I had the good fortune of shadowing Emory doctoral candidate Sabrina Karim as she traveled to Liberia this July to supervise ongoing projects and begin setting up her dissertation. Karim’s work is an in-depth study of the type of police officer within the Liberian National Police (LNP) that evokes the most trust from the Liberian people, particularly those in rural (and therefore nearly unreachable given a lack of infrastructure) and often marginalized parts of the country. Karim has been working with the LNP for more than two years now. Instead of the typical extractive researcher-subject relationship, the police force has in fact utilized Karim’s past and current work to inform and reform itself.

It has installed “confidence patrols” within rural communities to build relationships with locals. The LNP is taking into account an earlier project in which officers of different tribes were studied to see how they would treat the much-maligned Mandigo tribe. And, it’s Public Relations office has worked with Karim on press-releases of her findings and the force’s consequent actions.

Likewise, since the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003, the LNP has worked on its own accord to re-create itself in such a way that it reflects the people it seeks to protect. A 30​ percent quota for women, an ongoing campaign to recruit members of all of Liberia’s tribes and a variety of continuing education opportunities for officers are but a few of the steps the LNP has taken and continues to take in order to institutionalize a force that had been all but completely razed.

All of these initiatives point to one fundamental change the LNP has made since 2003: it has made an attempt to serve all of the people of Liberia, not just a certain tribe, warlord or class. It didn’t occur to me until I got back to America exactly how integral this primary goal is to a functional system.

Now three weeks since my return, America is afire with the news of Ferguson, Missouri. It seems to be the same old story of the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The case of Michael Brown, a teenager who was shot by a member of the police force, Darren Wilson, seems rather unremarkable in the laundry list of police using excessive-force against whole demographics, but it marked a boiling point for a long-frustrated segment of the population.

Whether or not the case results in a conviction of the police officer involved, Michael Brown’s death has raised an important question: what needs to happen for our police to be better at protecting the American people as a whole, not just those whose skin color, wealth or address are socially desirable.

To understand how the Liberian example provides some answers to this American question, some background on Liberia’s war is necessary. The initial phase of the war began in 1980 with a coup d’état on the ruling elite, the Americo-Liberians, a sect of Liberians descended from freed American slaves who had been suppressing and neglecting the natives since they had arrived on the coast in the mid-1800s. Samuel Doe, a young soldier in the Armed Forces, murdered William Tolbert, Jr., president of Liberia, in a bout of rage and then proceeded to act similarly despotic for the duration of his 10 years in power, with his Krahn tribe taking the place of the Americo-Liberians as the elite.

The second part of the war saw warlords from across the country descend on the capital city of Monrovia with militias in tow until one–Charles Taylor–took reign permanently. Things quieted down for a bit as Taylor solidified his power, but war broke out again in 1999 when two rebel groups gained momentum in the countryside and started overtaking land.

There was even less of a semblance of everyday life than there was under Doe. By the time Taylor was exiled and a peace agreement was signed in 2003 at the behest of both domestic and international pressure, Liberia was in tatters, still convulsing with mistrust of everyone and everything.

Rebuilding institutions in that state of mistrust is still a struggle 11 years later, but having watched one very important institution in action, I’m hopeful that the country’s on the right track. The biggest obstruction to progress besides the obvious lack of resources and infrastructure has been the lack of trust in the institution, but that’s changing. The confidence patrols, the diversification efforts and the attention to public thought have all been unbelievably beneficial to restoring people’s trust in the police.

Whereas before, calling the police for an emergency or disturbance would often make things worse, now the police are becoming an increasingly effective and respected entity. Liberians are just now starting to rely on them. In a country where many conflicts are still settled by informal local mechanisms, the continual rise of the national police in settling disputes and protecting communities has–to my third party eyes, at least–proven just how far the creation of faith in the system has come.

Meanwhile, in the United States, faith in our justice system seems to be crumbling. Perhaps we could take a page out of Liberia’s book: start recruiting a police force that mirrors the greater population, send officers to communities for the sole purpose of getting to know the residents and talk to people to figure out there concerns about and desires for a force that serves them and then act upon what they say. In essence, the American police force needs to take a long hard look at itself and ask why it is that it exists at all [be self-reflective and justify its existence].

The answer should be helping people lead a better life, not creating a more strenuous, or in this case, a lethal one. How can our officers succeed in helping the whole country thrive when they’re not only disconnected from but also biased against whole communities?

It’s a worthwhile endeavor to get to know one another. If we could begin to eradicate fear and mistrust between officers and civilians, there’d be a noticeable decrease in the number of excessive-force cases, and since both fear and mistrust stem from ignorance, an honest get-to-know-you conversation between police and people would be an easy beginning. Liberia was wrecked by an insidious cynicism towards a highly flawed state, but it is recovering, hugely, and America can too.

–By Joanna Satterwhite

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