WHEN United States troops arrived in the village of Dufour, Haiti, in October, the townspeople expected them to remove human-rights abusers and corrupt officers occupying the local military outpost. Instead, the Americans replaced the police's ancient M-1 rifles with new M-16 automatic rifles.
The US has taken ambitious aim at creating a new accountable police force in Haiti. Notwithstanding their good intentions, US efforts in Haiti, as in El Salvador and Panama, exclude the local citizenry from having any say in who polices them or how to remove police who lose the trust of the community. Desperate for a police presence that will provide security, the Haitian people are not seeing a new force but rather the same corrupt brutes with new uniforms, cars, and guns. To remedy this, the local population must be given a role in the selection and retention of police.
Haiti, like many of its Latin American neighbors, has a sordid history of using the military in a police role. A well-trained soldier employs maximum force to defeat an opponent. A well-trained policeman employs minimum force to protect the community.
Restructuring the police will not be accomplished by top-down reform. In the past, the local policeman has carried out criminal orders from superiors, which institutionalizes corruption, repression, torture, disappearances, and killings. Once compromised, he has become a captive of a system that enriches each command level.
The US has an opportunity to introduce community policing in Haiti through democratic selection. But its program attempts to reform the unreformable and is wasting millions of dollars on new vehicles and other technology that an already-strained national budget will be incapable of maintaining or replacing. It is doomed.
The US should design a new model for restructuring the local police forces into a people's force that will enhance the security of the community.
I have discussed the concept of a locally elected people's police with poor farmers and residents of economically marginal urban areas throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Their reactions have been uniformly positive. Most indicated that they would be honored to be so chosen by their neighbors.
The Haitian national government could develop the mechanics for eligibility and voting. Care must be taken not to set the educational criteria higher than the existing median in each municipality. Large municipalities could be divided into policing districts, with residency required for running in nonpartisan elections. The government could also legislate the number of signatures needed to qualify for the ballot and establish rules for a voter recall.
Each municipality would be empowered to levy a police tax to pay for police service. Municipal police are already paid this way in El Salvador, where police are appointed by the mayor rather than selected by residents. Pay would be comparable to the customary daily wage paid by a law-abiding local landowner or factory owner. In a country with high unemployment, modest pay would not be a detriment to attracting strong candidates.
The need is clear for a trained national officer command structure, from the chief police authority down to the local commander in each municipality. New officer recruits are critical for successful reform. Officers with clean records would be retained only after retraining. French- speaking police officers from Canada and France should train the officer corps and stay on as monitors for an extended period.
Community policing does not obviate the need for special national units for urban traffic control, highway patrol, drug enforcement, contraband prevention, and special investigations that are beyond the scope of community police. A national police academy would be established for the training of new police officers and, later, for in-service training.
Appropriate technology geared to local budget realities and levels of economic development is critical to the long-term success of police reform. Police on mountain bikes and horses are more visible, vigilant, and accountable. Cars are more efficiently used by commanders.
Community police authorized to carry service revolvers and trained in their proper use would deter death-squad activity and other abuses against the local population. Perpetrators of such acts are cowards who operate where terror and fear reign and armed opposition is not likely.
By enlisting the community in a partnership to reform the police, the government will greatly strengthen Haiti's nascent, fragile democracy. A police force that owes its jobs to voters will be less likely to forget it is in service to the community. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.