Haitians initially welcomed the idea of a new police force, their only experience of state power has been repression. As a result, relations between the new police and the Haitian people have not always been smooth. Crowds tend to throw rocks at cops during demonstrations, and inexperienced officers too often respond by opening fire. In its first year, the new police force was responsible for killing 26 civil- ians and wounding another 50. Further incidents of excessive use of force and abuse of authority were reported, including the beating of detainees and using weapons off-duty. There is also an issue of credibility. The police were seen as "soft" and inex- perienced by ordinary Haitians, and, according to one human rights activist, only won respect after beating suspected criminals. The new force faces the challenge of proving itself by demonstrating its abil- ity to deal with criminals and quell paramilitary vio- lence while respecting human rights. One positive sign is that for the first time in Haitian history, cases of police brutality are being investi- gated. The HNP's Inspector General has imposed sanctions in 173 cases of police killings and abuse of authority, including the firing of 15 officers. Police headquarters now issue press releases on incidents of police abuse, stating the names of the officers, their alleged infraction, and the punishments imposed. Legal proceedings against accused police, however, have proceeded at a snail's pace. This partly reflects the abysmal state of the judicial system, but also the reluctance of some judges to prosecute law-enforce- ment officials. Currently, 24 cases of police abuse are under investigation by legal authorities. The UN mission in Haiti has also actively supported the consolidation of the new police force. No one is laying bets yet as to whether the HNP will be able to maintain order on its own once the UN mission departs at the end of this year. Many Haitians fear that armed antidemocratic groups are biding their time and will reemerge once the international forces depart. The assassination of seven off-duty police offers since March, 1996 is widely seen as an attempt by paramilitary elements to destabilize the situation. Other security problems plague Haiti, including violent armed criminal gangs and a recent rash of kidnappings of wealthy Haitians. Many sus- pect that former military and paramilitary personnel may be involved, though this remains to be proven. Given the country's continuing economic crisis, crime is unlikely to diminish. Observers worry that the U.S.-trained police force will not be up to the task of keeping the peace. If not, Haiti could see a resurgence of vigilante-style justice by a desperate and frustrated population. It is ironic that the United States is playing such a central role in creating Haiti's new civilian police force. During its 20-year occupation of Haiti between 1915 and 1934, after all, the United States helped put in place the same military institution that orches- trated the coup against Aristide and the carnage that followed. This new police force, nevertheless, may be Haiti's best chance to establish a professional public-order force that will support-rather than overthrow-democratically elected governments.

Tags: Haiti, police, US influence, military training

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