In a turnabout, police are the good guys in post-quake Haiti
Saturday, January 30, 2010
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- In the hours and days after the city crumbled and the enfeebled government of Haiti disappeared from public view, a remarkable thing happened here: The police showed up for work.
Since the earthquake struck, the once notoriously corrupt Haitian National Police have been doing their jobs and are keeping something approaching law and order in a capital of chaos.
A force previously dominated by thugs has transformed itself, according to international advisers, U.N. police officers and Haitians. In Port-au-Prince today, there is something almost heroic about an officer trying to direct traffic on Grand Rue Dessalines.
"I have seen the people wave at us and say, 'Good job!' which gives the men a strong feeling in their hearts," said Lavaud Belimaire, a police inspector who heads an 80-officer corps in the commercial heart of the city, where looters have methodically stripped warehouses of their goods.
Their counterparts among the U.N. peacekeepers and U.N. police drive around in armored personnel carriers. They are banking hazardous-duty pay, and they have access to psychological counseling and a PX store stockpiled with baguettes and cognac. But the Haitian police have not been paid yet, which is making U.S. and U.N. officials nervous.
Until the broken Haitian government can figure out how to distribute paychecks, the national police have been working for food. That's one meal a day, given to them by the foreigners, that "we have to beg for," said the chief of police. There is ominous grumbling in the ranks about a lack of respect.
Foreign diplomats with long histories in Haiti confess near-amazement that the police did not fold. A decade ago, during cycles of hurricanes and coups, it would have been the police careening through the city in trucks stuffed with stolen electronics.
"In the old days, you ran away from the Haitian police, you didn't run toward them. They were the bad guys," said Richard Warren, the U.N. deputy police commissioner in charge of helping the Haitian National Police. "That has changed, and you can see the change with your own eyes."
Haitian police officers are directing traffic at crazy intersections -- and most vehicles actually stop. When drivers ignore them, the police seize their licenses on the spot. The police escort water trucks into desperately thirsty neighborhoods and keep order, which the U.N. forces have not managed to do with food deliveries.
The Haitian police guarded banks, gas stations and cash delivery outlets such as Western Union when they reopened this week.
"When the people see the police now, it makes them feel better," said Erik Bayard, an attendant at what is now one of the city's most functional gas stations. "They help keep things calm, and they keep the rowdy ones away."
A few nights ago at the Champs du Mars park in the city center, where a tent city of tens of thousands now stands, the police quickly rushed an eerily dazed woman into a van when a crowd began screaming, "Loup-garou!" -- werewolf! -- at her. A bystander said the people wanted to lynch her because they thought she was possessed by demons.