Third World police training: Could you meet the challenges?

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Training a group of in-service officers in a report-writing class, Bryan Vila thought a standard role-playing exercise would be just the thing to test their powers of observation. Trouble was, these cops had never before been exposed to simulations.

When Vila burst into the classroom firing three blanks at their chief in a sudden “ambush” and the man fell to the floor, they thought Vila had killed their leader. As he ran from the room, they angrily swarmed after him, intent on tearing him apart with their bare hands. “If they’d been armed,” Vila says, “I’d be dead.”

That was his introduction to a challenge that an increasing number of American officers are undertaking these days — training police forces in developing countries. Lured by high pay, a sense of adventure, and a desire to spread law enforcement professionalism, retired and active officers alike are hiring on with the military and private contractors in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other backward regions to help bring modern practices to local policing.

“It’s a noble and much needed pursuit,” says Vila, a former inner-city gang sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and now a criminal justice professor at Washington State University in Spokane. “But without realistic expectations, proper preparation, and a flexible mind-set, it can be a disaster for everyone involved.”

Vila and co-author Cynthia Morris have produced a highly entertaining and instructive book called Micronesian Blues, recounting his experiences in training native troops in Micronesia, a collective of some 2,000 tiny islands scattered in the western Pacific between Hawaii and Japan.

He initially took the job expecting to spend two years there. He ended up staying six.

What he learned, he says, can provide vital orientation not only to well-intentioned officer instructors headed to primitive outposts abroad but to street cops whose beats encompass unfamiliar ethnic and cultural enclaves in U.S. communities as well.

During his tour, Vila had “six different governments, twelve different cultures, and nine different languages to deal with, along with more than a few riots, rapes, and murders.” The navigational shocks he encountered in his Pacific “paradise” are typical of what to expect when what he calls our “spit-shined policing world” collides with that of an “emerging” nation. Just a few of many examples:

Duty gear. Officers on the first island where Vila worked showed up for patrol wearing rubber flip-flops, “ratty dark blue trousers with gold stripes down the sides, white bus driver-style hats with patent leather visors, and little corroded badges” on their rumpled shirts.

Weapons presented at “firearms training” were “too old to be safe. We couldn’t even get some of them open — the rounds were completely corroded in the cylinders.” The few workable sidearms had to be rotated among the officers.

In some areas, shotguns were ultimately settled on as compromise weapons because there wasn’t time or money enough to get officers proficient with handguns.

Unexpected sensibilities. One day during a makeshift attempt at range practice after a night of dining on spicy native fare, “I let out an enormous fart,” Vila writes. “In just about any stateside police department, everybody would crack up and it would relieve a little boredom and tension.” But at his new locale, “two [native] lieutenants were appalled and immediately started smacking the young recruits upside the head, demanding to know who was responsible for such impudence.” Vila sheepishly confessed to “what I hadn’t realized was a serious faux pas in this society.”

On the island of Yap, he also learned that “privacy is taken very seriously.” Even police officers “don’t just go walking down the road into someone else’s village. If you want to enter, you carry a branch of greenery as a symbol of your peaceful intentions. As you approach, someone will come to greet you, and you must ask permission to enter.”

Superstition. On another island, the local mythology included a fervent belief in ghosts, Even the “huge, hulking” cops there adamantly refused to patrol at night for fear of becoming “possessed.” Force, persuasion, discipline all failed to change their recalcitrance. What finally worked was a creative idea by a training specialist from Hawaii.

He had his flight attendant girlfriend “bring him some cheap perfume from Honolulu,” Vila explains. He told the local police it was “magic” and would “protect them at night.” Every evening after roll call he sprayed each officer with two bursts of the noxious scent as he sent them out on the street — “Presto! No more problem.”

Traditional ways. A drinking party among buddies got out of hand one night when “somebody pissed on somebody else’s shoes” — and, for his tactlessness, the offender ended up getting his head bashed in with a chunk of concrete. The police arrested one of the group and to get him to rat out the others they dangled him over the side of a high bridge by his ankles.

Other officers customarily got suspects to talk by beating them with rubber hoses or forcing them to kneel for hours on a broomstick — and saw no obvious disconnect between these practices and ethical techniques.

“Old habits die hard, especially when they get such good results,” Vila’s book notes. “It wasn’t enough for us to try to understand their culture. We also had to help them understand our culture better if they were going to successfully adopt more modern ways of doing things.”

Language barriers. The key to training, of course, is comprehension of what’s being taught, and the failure to share a common language can be an insurmountable obstacle to understanding, Vila points out.

Once when he was about to start a range class devoted to using some old M1 carbines, he realized he’d left the magazines back at the station in the weapons locker. He asked a “bright young detective” and another officer to run back and get them. They returned with “a copy of Skiing magazine and a couple of old National Geographics” — and they weren’t joking.

In one group of trainees, only about half spoke any English, necessitating an approach that was awkward at best. Each morning Vila taught the English speakers and had them translate core concepts back to him in the local language. Then in the afternoon, he stumbled through reciting these principles to the officers who had no English comprehension.

This chore was complicated by “strong cultural pressure to conform and get along. In Micronesia, if people don’t understand what you mean, they won’t tell you. If you’re wrong, they won’t challenge you. If they can’t do what you want them to do, they’ll still say ‘yes’ because they don’t want hurt your feelings or make you angry” — an attitude that “just doesn’t work when you’re trying to teach people.”

Through much trial and error, Vila and his fellow trainers managed to make headway and, he hopes, leave a lasting imprint. Overall, his stint as a visiting trainer, he says, was “one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever known. It was also the adventure of a lifetime.”

For those who will follow in his footsteps to foreign lands, as well as those who encounter foreign cultures on their beats in this country, he shares some of the lessons he learned that he believes can make the job easier.

1. Be sure you’re right for the job. Besides professional skills and previous success in training other officers, you need to be “willing to rise to the challenges of working where water, power, communications, food, medicine, and other things we take for granted are iffy commodities,” Vila says.

He recalls one CJ consultant freshly arrived from the States who wanted to stop at a drugstore en route to his hotel from the airport so he could get sterile solution for his contact lenses. He was “just flabbergasted” to learn that the nearest drugstore was several hundred air miles away.

Besides being prepared for hardships, “successful foreign police trainers must have a genuine regard for the people and culture they’re working in, and appreciate that there can be more than one legitimate world view,” Vila says. “Flexibility, creativity, and initiative are essential qualities.”

2. Don’t underestimate your trainees. “That’s easy to do, especially at first,” Vila writes, because police in less-developed settings “tend to be less professional looking, poorly equipped, and less thoroughly trained. But that doesn’t mean they’re not real cops at heart.”

He cites his role-playing scenario that went south. Although his naïve trainees mistook simulation for reality, “they certainly knew what to do when one of their own was attacked.” You needn’t assume that they are “ready yet to handle every difficult situation” that arises, but you do need to respect their determination and “treat them as partners in the training process.”

3. Tailor your instruction to your audience. “Some concepts that are second nature to you may not be to your trainees,” Vila explains. For example, among some groups he taught, the idea that you could tactically prevent some bad things from happening was a totally alien notion; there was not even a word for “safety” in the local language. Before he could teach officer survival principles, he first had to convince his trainees that they could influence the actions of suspects and their outcomes, rather than just react to whatever fatefully occurred.

4. Learn the local language. “I can almost hear the folks who have been recruited to train police in Iraq or Afghanistan saying, ‘Are you nuts? I don’t have time. I’m only going to be there for a year’,” Vila writes.

“Bullshit! Learning even some of the language — basic words and phrases — is better than nothing at all. I’ve heard stories about police trainers in Iraq stuck in hotels or barracks for weeks on end because it wasn’t safe enough to start training. Instead of spending all that downtime exercising, reading, playing videogames, or watching DVDs, that’s a wonderful opportunity to learn the language.”

For starters, he says, “you only need about 20 phrases to be polite and deal with crisis situations.” Using flashcards and a little local tutoring, he found he could learn these basics in a few days, and become “fairly fluent within about three months.” Learning the language of your trainees “not only makes training more effective, it says to people that you respect them and care enough about them to make the effort.”

5. Participate in local culture. “Minding your manners and sharing in local customs can go a long way toward helping you become an effective change agent,” Vila says. “What is considered perfectly acceptable in our culture may be considered an abomination in another, and vice versa. To establish rapport, try your best to fit in whenever possible without, of course, sacrificing your ethical core.”

During his tour, he joined in drinking a local brew that (for good reason) was nicknamed “elephant snot,” dined on furry fruit bats, learned the “right” way to shake hands and pitch the volume of his voice, and in other ways showed “good manners” and respect for the customs of those he was trying to influence.

“I made lots of mistakes at first,” he writes, “but I had six years to work my way through the cultural maze. Foreign police trainers on one-year contracts really have to hit the ground running rather than wait to learn everything by trial and error. Fortunately, on the Internet you can find out a great deal about cultural specifics almost as quickly as you can move a mouse.”

6. Be realistic about goals. “Ultimately, we all understand that effective policing is a cornerstone of democracy,” Vila says. “But if you’re only in-country for a year as a trainer, you’re not likely to revolutionize a developing society.

“Like any other trainer in any environment, though, you can have a one-on-one impact that can radiate out to others in ways you may not imagine. You are planting seeds. And if you’ve got the right perspective, if you set your expectations at a reasonable level, and if you let the locals train you while you’re training them, you can make a difference, you can make things better.”

Note: For more information on Micronesian Blues, visit,, or the publisher’s website at and type the title into the “Search” field. Vila is also author of the breakthrough book Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue.

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