Monrovia — A decade of efforts to reform the Liberia National Police (LNP) has resulted in an increasingly professional police force, yet abusive behaviour, a culture of impunity, and endemic corruption continue to erode the force's credibility, according to researchers. As a result, many Liberians fear the LNP rather than depend on it for protection.
The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) started to reform the Liberian police 10 years ago, when the country's civil war ended. UNMIL more or less dissolved the pre-existing force and built a new one from scratch.
The new force - now with 4,417 personnel - will soon be 5,000-strong, said UNMIL Police Commissioner John Nielsen, making it twice the size of the army.
Officers have undergone rigorous training, including in protection, criminal investigations and crime management.
Getting a trained, professional force up to speed and on the streets has been fraught with challenges.
Hurdles have included balancing "quantity versus quality, speed versus depth", building logistical capacity, getting the right equipment to the right places, and keeping that equipment maintained, said Nielsen.
But by and large, the national police has been providing security for most of the country for several years now.
The LNP has operated through difficult circumstances, including the 2011 elections and the influx of tens of thousands of Ivoirians in the country's east, with only logistical support from UNMIL, said Nielsen. "The day-to-day job is being done by the police."
Professionalizing senior ranks
There has been some progress in the LNP, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Arrests are now conducted more professionally, and torture and ill-treatment in detention have decreased due to UN trainings and monitoring.
Officers are more likely to report the abusive behaviour of others, partly due to the establishment of the Professional Standards Division, the LNP's internal monitoring unit.
Now reformers must focus building up the police's professional senior management layer, said Nielsen.
While some officers who have been working for 10 years have risen to the deputy commissioner level, the bulk of deputies, five or six commissioners and the inspector general are all political appointees, and were not selected for their abilities or experience.
The president has expressed a desire to professionalize the senior ranks, but "this has not happened yet and needs to... there has to be a culture of excellence built within the police force.
The only way to do that is to recruit them and train them, not through political changes at the top," said an expert who asked to remain unnamed.
The force's top 20 officers have been sent to Ghana for advanced training at the Ghana Institute of Public Administration, and a further 20 will follow.
Some 300 officers will soon graduate from Liberia police academy, according to LNP spokesperson Sam Collins.
But despite growing professionalism among many officers, a culture of corruption persists, say critics.
In an August 2013 report, No Money, No Justice, HRW revealed corruption, lack of accountability and abuses committed within LNP ranks, based on research it undertook in Bong, Montserrado, Grand Gedeh and Lofa counties.
Police at checkpoints all over Liberia exact money from motorists, they said; the average amount demanded is US$2-5. Motorbike driver Larry Hilton told IRIN that when people refuse to pay, "they impound our motorbike, and if we fail to give them money, they will not release it."
Some victims of police corruption said police extorted money at every stage of an investigation, whether for petty crimes or rights violations.
Many people said the routine demand for bribes meant they would no longer report crimes, and several said they decided to drop their cases because they could not afford the financial demands police made.
"They don't even investigate. If you go there and pay money, you are right," said one interviewee.
Interviewees also told HRW they had been robbed by the police. One woman said six officers robbed her in 2012, when she was sitting outside her house at night.
"In the night, we can't bring anything outside. We can't even carry a phone with us. Maybe once in three weeks they come. They can 'charge' [shake down] people in the night. They use the baton. If you put up resistance, they beat you with it... They usually come at 10 or 11."
Some turn to vigilante groups to achieve justice. A county magistrate said, "The way police handle matters, it makes people want to take matters into their own hands."
Theo Tweh, 25, the chairman of a local vigilante group in Paynesville, told IRIN. "We have no trust in them [the police] ... Whenever we report crime, they don't show up. So we are forced to get up at night and patrol our own communities against armed robbers."
Officers IRIN spoke to admitted bribery was rife. One told IRIN the money was used to fund a 'Susu', or savings club, to supplement their meagre incomes: "Three to four [of us] are in the office. Every day we bring in about US$2.
At the end of the week we give it to one person. The Susu is like a safety. It is like helping one another. How do you get the money to pay your Susu? It's through harassment. There is no love for the job."
The average police officer's salary is $135 per month, which is not enough to support a family's needs, he said, adding that they also lack vehicles, fuel and even the pens and paper they need to write reports.
Bribery and corruption remain a "prickly problem", said the unnamed expert, and will be eradicated only by building a culture of excellence in the force, with higher-ups setting the bar higher. Corruption involving large sums at the highest levels must be wiped out too, he stressed.
The inspector general has admitted corruption is a problem and says that it's his responsibility to address it, which is a real mark of progress, said Nielsen.
Following publication of the HRW report, LNP Inspector General Chris Massaquoi was defensive, saying it contained "unsubstantiated allegations and accusations" regarding corruption and other issues.
Collins, the LNP spokesperson, criticized the HRW reporting, telling IRIN that some of its findings were out of date and that many of the "unethical behaviours" it detailed had been addressed.
Other reforms underway include addressing widespread absenteeism, improving specialist training and establishing a misconduct division, said Collins.
He also noted 60 officers have been dismissed for unprofessional behaviour and a further 900 were warned for absenteeism.
UNMIL and bilateral donors have also pushed investigative policing, noting that more specialists are needed to address human trafficking and trans-national crime.
UNMIL was instrumental in helping the Liberia National Police set up its Professional Standards Division, but HRW urges the force to go further by establishing an independent civilian oversight board to field complaints about acts of misconduct.
It also calls on the police to implement an anti-corruption strategy that has so far been tabled by police and civil society members.
The government must increase its support to police reform and day-to-day operations, said Oscar Bloh, country director for the civil society group Search for Common Ground.
Nielsen agrees that the budgets needed to maintain equipment, facilities, uniforms, even office supplies should not be underestimated.
A major challenge across the board has been building capacity everywhere simultaneously: the military, most ministries and government departments have all more or less been built up from scratch over the past decade.
UNMIL is currently drawing down in Liberia. The only thing that can keep security from deteriorating once UNMIL withdraws, said human rights lawyer and activist Taiwan Gongloe, is "the quality of governance that will sustain the peace when [they] leave".
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]