Constructing the Haitian National Police

Constructing the Haitian National Police

By Dialogo
July 02, 2013

As this island nation edges toward stability, neatly uniformed Haitian National Police (HNP) officers can be seen directing traffic, conducting patrols and inspecting vehicles. The HNP is everywhere, from the up-and-coming community of Delmas to the pacified former slum of Cité Soleil, and throughout the camps scattered across Port-au-Prince. The 10,000-strong force conducts 285 daily patrols with support from 2,600 United Nations Police (UNPol). Haitians are noticing the increased presence of their civilian security force. Considering their low numbers for a population of 9 million, HNP achievements in reducing kidnappings, halting drug trafficking and building confidence with the populace bodes well for the prospect of security provided wholly by Haitians.

Mayor Leonardo Martinez of Camp Tabrreissa, a displaced persons camp of some 554 families, strongly defends the HNP from criticism by community members who complain that they never see Haitian officials. “There is a Haitian patrol here every day, two times a day, three times a day,” he told Diálogo. While admitting the HNP still lacks the equipment and manpower to run security in Haiti without U.N. help, he praised the institution for its role in keeping Camp Tabrreissa safe.

Inspector General Paul Thómas, chief of staff of the HNP director general, told Diálogo the primary challenges of the HNP today are lack of equipment and trained officers. Fifty-eight stations were damaged or destroyed in the 2010 earthquake, creating enormous setbacks for the nascent force. Joint efforts between HNP and UNPol are underway to rebuild the stations.

But HNP officers take the lead role in tactical operations, from roadside checkpoints to community patrols. Only the Haitian officers have the power to arrest and detain, while UNPol provides support. “United Nations police participate in continual training of our agents, sharing their experiences and assisting with tactics that are bringing significant support to our logistical plan,” said Thómas.

The MINUSTAH UNPol force has been in Haiti since 2004, with a mission to support and develop the HNP. Presently, 45 countries make up UNPol. From the region, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Uruguay and Colombia work hand in hand with the HNP.

Despite having some of the lowest crime rates in the Caribbean, crime in Haiti is all too often highlighted in international headlines. In the past decade, kidnapping became an epidemic on the island. Drug traffickers also used Haiti’s more than 1,056 miles of coastline as a strategic transit point for narcotics shipping, taking advantage of the nation’s lack of air and sea assets.

Colombian Major Arlex Escobar was one of the first two UNPol officers from his country in 2006. He has returned for another tour, working closely with the HNP to train officers in counternarcotics and anti-kidnapping techniques.
In 2012, Colombia signed a bilateral agreement with Haiti to help train police officers. The strategic alliance, backed with funding from the narcotics affairs section of the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, aims to train 200 female Haitian police officers by 2016. The first 10 officers arrived in Colombia in January 2013.

“We have realized that the Latin American models are very similar to our reality, to our daily life,” said Inspector General Jean-Yonel Trécile, the HNP’s international liaison. “It’s for this reason that we have focused on the police forces of Latin America, above all Colombia and Chile.”

Inspector General Thómas added that the high-quality training abroad is already permeating the police force as officers return and share the tactics they learned. Inspector Charles Odelet, who attended the police academy in Chile for a year and conducted training in Colombia, told Diálogo about how training in human rights will help change a history tainted by instances of police abuse.

Jaime Vigil, a senior planning officer with UNPol and retired Salvadoran police officer, has been working with the HNP for more than six years. Vigil helped to implement the U.N.-developed Haitian National Police Reform Plan of 2006-2011, and was involved in writing the current HNP Development Plan 2012-2016 with Haitian authorities and U.N. support.

Vigil said that while great progress was made in the first plan, a second plan was necessary in light of setbacks such as political turmoil in 2008 and the 2010 earthquake. The 2012 HNP plan, which was approved by the Board of Governors of the National Police, a group led by the Haitian Prime Minister, details very specific objectives and timelines to position the HNP to take over security in Haiti by 2016.

“When I arrived… the police [were] very criticized, with a lack of processes and a lack of training,” Vigil said. “In six and a half years there is a complete change in attitude. There’s a much stronger leadership with greater willingness to make things happen.”

HNP’s added challenges include the additional security roles it takes on in a country without Armed Forces, such as oversight of the Coast Guard, prison guard, firefighters and border control. Vigil also said that Haiti has half the officers it needs to provide security. One of the principal goals of the UNPol and international support today is to get Haiti to the numbers it needs for self-policing. Haiti’s 10,181 police officers equates to 1.02 police per 1,000 inhabitants, a third of what most countries in the world have and one-half of the Caribbean average.

The goal is to have 15,000 police officers by 2016, which would increase the ratio to 1.36 per 1,000, doubling that of 2006, when the first police reform plan began. The HNP is also working for a more equal countrywide distribution and are projected to take over policing of two departments in 2013, with MINUSTAH military withdrawing from further departments in 2014.

HNP Inspector General Trécile told Diálogo there are growing signs of confidence in the National Police. “Before they believed — or, maybe it was the truth — that when someone went to the police to give information, the police themselves were the criminals,” he said. “Now, this perception almost doesn’t exist. The people have confidence in us because we have taken steps to rid our ranks of bad elements.” Inspector General Thómas agreed that the HNP has made significant strides, but still has a long way to go, including improving insurance for families of officers injured or killed in the line of duty.

Ultimately, Vigil said the goal for transitioning security to Haitian control without UNPol is to create close working relationships with regional security groups such as Ameripol, which is based in Bogotá, and other Caribbean and Central American police forces. Vigil said another test of the staying power of the police will be remaining non-politicized and committed to institutional development.

It's a good thing they are concerned about such a vulnerable population.