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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