When El Salvador emerged from more than a decade of civil war in the 1990s, the United States helped set up a training program for the country's new National Civilian Police as part of the U.N.-monitored peace process. That program was one of several U.S. initiatives over the past two decades aimed at steering other countries, from Kosovo to Guatemala to Liberia, toward demilitarizing their security forces and making police accountable.
Watching the news of the past two days, a lot of Americans might think that some of the lessons the United States has shared abroad should be brought back home. Thousands across the country are protesting the Nov. 24 decision by a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer accused of killing unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. It's clear the United States could do more to address both the enmity between communities of color and police that protesters feel contributed to Brown's death and the aggressive, militarized police response to the protests.
A 2010 USAID manual directs U.S. officers working to improve policing abroad to consider a series of questions: Does the police agency have a use of force policy in effect? Are armed forces held legally accountable for their actions when performing law enforcement or public safety functions? Do [legal] bodies aggressively review and act upon complaints of misconduct? While aimed at police systems overseas, these questions have been asked with renewed urgency in the United States since Brown's death, which has become the latest symbol of racial injustice in a country where young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by police than young white men.
There's a similar disconnect between practice at home and U.S. promotion abroad when it comes to "community policing," the idea that police should be representative of and accountable to the communities where they work. "Community policing programs reduce crime by making citizens partners in law enforcement," the USAID manual states, emphasizing the importance of making minorities and other disadvantaged groups a part of the justice system. In 1999, the Clinton White House touted its work helping create "opportunities in the new multi-ethnic Kosovo Police Service and the Kosovo Protection Corps." But as of August of this year, 50 of the Ferguson Police Department's 53 members were white, in a two-thirds black community -- not exactly the ratio U.S. advisers advocated for Kosovo.
As demonstrators again filled the streets of Ferguson, police brought out the St. Louis County Police Department's armored military vehicles that became infamous during August's protests as examples of the militarization of American police forces. Since the 1990s, the Pentagon's 1033 Program has distributed surplus military equipment to police departments around the country, meaning that Ferguson police are equipped with military-grade assault rifles and backed up by hulking armored vehicles.
Meanwhile, the stated goal of U.S. police training programs in Central America has been to demilitarize civilian police forces and weaken their ties to paramilitary groups and the police forces involved in extrajudicial killings under past regimes. A USAID-sponsored paper from 2000 applauded the fact that "side arms more appropriate for the minimal use of force replaced long firearms in the hands of everyday patrol agents in most of the region's police forces."
For all their ostensibly good intentions, U.S.-led police reform efforts abroad haven't always shown positive results. In 2011, international relations researcher Cornelius Friesendorf argued that the United States' rush to equip the Afghan National Police to respond to security threats led to a more militarized security force, undermining communities' trust that police would not arbitrarily use violence against them. A 2010 Oxfam report argued that U.S. security sector reform efforts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo "appear to focus single-mindedly on the training programs, without a political strategy -- closely coordinated with other donors -- to convince the Congolese government to enact top-down institutional reform."
Security sector reform isn't easy anywhere, whether it's Central America in the 1990s or the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 2000s. But the United States government seems to have plenty of advice to share around the world. It's too bad the same tips about community policing, accountability, and de-militarization aren't being passed on to Missouri.
Aaron P. Bernstein, blog.foreignpolicy.com