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UN-Trained Liberia Police Face Many Challenges

As part of its operations to help build a democratic Liberia, the United Nations mission is training a new police force. But with low salaries, no electricity and misconduct in their ranks, Liberia's police face many challenges.

Merrick Watson, the Jamaican director of a U.N police academy in Paynesville, outside the capital, says he believes training a modern, professional police force is crucial to the future of Liberia.

"We know that," he said. "The people, because we've done our surveys, the people of Liberia they want a properly structured police force, a police force that they can trust, a police force that they can run to, a police force that will give them the service that they, as the citizens of Liberia, deserve. I think that, if this is done, then Liberia, will be well on its way to having peace and to achieving prosperity."

During a decade and a half of fighting, it had become increasingly difficult to distinguish between police officers and military forces.

Among the newly-trained recruits, including some who received extra training in Nigeria, there have been accusations of rape.

Mr. Watson says any accusation of police misconduct is being dealt with.

"I think, I can safely say that we do not have a lot of incidents of these rapes occurring in the police force that we know," he said. "Yes, some have come to light, and those that have come to light, we have dealt with them. We dismissed them from training, the first thing. And then, secondly, the Liberian national police will do their investigation, and take the necessary steps against these people. But, as far as I am concerned, and I stand to be corrected here, it has not been a significant problem among the police."

New Liberian police officers, who are unarmed, also face a lack of respect. This shouting match erupted when a driver refused to be taken to police headquarters for driving without a license.

For a while, after U.N peacekeepers arrived, there was practically no police force, so seeing police on the street again requires adaptation for some.

The inspector general of police, Joseph Kekula, points to another problem in getting police work done in Liberia - no electricity.

"There's no way you can easily do foot patrols," he explained. "By the time the armed robbers see the headlights of the vehicle, they all run away. Sometimes, they don't even go far. But because you don't have electricity, you don't have lights. I mean you cannot see anybody. So, we find it very difficult to carry on our foot patrols, and even in the apprehension of criminals at night."

Disarmament of former fighters yielded fewer weapons than expected, and some of these former fighters are now turning to crime.

Liberians have also complained of a lack of coordination between their unarmed police and armed U.N peacekeepers to stop criminals.

There has also been friction between long-time policemen, who are being phased out, and the new recruits, who all receive six weeks of U.N training.

Trained or untrained, most policemen can still be seen out in the open taking small bribes from drivers.

At police headquarters, some of the trained policemen also complain that suspected criminals are sometimes released, when they or one of their relatives know a member of the police force.

Helping direct traffic in downtown Monrovia, 34-year-old Agathe Nto, who also received training in Nigeria for special combat, tells a passerby, she feels underpaid.

She says she makes about U.S. $56 a month, to take care of six children, three of her own and three adopted.

"All security must be paid on time, encouraging salary, because the security job is not an easy task," she said. "Can you imagine me leaving my children, two, three days, without seeing them. If I am well paid, I can cater to them, but anytime I go anywhere, my heart is hanging for the children."

A civil rights campaigner, Austin Jlah, says it's not surprising that, with low pay, corruption continues.

"In a country, when police and security in general aren't well paid, it's likely that something like corruption will take place," he said. "I would also like [for] the international community, that since they have done their best to train the police, they should also improve the salaries, so that the problem of what have you, small cents given on the side, can be reduced, if not eliminated, but reduced."

That appears unlikely, as indicated by U.N spokesman Paul Risley.

"Unfortunately, providing proper salary and pay to these police officers is always going to be a challenge and always difficult," he noted. "Very few civil servants in Liberia today earn much in the way of salaries. Obviously, the U.N. and the international community want to see that police officers receive their salary, because they are essentially on the front lines. If Liberia is to have a peaceful and secure future, without the U.N. presence, it will be the responsibility of these officers. So far, the training has been very good, and many countries have provided equipment and further training for the officers. But salaries remain a problem, and that will be a challenge for the new government."

The new police are also being trained to ensure security at ports in Monrovia, Buchanan, Greenville and Harper. Nearly 2,000 new officers have been trained so far.