Counter-Terrorism: Seeking Cops Who Don't Take Bribes


July 7, 2006: Iraq has become a reminder that one should not take a police force for granted. Before the arrival of the Coalition invasion force, Iraq never had anything resembling what Westerners consider a police force. During the four century Turkish occupation (and long before that), "police" functions were left to tribal and private groups. There was no "police force" as Westerners consider it. Even after the British took over in 1918, there was no modern police force. What passed for a police force, w as a government sponsored security force (to protect foreigners and wealthy Iraqis.) Once the army took over from the monarchy in 1958, the only effective police were the secret police, that insured everyone's loyalty. Disloyal criminals would be arrested, or just killed. Loyal (to Saddam) criminals became business partners with Saddam, and enforcers for him as well. It was an offer you couldn't refuse.

When Saddam was overthrown, it was believed that the traditional system, of tribal elders and merchant militias, could keep the peace. But something got broken during decades of Saddam's misrule. And that something was civic spirit. Saddam turned the country into a thieves paradise. Honesty and legal protections were no longer respected. After all, no one has seen them for so long, one could appreciate people believing honest police and fair judges was some kind of foreign fairy-tale. It was Lord of the Flies, writ large.

The Americans had been fooled by their experience in northern Iraq. There, the Kurds had been allowed to separate themselves from Saddam's rule, with the help of American and British military power. There was no collapse of public order when that happened. The Kurds quickly organized local security with tribal militias and the security forces of wealthy men. The Kurds proved to be a poor model for the rest of Iraq. While the Shia Arab parts of southern Iraq did adopt the same law-and-order arrangements as the Kurds, the Sunni Arabs, who had filled most of the police and secret police jobs before the invasion, decided to form criminal gangs and try to terrorize their way back into power.

This didn't work, but after three years of anarchy, the new Iraqi police force is faced with the task of transforming itself from a counter-terror force, in to an anti-criminal operation. The new Minister of the Interior (which controls the police) also has to purge partisan commanders and cops, who work for warlords and gangsters, as well as the government. Then there's the retraining problem. There were always some good criminal investigators in Iraq, although while Saddam was in power, they could be told to simply not investigate some crimes. That custom has not completely gone away. But what Iraq has missed is several generations of new police techniques and equipment. Forensics (CIS, Crime Scene Investigation) and criminal statistics are both tools Iraqi police see American intelligence troops use, and, know that this is the same stuff police in the West use to such powerful effect. A lot of those new (to the Iraqis) techniques can be used without a lot of new equipment. Some laptop computers and simple lab tools are all you need.

But the most crucial new technique is simple stuff, like how to deal with common crimes, and how to most efficiently deploy available police. Modern police techniques have made a lot of progress in that area. But there are two areas where the retraining will have the most problems; corruption, and good manners. This can be more clearly understood by noting the two things many Arab migrants to the west discover about the police they encounter there. First, the cops are so polite (at least compared to what they experienced back in the old country), and second, you can't bribe police in the West. Well, actually, you can if you try hard enough. But in most areas, a bribery attempt will simply get you arrested for bribery, in addition to whatever else you are in trouble for.

Iraqi-Americans who have returned to Iraq make no secret of their disgust for the bad manners, and corruption they see among the police of Iraq. Unless those two elements are changed, the Iraqi police will always be operating much less efficiently than they would otherwise. But there is a minimum of retraining needed to convert the majority of Iraqi police, from a security (counter-terrorism) force, to a police force. And a certain level of incorruptibility will be needed to prevent the cops and criminals from joining forces, as they did when Saddam was in charge. Such an arrangement is very lucrative for the cops and robbers, but not so good for the average citizen.

The retraining is underway. By the end of the year it will be apparent if the police are a solution to street crime, or simply another form of it.




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