THE United States crackdown on Haitian paramilitary groups and the abrupt departure of Haitian police chief Lt. Col. Michel Francois, who fled the country on Tuesday, are encouraging signs. But they won't preclude the need for a major overhaul of the Haitian civilian police force - a step vital to the restoration of a stable democratic government, international human rights groups say.
The more than 20,000 US troops in Haiti are having a chilling effect on the police and paramilitary forces, known for their brutality. But that isn't likely to last.
``Haiti has a military and police culture of control through terror, not one of protection,'' says William O'Neill, a consultant at the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees in New York and former legal director of the United Nations mission in Haiti. ``Turning that culture around is essential to instilling the rule of law, democracy, and respect for human rights.''
In Haiti, as in other former military dictatorships in the region, the police are under the control of the military. One of the major tasks in Central American nations struggling to instill democratic processes has been the attempt to effectively separate the police - often corrupt and raised on political patronage - from the armed forces and professionalize it. Panama and El Salvador are prime examples.
``Whether there's enough political space for opposition parties to compete depends on the police,'' says George Vickers, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights organization in Washington. ``In El Salvador, the civilian police are independent enough now to put democracy on the right track.''
Lesson from Panama
After the 1989 US invasion of Panama, the US helped set up and train a new civilian police force. But the $12 million, two-year program was not a rip-roaring success. The new force included former soldiers and police from Gen. Manuel Antonio Noreiga's regime.
As soon as US police advisers departed, the new police chief attempted to stage a coup against the ruling government. US troops stationed there had to restore order, but a succession of new police chiefs has done little to reduce the high levels of crime and drug trafficking in Panama.
``The lesson of Panama is you don't put the same people in new uniforms,'' Mr. O'Neill says.
Still, it's not clear yet whether the old Haitian police forces will be entirely scrapped or an attempt will be made to screen out just the bad apples.
Though El Salvador's transition has been fraught with delays and political battles, it is basically complying with the 1992 peace accords, which mandated that 60 percent of the new civilian police have no military experience. Now UN officials say the actual percentage of the force without combat experience will be close to 70 percent. No such quotas are set yet for Haiti.
In Port-au-Prince and Washington, there is some resistance to starting from scratch. In Haiti, the coup and embargo have left the military as the only functional institution. US law enforcement agencies and the Central Intelligence Agency have contacts within the present forces that they may be loath to lose.
``Some in the US military and CIA have argued that the US must not destroy the military structure, but rebuild it. That would be a disaster,'' Mr. Vickers says.
``If the military structure is used as a basis for rebuilding, there is no chance for democracy in Haiti,'' he adds.
Human rights groups worry that the deal struck between Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and former US President Jimmy Carter may hurt chances of purging the military ranks.
``Vetting the police will be key to restoring peace,'' says Allyson Collins of Human Rights Watch, in Washington. ``We're concerned about the US partnership with Haitian Army High Command. If they get too cozy, they won't want to rock the boat and get rid of the bad apples.''
The Salvadoran example
In El Salvador, the UN wanted to screen ex-soldiers and police applying to the new civilian police force. But the Salvadoran military refused to provide a list of its past and present personnel, forcing the UN to depend on less reliable screening methods.
Privately, US officials want strict screening of police applicants. But publicly, ``screening is a decision that will be left up to the Haitian government,'' says Ron Tomalis, a spokesman for the US International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program.
ICITAP officials are currently scouting locations in Haiti to set up a police academy. ICITAP, a US Justice Department program funded by the US Agency for International Development, set up the Panamanian and Salvadoran civilian police schools.
The US plan is to get a Haitian police academy up and running by Dec. 15. About four months after entering the school, the first graduating class of 375 police would hit the streets, gradually replacing the existing 7,000-member security force over the an 18-month period.
The new forces are expected to consist of 4,000 academy-trained police and 1,500 military troops limited to border patrol and antinarcotics duties.
But the academy may be delayed if it means waiting until the Haitian parliament - now in session - passes legislation to set up the new police force.
The Haitian police currently function as part of the military and take orders from the defense minister. The Haitian Constitution, passed by parliament in 1987, states that the police should be run by the justice minister.
But the Haitian military resisted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's attempts to take this function away from them before he was ousted in the September 1991 coup.
Until a new police force is created, the US will tear another page from the Salvadoran handbook. In El Salvador, the United Nations sent in human rights monitors to look over the shoulders of the Salvadoran security forces.
In Haiti, the two-dozen nations that volunteered peacekeeping troops will provide an estimated 1,000 police monitors. The US will contribute about 50 to 60 people who are being recruited from Haitian communities in the US.
The mission - already under way - is similar to El Salvador, but the US, not the UN, will run it. The first 50 police monitors arrived Sept. 30. At least 200 will be in place by this weekend.
``They will accompany the Haitian police forces on patrols and investigations, en-suring that what is done is in keeping with international human rights standards,'' explains a US State Department official. It is not clear, though, what the US will do if large numbers of Haitian police abandon their posts, as they did after a Sept. 24 gunfight with US Marines in Cap-Haitien.
Another challenge will be the demobilization of not just the military but also the section chiefs, who act as rural police. There are 565 section chiefs in the Haitian countryside, and each may have as many as 100 deputies.
``They extort, intimidate, detain, arrest, and sometimes kill people. President Aristide abolished the section chiefs and the military reestablished them when it took control,'' O'Neill says. Now, many of the section chiefs are in hiding, fearing retribution from Aristide supporters.
A job-training and employment program will also be crucial to a successful restructuring of the Haitian military and police forces, say human rights officials. In Panama and El Salvador, the crime rate shot up as armed ex-soldiers were released from duty, could not find work, and turned to crime.