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Haitian soldiers learn to be police

As part of a hectic, urgent attempt to give Haiti a functioning police force, 353 soldiers from the old Haitian armed forces are participating in a six-day crash course in how to be cops.

Their hasty and rudimentary training is a stopgap until Haiti's police force is reconstructed. There are not enough competent police to walk the streets now, with only a few dozen dispirited, ill-trained officers remaining in each of the country's largest police stations. The rest _ about 70 percent of the 3,000-member force _ have deserted.

Trainers from the U.S. Justice Department and Canada will give "overviews of Haitian laws and human rights _ basically telling them not to use the bumpers of their cars to do interrogations or hook people up to electrical wires," a U.S. official involved in the training explained wryly.

A new police academy that is to train 6,000 officers will not open until January, and U.S. military commanders, whose troops are doing more and more policing, have decided they cannot wait.

Based on their experience in other countries, one of the main fears of U.S. military commanders since arriving here has been that they would be forced to police Haiti.

Col. Michael Sullivan, chief U.S. military liaison to the Haitian police, oversaw policing in Panama after the 1989 U.S. invasion.

"I know what it's like to be chief of police in Panama City with no Panamanians working for you, and I don't want that job again," he said.

But Sullivan said the vacuum is not a disaster, because Haiti's rate of common crime is low.

Since U.S. forces arrived Sept. 19, there have been numerous incidents of retribution, including the beating or even killing of suspected military collaborators. But these incidents are decreasing, Sullivan said, and common crime is low by comparison.

Haiti's former police spent much of their energy beating people and playing dominoes. They did so little law enforcement that their absence is not greatly felt, he said.

The officers who began training this week will begin work next week with new uniforms and, ideally, new attitudes. A committee of Haitian colonels named by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide selected what are supposed to be the 353 "best and the brightest" Haitian soldiers, Sullivan said.

They were screened against lists of known human rights violators, U.S. officials said, although representatives of several human rights groups said they had not been consulted. Neither U.S. nor Haitian officials would discuss the lists. Human rights specialists said they feared that the interim police force is serving to ease Haitian soldiers into the new police force.

A U.S. official working on the program disagreed, saying all applicants to the new police academy _ civilians, soldiers and interim police _ will be screened again.

Eight more weekly courses are to be held, until 3,000 former soldiers have attended or until the police academy's first graduates finish their four-month course next April.

Aristide supporters and human rights groups say it would be better to recruit civilians than to try to train Haitian soldiers to be police. At the refugee camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 1,200 Haitians were selected to become interim police, but only 25 of them are working so far, as police trainees in the northern city of Cap-Haitien.

The rest are taking a three-week training course at Guantanamo, after which they will go to work in Haiti as police aides, U.S. officials said.

Meanwhile, a diverse patchwork of foreigners from various countries and organizations has moved into Haiti's police stations, where they outnumber the Haitian police they oversee.

Each police station in the capital nowhas yellow-hatted International Police Monitors, who are police from 30 nations headed by former New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

The monitors are assigned to watch over the Haitian police, making note of which police officers commit human rights violations and preventing abuses if possible. Now totaling about 500, the monitors are to number 1,000 by the end of next month.

U.S. military police have also been playing a steadily increasing role. During the last week they installed themselves in the capital's police stations, where Haitian commanders are mostly missing due to desertions and reassignments.

"Last week, we weren't supposed to ride with them. We were supposed to just watch. But it didn't work. . . . It's still not working," said an MP who asked not to be named. "Every time we do one plan, we have to change that, scratch that. They're up to about Plan D now."

The MPs give orders, give morning classes in basic police work like handcuffing and searching, and walk patrols with Haitian police who often are afraid to go out alone.

Capt. David Lewis was trying to get just 12 police officers to go out on patrol last week. "If you can't do it, I want to talk to someone who can," said Lewis, an MP commander assigned to make the station operate although 70 percent of its officers have deserted.

In interviews, Haitian police carefully said they were pleased to be working and that they are professionals.

Their counterparts disagreed.

"They're not doing anything," said an American MP sergeant assigned to work with the police. "The Haitian police are just sitting there going, "Not today, we're not answering that phone.' We ask them to help us and they're blowing us off."