Police Training: a Risky Road

Nicholas Goldberg is Op-Ed editor of The Times.

Saddam Hussein's police were not known for their respect for the law or for their adherence to basic principles of human rights. Torture was routine, and death in custody was common.

But in the new Iraq, that's all supposed to change. On the dusty campus of the national police academy in Baghdad, dozens of clean, well-pressed American soldiers are already offering instruction to a ragtag batch of Iraqi police recruits, schooling them in the fundamentals of what's known as "democratic policing."

I recently watched American military police officers at work there, teaching basic procedures such as handcuffing, searching and weapons technique, along with a smattering of human rights theory, alternatives to torture and the role of the police in a democracy.

Spc. Michael Harun, an Army MP from Southern California, stood over an Iraqi recruit who was lying face down on the floor pretending to be a suspect. "Don't help him up," he told the class. "Make him get up on his own. Keep your gun side away from him at all times. When he's up, kick his legs apart before you pat him down.... You don't want to have to go to your pepper spray. You don't want to have to use your baton. And you certainly don't want to use your firearm."

Creating a civil, professional police force is part of America's optimistic plan to build a better Iraq, one in which Iraqis -- sooner rather than later -- will govern themselves according to the basic precepts of democratic society. As part of the "Iraqization" of the conflict, says U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III, 25,000 police officers will be trained by the end of the year -- police officers who, presumably, won't beat or murder their suspects and who will stand for the rule of law. "In the end, as in every country," Bremer said in a recent briefing, "security here will depend on a professional police force."

But occupying a country is a tricky business, and building a civil government in a place as deeply riven, unstable and historically undemocratic as this one is particularly complicated. In the murky moral morass of Iraq, even this simple, seemingly unassailable plan to modernize the police raises troubling questions.

The problem is this: Even as we're teaching them to build a friendly, nonthreatening police force, we're also planning to teach Iraqis the darker art of counterinsurgency to help them win the battle against the Hussein loyalists and the jihadis who are threatening the country. "Of course we are establishing a special unit for counterinsurgency, and the U.S. and South Africa will help us train them," said Brig. Gen. Ahmed Kadhim Ibrahim, the national police chief.

At the police academy, I was quickly shooed away from SWAT team training going on behind a building, where recruits were crouched on the ground, apparently being taught by South African trainers how to raid a building to bring out a group of suspects. These police officers, explained one American sergeant, will be the front line of defense in charge of "rooting out" terrorists, and we need to give them the tools and skills to do so.

On the face of it, training Iraqis to take over the fight against the insurgency seems like a good idea. But history suggests that we should proceed carefully. This is a road we've been down before, with very mixed results.

Between 1962 and 1974, the U.S. Office of Public Safety trained about 1 million police officers in 50 countries. Then, as now, the United States insisted that its goal was "humane" police practices, more-professional forces and nonlethal rather than lethal techniques.

But just as today, the agency had a second, more important mission: It was primarily charged by President Kennedy with teaching police in the developing world how to beat back leftist insurgencies and guerrilla threats. Although we hoped they would do it humanely, no doubt, the overriding goal of the agency was to keep "friendly," non-communist regimes in power.

To that end, the U.S. trained hundreds of members of the shah of Iran's repressive secret police force, Savak. In Vietnam, American advisors trained the police of the South even as we escalated the war. In Nicaragua, we trained Anastasio Somoza's brutal National Guard to fight rebels. Senior police officers were brought to the International Police Academy in Washington, D.C., where courses were offered in traffic management and fingerprinting techniques -- but also in counterinsurgency tactics and ideology: "The Threat to Latin America," "Chemical Munitions," "The Nature of Insurgency" and "Planning for Riot Control."

Over time, the goal of building humane and professional police forces was subordinated to the Cold War counterinsurgency goals. The Office of Public Safety became closely associated with a series of unsavory foreign characters, and U.S. advisors aided and armed police forces in Latin America and Asia that routinely violated human rights. Advisors were accused by some critics of sanctioning torture. The agency insisted it was encouraging "orderly change," but as historian and Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr. later admitted, the administration's counterinsurgency policy "moved irresistibly towards counterrevolution."

In 1974, an angry Congress not only abolished the program but made it illegal for the U.S.to train or aid foreign police agencies at all. The U.S., members of Congress said, was in bed with thugs and death squads and, one legislator said, was performing "a vigilante job for governments with whom their own people are dissatisfied."

In the 30 years since then, we've gotten back into the business slowly. Early exceptions were made to let the Drug Enforcement Administration train narcotics police abroad. Then, after the end of the Cold War, Congress expanded police assistance to countries "emerging from armed conflict" and to "transitional democracies," as well as "failed states" such as Bosnia and Haiti.

Can we do it right this time? As bombings, assassinations, mortar attacks and helicopter downings threaten the success of the U.S. mission in Iraq, the top priority of Bremer and the American military commanders is likely to swing, as it did in the 1960s, from promoting democracy to combating insurgency. Finding the proper balance between the two will again be an issue, and may become even tougher as the job of training police is privatized and handed off to Virginia-based DynCorp, which has won an initial contract of $50 million to provide up to 1,000 police advisors.

If we're in the business of training foreign police, we should heed the lessons we've learned through trial and error over 40 years. David Bayley, a professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Albany, wrote a June 2001 report for the National Institute of Justice making the following recommendations, among others: Known human rights abusers must be excluded from new police forces; police forces must be carefully separated from the military because their missions are completely different; disciplinary systems must be established to prevent abuses; foreign advisors must stay in the country for substantial periods and must adapt their advice to local conditions and culture. And despite the appeal of turning a blind eye to "righteous but overzealous" law enforcement in unstable nations, those temptations must be fought.

The bottom line is that we must not allow ourselves to climb back into bed with the kinds of people we would not tolerate at home. Rebuilding Hussein's brutal police force, or a facsimile thereof, would defeat our avowed purpose for entering Iraq in the first place.

In 1961, Kennedy's foreign policy advisor Chester Bowles sent a secret memo to the president: "We are creating ... forces capable of seizing power and using it for good or evil," he wrote. "Are we preparing them to use their power to foster, however slowly, the institutions of democratic self-government?"

It's a question we need to ask again today.

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