Haiti's Revamped Police Unready for Prime Time
Will have to take over after UN troops leave
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — Once the headquarters for Haiti's drug squad, Metro 3 is now the model station for the new Haitian National Police (HNP). The newly painted blue-and-white office is better organized and equipped than neighboring branches. Still, 366 officers share just three portable radios, and the telephone only works if it has not rained the day before.
Officer morale for the 6,000-man force is at an all-time low. Unidentified armed individuals have killed seven off-duty HNP members in less than two months. Many of the young men who joined the force full of enthusiasm just a year ago are now disillusioned, scared, and want out.
Until last year, the Haitian police were part of the military, which ran the country with impunity. The police subsidized their low salaries by extortion, robbery, and murder. Then-President Jean Bertrand Aristide, the country's first democratically elected president, created the Police Academy in April 1995 to breed a more professional officer just before dismantling the armed forces.
Mr. Aristide was returned to power Oct. 15, 1994, by a United States-led international force of United Nations troops. Since then, the UN has been providing security for the country.
With the UN troops due to depart on June 30, the responsibility of providing security for Haiti's fledgling democracy falls on the shoulders of the HNP. If they can't do the job, the country could revert back to its former state of dictatorships and lawlessness.
Local and foreign support exists for a six-month extension of the current mandate for the 2,200-man UN force, (including 300 civilian police, called CIVPOL, and 700 Canadians).
But the Haitian government has not yet submitted a formal request to the Security Council to extend the UN mandate. Even then, the Council may or may not approve it.
"The situation [in Haiti] has evolved considerably on most levels: security, creation of the police force, a safe and secure environment," says Eric Falt, spokesman for the UN Mission in Haiti. "But everything achieved has a certain sense of fragility. It's unclear that the HNP alone can provide security for Haiti. We believe they must continue getting support for quite some time."
Most of the officers received only four months' training before being sent out on the beat. Few here believe that the HNP will be able to do its job without the cushion of the international troops.
"There would be more chaos, more violence, more crime, without them," said Pierre Denize, the general director of the HNP. "Forming the police force, like democracy, is a process. Progress is steady, it's on course, but it is slower than what we wish."
"Not every citizen wants democracy," former President Aristide said in a Monitor interview. "There are some who would like to divide the police and the population, creating trouble so that the police will be seen as the enemy of the population."
Complaints about the HNP are numerous. People say the new officers have assumed the posture of their military predecessors: brandishing weapons, forming gangs, and intimidating people.
"They are swaggering 20-year-olds who act like thugs," said one foreign observer, who saw a group of officers out of uniform mistreat a civilian while making an arrest.
Meanwhile, other policemen hide inside their barracks, frightened by the recent rash of police killings. Day patrols are done in packs of 15 in the back of a pickup. Most refuse to do night patrol, saying it is too dangerous.
"Our job is frustrating," says Franois Dugay, a Canadian civilian policeman operating out of the Carrefour police station just south of the capital. "The first group of CIVPOL worked on training. We are supposed to be supervising, but supervision of what? They come up with every reason imaginable to do nothing. They stay in their compound like it is a cocoon."
The police defend their behavior as a way to protect themselves. They claim to be targets of the former military, criminals, and even friends who were benefiting from the lack of government control.
"We are living in extreme stress," says one strapping officer at Metro 3 who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We are really afraid. We never go home in our uniform anymore. I tie a scarf around my head, put on an earring, and wear beat-up old sandals so no one will recognize me."