U.N., Haiti find police training is no substitute for experience New civilian officers in El Salvador also running into trouble

March 05, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Armed with .45s and four months of United Nations training, members of the year-old Haitian civilian police force are tested daily on the dusty streets of the Cite Soleil slum.

Gang members with AK-47s could lurk in any shack. The bulging pocket on any passer-by's torn pants could hide a .357 Magnum.

"People here just laugh at us and our little handguns," said one nervous young officer, returning to the new concrete-block station house after a foot patrol.

The rookie officers -- and they are all rookies -- are so jumpy and green that they sometimes overreact, as they did in November, when a police officer arguing with a driver fired into a bus, accidentally killing a 10-year-old girl.

U.N. troops had to be called in to quell the ensuing riot. By the time order was restored, the mob had burned the police station )) to the ground.

U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali cited the incident last month in explaining why a 2,378-member international contingent -- including 300 civilian police and 1,600 soldiers, none American -- should stay in Haiti rather than implement the pullout that had been scheduled for last week.

In asking the Security Council to grant the U.N. mission in Haiti a six-month extension, he noted that "this young police force needs support for a while longer."

The council voted to renew the mission for four months, with 300 civilian police and 1,200 troops.

But many observers worry about how much longer the police will need the support.

Similar problems exist in El Salvador.

Like Haiti, El Salvador -- after four years of civilian control and $20 million in U.S. aid -- still suffers from a dearth of police experience and leadership, according to international think tanks and the United Nations. A serious lack of equipment, postwar crime waves and the constant temptation to slip back into habits of corruption, violence and political control plague the new civilian police in both countries, experts say.

Haitian police even need training in driving, according to the U.N. report. Such problems show the difficulties of developing civilian police from scratch in countries where such forces traditionally have been the branch of the military most often used for repression.

"In both cases, you are trying to create a whole new police force to replace a discredited, military, repressive police force," said Reed Brody, a consultant to the Haitian government who served as the U.N. human rights director in El Salvador. "The idea is to create a new civilian police force that would protect people as opposed to repressing them."

The experiments are being watched with trepidation and eagerness in neighboring countries. Honduras, particularly, is re-evaluating the role of its armed forces. Changes are expected in the Dominican Republic after elections this year.

Preparing the first class of civilian police was a Herculean effort in El Salvador and Haiti.

"For a period of four months, this was the largest police training academy in this corner of the galaxy," said Mike Peck, the police training center manager in Haiti. "We had 3,000 cadets in training at once."

El Salvador trained 9,000 new police officers in less than three years.

L The training that cadets receive is excellent, experts say.

But it is no substitute for experience, and the police and the public have paid dearly for the lack of that.

In the past two years, 90 Salvadoran police officers have been killed -- 0.5 percent of the force per year, more than 20 times the rate for U.S. forces. The public has seen the inexperience of police in their performance in high-pressure situations, particularly crowd control.

Last month, Haitian police killed two people and wounded 50 others when they fired into a crowd during Carnival celebrations, the most recent in a series of police shootings during public gatherings.

El Salvador's riot squad is being reorganized after police killed two demonstrators in separate incidents last year. As part of the reorganization, riot squad members took psychological tests to TC determine their fitness for crowd-control duties; 40 percent of them failed.

Public confidence in the new police force has turned to disillusionment. The U.N. report on Haiti warns: "They [the police] are still looked on favorably in most places by their fellow citizens, but their image has been deteriorating."

Similarly, polls show that a year ago, 28 percent of Salvadorans believed that the police were the institution that best defended human rights, a far higher percentage than any other organization received. By September, the police had dropped to fourth place and 7.9 percent.

Government officials are as much to blame for those numbers as the police because they have refused to address social problems until they erupt into violence, said Victoria Marina de Aviles, the attorney general for human rights. Then they send the police to stop the riot.

"The police cannot be used continually in this way," she said.

"They end up with the worst end of the deal."

Other observers say the police must accept their share of the blame for their eroding public image.

"The biggest concern is the absence of competent senior officers and overall leadership," according to the U.N. report on Haiti. "Lack of leadership has also affected the discipline of the force, leading to incorrect behavior, which in turn undermine its authority and respect for it."

To complicate matters, the inexperienced police are facing crime waves.

"We are fighting crime in a postwar era that has left a tremendous delinquency, and, on the other hand, we are organizing a new corps," Salvadoran Police Director Rodrigo Avila said.

Pub Date: 3/05/96

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