LIBERIA: As armed robbery rises civilians defend themselves

Thursday, May 8, 2008
The current police force in the Liberian capital Monrovia is unable to combat an increase in violent crime, according to a recent independent report and many of the city's residents have created their own civil defence groups.

"Armed robbery is on the increase in Monrovia and we are not convinced that our police force can handle this type of crime,” said Eric Stewart, a community leader in the crime-prone suburb of Paynesville in the east of Monrovia where locals have formed patrols.

In another Monrovia suburb, New Kru Town, Nyononti Darbgeh, who supervises a civilian night patrol team there, said the situation is so bad, "We have no choice but to provide security for ourselves."

The UN and Liberian police officials in Monrovia confirmed that crime has been steadily increasing in recent months with 47 reported cases of violent assault and theft from March to April.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which has been overseeing security in the war-ravaged country, started a programme in 2004 to train 3,500 police by June 2007 and police officials told IRIN that that number has since increased to 6,000.

However, in a March 2008 report published by the US Army Institute of Strategic Studies titled "Security sector reform in Liberia: Mixed results from humble beginnings" author Mark Malan said results of training have been poor.

"The biggest problem with the Liberia National Police at present is low morale and poor discipline on the one hand and extremely poor leadership and management on the other", he said in the report.

He added, "There are no authoritative statistics to measure crime trends over time and… there is no coherent national security policy, never mind a national crime prevention strategy."

Community leaders said they are particularly concerned once UNMIL downsizes its 15,000-strong force which is planned to start in September 2008. "I can imagine how the crime rate especially armed robbery would be worse," Stewart said.

Liberia's justice minister and chairman of joint security Philip Banks said many logistical problems with the new police force had now been resolved.

"Right now things are moving the way they should be for the police force," Banks said. “We are ever more vigilant and prepared to deal with armed robbery. In fact, a select number of our police officers have now been armed to conduct night time patrols with UN peacekeepers.”

Training of an elite team of 500 police officers will soon be undertaken by DynCorp, a private American security contractor, Liberia's Chief of Police Beatrice Sieh said.

The Quick Reaction Unit [QRU], as the team will be called, "will be trained by leading international police trainers to handle armed threats," she said.

She said that by the time UNMIL pulls out the police will be capable of handling violent crime. "We respect the views of the public but the police are going through a rigorous training process and, for example, when this QRU completes their training they would be fully prepared to handle all violent crimes."