It is a sunny Saturday, the type that inspires. Suddenly, the coastal road outside Port-auPrince clogs to a steamy standstill. As drivers jump from their cars to investigate, the word comes down a Haitian highway grapevine: roadblock at Gressier. “Hie police shot someone,” announces one driver. “I heard it from my friend coming the other way.” Radio reports later describe how one of a group of teenagers being taken to a police station grabbed an officer’s gun and was fired upon in return. The March 2 incident was the 14th police killing logged by human rights monitors since last July, and further threatened the tautly fragile trust between the people and the new Haitian National Police, or HNP, that international officials tout as a key achievement of their intervention in the country.
Three days earlier, two children were reported wounded by gunfire and more were beaten when police cracked down on a school demonstration against mounting garbage. And four days after the Gressier shooting, in the most worrisome melee this year, nine people died in a police crackdown in the capital’s Cité Soleil slum. Eyewitnesses said police shot some unarmed civilians in the head at close range.
Civilian policing, viewed as an impartial alternative to partisan armies and militias, has become a popular new direction in international conflict resolution. Yet its success is far from assured. In Bosnia, the Muslim-Croat police force set up under last December’s Dayton peace accord has already lost much credibility, having failed to stop the revenge-driven intimidation of Serbs that led to a mass exodus from the suburbs of Sarajevo. In the West Bank and Gaza, the effectiveness of the nearly twoyear-old security force of the Palestinian Authority is under attack after the recent wave of Hamas suicide bombings that killed 57 Israelis in one week.
In Haiti—the main laboratory for creating a civilian force from scratch—police effectiveness as well as legitimacy in the eyes of the people remain huge problems. Emerging from 200 years of rule by force, those Haitians who are
now policing and being policed have no Canadian-style model of a neighborhood cop to rely on. “This population is used to seeing uniformed men jump out of trucks with helmets on and guns drawn,” says Colin Granderson, the UN’s chief human rights monitor in Haiti. Officials like him hang their hopes for Haiti on the new HNP force, which is to take over from foreign troops as the custodians of order when the recently renewed UN mandate expires on June
30. The immaturity of the new force was the key reason the Haitian government begged the UN to stay on, say top officials at the world body. Now, the 750 Canadians set to arrive by April 6 are part of an effort to give the force more time to raise its professional standards so that new President René Préval can get on with boosting the country’s economy. The last of 5,300 carefully screened recruits graduated in February from a U.S.-led four-month police training program, which also involved Canada’s RCMP and French police. Now, the 300-strong civilian police contingent of the UN mission—100 Canadians among them—is supervising their fieldwork.
“Nathalie, Nathalie,” yell excited slum i children as RCMP Constable Nathalie Heppell accompanies a group of HNP officers on a patrol. Police academy leaders are proud that only 130 of the 7,000 members of the Haitian army—dissolved in February, 1995, by Aristide—are in the new force. Even if the new cops are not—as is widely believed—carryovers from the dreaded Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), which flourished under Gen. Raoul Cédras, the young officers are woefully
inexperienced. “They play with their guns like kids with a new toy,” says one frustrated member of the Montreal Urban Police who is part of the UN mission.
Meagre resources compound the difficulties. Many Haitian police have no flashlights, pens or paper. Computers and vehicles are scarce. Police trying to keep order on the roads do not even have traffic tickets to give out. “They are operating in situations where a lot of our police officers in Canada would not operate,” says RCMP chief superintendent Neil Pouliot, who has just finished his posting as head of the police side of the UN mission. And leadership is a key problem, says Granderson of the UN’s human rights mission. Although a new chief of police was finally appointed in early March, regional commanders are political appointees with little knowledge of police work. “It’s extremely difficult to build a force overnight,” says Canadian Col. Bill Fulton, chief of staff of the UN mission. “Where do you get your leaders with an eight-month-old force?”
In fact, the average constable has less than two months of experience. It shows. In Léogâne, 33 km southwest of the capital, three car thieves recently escaped from jail. After a woman was in a fight, the police detained her mother for three days, says lawyer Henri Thermidor in disgust. Like many villagers, he believes the police are corrupt. Store owner Catinat Pierrepaul says cops in the town continue to beat those they arrest. “Nothing is going to change here,” says Pierrepaul. “It’s the same car with the same engine. They just painted it a new color.”
The RCMP’s Pouliot defends the HNP record, saying disciplinary problems affect only 5 per cent of the new force. For the most part, he says, it is operating at “a very acceptable level.” In a country with an illiteracy rate of 80 per cent, the Haitian recruits are the cream. “We had a 92-per-cent failure rate,” adds chief of staff Fulton. “The group of people in the force are the top, the best-educated eight per cent.” Now that the police have been trained, the public must be educated not to fear them, says Pouliot. The UN is attempting to do that with a series of outreach programs.
Pouliot insists that the current performance of the Haitian police is all that could be expected at this early date. “It’s like a young child. You learn to crawl, then you learn to walk,” he says. “We’re still in the crawling stage.” Whether the HNP will be able to walk on its own—let alone run— once the UN leaves in three months is the question that will ultimately condemn or vindicate the U.S.-led intervention in Haiti.
At the main police depot in Cité Soleil last month, four French UN civilian police were clearly in charge as several of the station’s 28 newly graduated Haitian officers bided their time for lack of vehicles to patrol. A worried suspect sat on a bench, the fifth day of his incarceration on charges of raping an eight-year-old girl. On a routine
patrol, the French led a pair of Haitian police down an alleyway to check out a commotion. The Haitian officers—some trying out confident body language, some displaying their fear—admitted they were grateful for the UN hand-holding in a place where violence can flare within minutes. “It will be a lot harder for us after they go,” said Haitian constable Marc Karl Simon. “This is the last chance for us.” The alleyway noise proved to be nothing more than a drunken afternoon among the jobless. But it was only five days later that a Haitian officer was taken hostage and nine civilians were shot dead by police, reigniting international concern over the
prospect for stability beyond this summer.
Pouliot and others say the success of the HNP depends on continued international commitment beyond the UN mandate. “Aiding the police, bilaterally or otherwise, must continue for another five to 10 years,” says Pouliot. “Otherwise everything we have done here in the last 18 months will fall apart.” It is a well-timed warning, applicable as well to Bosnia and other regions undergoing multinational efforts to build local security forces. Strife-weary Haitians, like Bosnians, can only hope that the foreigners will finish what they started.
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