Policing the Police in Haiti

By Alison Macgregor | 1996-05-01 12:00:00

The first challenge facing the new police force will be to win the respect and trust of Haiti's wary population.

"Gauche. Droite. Gauche. Droite."

A sergeant-at-arms calls out the drill, and two young police cadets - one male, one female - carry a Haitian flag through the early-morning sunshine. They lead a procession of youths in beige and navy blue uniforms past a grandstand crowded with spectators.

Off to the side, you can see the familiar scarlet tunics of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They are worn by several RCMP officers who, for the past four months, have been in Haiti to help train a new kind of police force, one dedicated to serving and protecting Haiti's people rather than exploiting or intimidating them.

Jean Chenet Lucien, director of the country's National Police Academy, strides to a podium where he urges the 5,000 new graduates to build on the training they've received, to defend Haiti's fledgling democratic system, and to respect the rights of its people.

In this beleaguered Caribbean country of seven million people, these are almost revolutionary ideas, but an important step was recently taken toward their realization. On February 17, a new breed of police in Haiti was born.

The graduation ceremony came shortly after the peaceful inauguration on February 7 of René Garcia Preval as Haiti's new president, marking the first democratic transfer of power in Haiti's unhappy and tyrannical history.

For civilian rule to succeed in Haiti, diplomatic observers say, it is crucial that a new kind of police force be created, one imbued with a sense of civic responsibility - a rare trait in this troubled land. The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti has no real tradition of public service.

In the past, the police and the army have been two prongs of the same corrupt organization and have served the interests of the economic and political elite. They were loathed and feared by the vast majority of Haiti's long-suffering people.

"They must break with the past completely," said a Western diplomat. "There is a tremendous desire to avoid creating a force in that image."

Canada has played a central role in the police training program and has assumed leadership of a multinational United Nations peacekeeping force charged with maintaining peace and order here, as Haiti continues its rocky progress toward civilian rule.

According to Canadian Ambassador Francis Filleul, Canadians are particularly welcome in Haiti because many of them speak French. They have been able to interact more freely with ordinary Haitians than have their counterparts from many other countries.

Canadian military personnel have also worked on community projects such as the construction of schools and sports facilities. They also provided logistical support during recent congressional and presidential elections.

"They are seen, not as an occupying force, but as a large number of helping hands," Filleul said. He acknowledged that other countries have made contributions just as important as Canada's.

Shortly after taking office, President Preval requested that the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti be extended past the February 29 end of the American deployment. That request was granted. However, the force was substantially cut, from 6,000 to 1,200 multinational troops. An additional 700 troops have been sent at Canada's own expense. Canadian Brigadier-General Peirre Daigle will command the reduced force of 1,900 men and women, whose current mandate expires June 30.

It's almost certain that the reduced force will be placed under Canadian command and that the Canadian contingent will be among the biggest, with about 700 troops.

In the wake of their troubled record in Somalia, Canadian peacekeeping troops have been well-behaved since their arrival in Haiti, observers say. An American diplomat commented that "Canada has a good (peacekeeping) track record and will be accepted by the people."

The U.N. force will continue to maintain peace and security while the rookie national police force gains experience on the beat.

Expectations of the new force are not universally high. Foreign observers note that the new recruits are young and inexperienced. Like Haitians generally, they have little knowledge or experience of the sort of policing that most Canadians take for granted.

Already, there have been some reports of poor performance or misconduct by the trainees. But diplomatic officials say that the cadets have been carefully selected and well trained. Their education will continue on the job as Canadian and other police trainers are dispatched to various parts of the country to monitor the new force.

Since the arrival of the U.N. troops in October 1994, there have been renewed signs of life and normal activity in the crowded neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. Once deserted after dusk and haunted by gunmen and fear, city streets are now crowded and noisy until late at night.

But there is still an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion among Haitians, and rumors - always a staple of life in this poor but bustling capital - are already circulating about the new police force.

Some say the force has been infiltrated by CIA agents. Others say that the new force will be challenged by free-booting paramilitary groups such as the so-called "Red Army" that holds sway in the Port-au-Prince slum of Cité du Soleil and that has been linked to former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Early in March, for example, a confrontation took place in Cité du Soleil between members of the police and local gang members. The battle resulted in nine deaths.

The first challenge facing the new police force will be to win the respect and trust of Haiti's wary population. Some consider it likely that the large number of women cadets will help to give a more humane face to the force.

A worrisome spiral of violence also must be curbed. Since much of Haiti's violent crime is related to the country's disastrous economic conditions, it will be difficult to solve one problem without addressing the other.

"Security of the country is not the only problem," says Venel Remarais, director of the Haitian Press Agency. "It's necessary to have work, to be able to buy, and for students to go to school People in the streets can be manipulated with money into carrying out violent acts."

The new force also faces basic administrative challenges, and it was not easy to find a qualified commanding officer acceptable, not only to Haitians, but to the international community.

"It is proving to be extremely difficult to find a good administrator, especially someone with a policing and judicial background, who is also a well-known democrat without any question marks," said a Western diplomat. At the end of February, Pierre Denizé was appointed to the post despite having no background in police work. Initial reaction to his appointment has been positive.

Meanwhile, at the police training centre, the emphasis on graduation day is on the achievements that have already been made, as well as on the challenges for the future.

Gathered on the parade grounds, a group of new cadets raise their voices spontaneously to express a novel sentiment in this tortured land. "The police are to protect and respect," they sing out, to the crowd's delight and applause.

Later, the police choir performs a Creole-flavored version of the U.S. R&B standard, "Lean on Me," and the cadets are requested to check the posted lists for their first assignment - patrolling the streets during upcoming carnival celebrations.

At the ceremony's end, family and friends greet the new graduates. A jubilant Rose-Laure Frederic Cherisme proudly congratulates her son, Joseph Selim Ludger Frederic, 26.

"There is a great need for this police force," she says. "I'm very proud of my son."

Peace Magazine May-June 1996

Peace Magazine May-June 1996, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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