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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Their new uniforms clean and crisp, the Haitian officers chat with street vendors and school kids as they stroll through a neighborhood of the dense capital, a practice in the sort of community policing the national force is embracing as it works to reinvent itself.
The patrolmen on this morning walked with a pair of veteran officers on loan from New York City, Haitian-Americans who are helping the national police prepare to take on greater responsibility as the United Nations reduces the number of peacekeeping troops in this long-troubled country.
Disdained by many as abusive or inept, officers of Haiti's force now say their new approach is beginning to pay off.
"People are starting to give us the kinds of useful statements we didn't get in the past," rookie officer Gama Jameson said as he patrolled the district of Petionville with the New Yorkers. "I think the people are feeling more comfortable with us."
New York City Police Sgt. Rochener Gilot, who worked as a Haitian officer in the 1990s before moving to the U.S., closely watched the rookies work on building trust with local residents. "The population's comfort level with police is not going to change overnight, but we're removing the myth that police are not friendly or approachable. People here are starting to see that they can talk to the cops," he said.
Haitians will soon rely more on their police to maintain security as the United Nations downsizes the peacekeeping force it has kept in Haiti since 2004, when a violent rebellion swept the country. While the U.N. will maintain a police contingent of 2,601, it will cut its multinational troop size from 5,021 to 2,370 in June.
Many people wonder if the Haitian officers will be ready.
"There is little question that the (national police force) has been strengthened and professionalized over recent years, but it began at such a weak and dysfunctional level that it is still not at the professional level everyone wants," said Mark Schneider of International Crisis Group, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C.
The Haitian National Police was founded in 1995 after then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide disbanded the army due to its long history of abuse. An uprising in 2004 ousted Aristide and insurgents targeted police officers, killing and mutilating scores. Many abandoned their posts. When U.N. peacekeepers arrived, they found a force left demoralized and outgunned.
In more recent years, the foreign peacekeepers have done much of the heavy lifting as they helped police battle gangs in urban slums.
As the force is built up, some Haitians still accuse officers of being incompetent and heavy-handed agents for the elite.
"In Haitian culture, if you have a gun and a uniform, you're one of the rough boys. If the U.N. leaves and all we have is Haitian police, I think there will be no human rights here," 25-year-old Etienne Bergerald said in the cinderblock slum of Delmas 32 as he transformed a rusty car with spray paint.
As the nation of 10 million rebuilds from a ravaging 2010 earthquake, it lately has enjoyed a period of relative stability and growing foreign investment. Perhaps no Haitian institution has seen more focused international assistance than the police. The U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs has provided between $15 million and $29 million annually toward security programs in Haiti in recent years. Canada, Brazil and other nations also have made significant contributions.
Haitian officers have received continuous professional training, more vehicles and other equipment. Pay for rookies has increased by 30 percent, rising to about $400 a month. Police are vetted. Now, there's only a 2 percent annual rate of attrition.
"There's been a lot of solidarity from the international community in investing in the police force. We're grateful for that and making the best of it," Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe told The Associated Press.
Haiti's force currently has some 11,200 officers and another 1,400 or so will be added next month. But that still falls short of the recommended minimal level. Lamothe said Haiti needs to have at least 15,000 officers by 2016, and he's confident they will get there.
The first major test for Haiti's upgraded force will come in 2015 when the country is due to hold elections. Observers will be eager to see whether the force is ready to maintain order at polling stations, handle street protests and prevent the sort of violence and instability that has marred past votes.
Security in Haiti remains fragile. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted in August that the 416 homicides reported in the first half of 2014 marked a 24 percent jump over the same period last year. Political leaders, however, say Haiti's reputation as a dangerous place is undeserved. They point out that its homicide rate is less than that of neighboring Dominican Republic and far below the rates of other countries in the hemisphere.
Joseph Tassy, a former New York City officer who now is based in Haiti's U.S. Embassy, said changes such as the community policing effort are a step in the right direction.
"By gaining the trust of the population you can better fight crime," Tassy said. "The police leadership here understands that. The mentality here is completely different from what it used to be."
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