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Rebuilding the Police in Kosovo

In the wake of its war with the Serbs, Kosovo faced a yawning law enforcement gap. Here's how the international community helped an embyronic country rebuild its police.

Note: This article is an abridged version of a longer case study produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

In June 1999, after 78 days of air strikes, NATO drove out Serbian-dominated Yugoslav forces from Kosovo. The Serb withdrawal included the police, creating a law enforcement vacuum. International organizations, led by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), held a mandate with two objectives: To establish law and order in the short term, and to develop an indigenous Kosovo police service that could maintain rule of law in the long term.

The agencies encountered a raw, unsettled security environment. Before the war, Belgrade's Ministry of the Interior had administered the police in Kosovo. The police were mostly ethnic Serbs. In 1989, Milosevic purged ethnic Albanians from the service when he revoked Kosovo's autonomy, replacing government and security officials with ethnic Serbs in order to quash Albanian nationalism. As a result, when Belgrade's forces retreated in 1999, Kosovo was left without a functioning police service. Incidents of ethnic violence, primarily by Albanians against Serbs, along with nonpolitical crime and looting, were frequent. Criminal gangs asserted control in lawless parts of the region. Some 33,000 NATO troops intervened to stem the bloodshed, but lacked the law-enforcement training necessary to restore law and order in a post-conflict setting. The UN reported that "[a] growing atmosphere of fear imperils efforts to create the rule of law in Kosovo."

Kosovo's war-induced demographic shifts posed another significant challenge to restoring calm. Before the conflict, Kosovo's population totaled 1.6 million people, with 90 percent ethnic Albanians and six percent Serbs. Attempts at "ethnic cleansing" created an estimated 800,000 ethnic Albanian refugees in the neighboring countries of Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro, and an additional 500,000 internally displaced citizens. Fearing retribution, an estimated 100,000 Kosovan Serbs, nearly half the Serb population in the region, fled north to Serbia.

UN Security Council Resolution 1244 of June 1999 established UNMIK, vesting it with all legislative and executive authority over Kosovo -- a unique and powerful executive mandate. Bernard Kouchner, the former French health minister who served as the special representative of the secretary general for the mission, made Sven Frederiksen, a Danish policeman with previous experience in the Balkans, UNMIK's first police commissioner.

UNMIK's top priority was to provide interim law-enforcement services and to create institutions in Kosovo that could support law and order -- specifically, an independent Kosovo Police Service. Doing so required recruiting, vetting, training, and deploying thousands of Kosovan police, creating effective monitoring and oversight institutions, and, gradually, transferring policing responsibilities from UNMIK to Kosovan police themselves, a process that would take years.

From the outset, UNMIK and OSCE had to manage a variety of potential obstacles. One issue was the former Kosovo Liberation Army troops. Excluded from the new police service, and without favorable economic prospects, these former troops were capable of causing significant unrest. To neutralize this threat, Kouchner assigned NATO the job of creating a Kosovo Protection Corps. It would consist of 5,000 active and reserve personnel recruited from among the demobilized military. Members of this corps would be unarmed and would serve in an emergency-response capacity, by assisting in reconstruction, land mine removal, and search-and-rescue operations.

Widespread concern about political meddling posed another challenge. Given the history of police abuse under the Yugoslav system, Kosovans did not view the police as competent problem solvers, so the new Kosovan police faced an uphill battle as it tried to earn public trust. Additionally, UNMIK feared that politicians in positions of authority for the first time would try to hinder the development of a professional, apolitical police service for personal gain. Infighting among members of the Kosovo Transitional Council did not help matters, making it difficult for planners to elicit input and advice from Kosovans. Moreover, police leaders were weary of the Belgrade government's potential interest in thwarting the development of functional institutions that might support a future Kosovan secession.

In early September 1999, only three months after the war ended, UNMIK selected 200 Kosovans (from 19,500 applicants) to form the first class of police cadets. UNMIK independently established a detailed recruitment and selection process that remained unchanged until 2011 (despite its transfer to Kosovan control in 2003). Robert Perito, who had previously provided policy guidance and management to U.S. police programs in Bosnia and East Timor, described it like this: "By the time we arrived in Kosovo, we had several three-inch-thick, looseleaf binders full of information on the recruiting plan. We had worked out a recruiting strategy. We had developed applications; we developed recruiting posters, ads for newspapers, ads for radio, broadcast, and posters to go up on walls in villages. We worked out a set of criteria for new applicants. We developed the plans and actually identified participants to be on review committees." UNMIK recruited cadets using multilingual public radio broadcasts and newspaper advertisements. Because of Kosovo's 65 percent unemployment rate, attracting well-qualified and educated applicants was relatively easy. Initial salaries were low, but exceeded those available to many doctors and lawyers in Kosovo at the time.

In selecting recruits, one aim was to maintain minority representation, especially from the ethnic Serbs. Extending a police presence to Serb-majority areas of Kosovo would be nearly impossible without including ethnic Serb officers. Another aim was to include a cadre of female officers, acknowledging the many benefits of a gender-balanced police service. UNMIK refrained from recruiting ethnic Albanians who served in the former Yugoslav police prior to 1989, due to concerns their Yugoslav training could conflict with the community-oriented ethos of the new Kosovo police. The policy was abandoned only in March 2000, when an initial UN police shortfall necessitated recruitment of experienced officers. Many adapted quickly to the training and development program precisely because they had experience working in a multiethnic police service in Yugoslavia.

The OSCE conducted basic training at the Kosovo Police Service School in Vushtrri, 30 kilometers northwest of Priština, a location selected for its relative quiet. Together with the assistance of the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program and the U.S. Department of Justice, the OSCE prepared training modules even before the NATO military campaign ended. According to Perito, this pre-planning was the key to the success of the recruiting process: "On the basis of that work, we were able to very quickly recruit the first incoming class and get the academy up and running within a matter of weeks after we arrived in Kosovo."

The school's first class graduated after six weeks of academy training, followed by six weeks of field training with UNMIK police officers. U.S. and European police officers initially led multilingual training classes with interpreters, and beginning in 2001 gradually ceded responsibility to Kosovan trainers. Cadets worked with UNMIK officers in the field and gradually assumed greater responsibilities. By 2006, the Kosovo police service stood at 7,335 officers, in addition to 1,600 civilian support staff and 600 security guards. Once an initial cadet service was established, the program extended training periods, and established procedural steps to handle promotions and executive level training. UNMIK groomed Kosovan police with leadership potential to take over positions of increasing authority.

UNMIK and OSCE also set up a network of institutions to monitor police conduct and meet international standards for ethics and accountability. In 1999, UNMIK set up an the Professional Standards Unit (PSU), and internal oversight body responsible for receiving complaints, investigating alleged misconduct, and reporting it to the UNMIK police commissioner. From 1999 to 2005, these investigations resulted in the dismissal of 317 officers. However, the PSU suffered from several shortcomings. First, the complaint-driven investigation process meant that accountability efforts were reactive rather than preventative. Second, the lack of institutional independence created concerns about its legitimacy and the possibility of meddling by other elements of the police service.

To complement the PSU, UNMIK established the Police Inspectorate of Kosovo in July 2006, to be an independent oversight body with a civilian staff, its own budget, and housed within the Ministry of Internal Affairs in order to maintain institutional independence. It served two primary functions: inspection and investigation. Making the inspectorate's reports available to the public provided transparency and established its legitimacy as an oversight body.

UNMIK also established the Ombudsperson Institution in June 2000, with the purpose of enhancing human rights protections in Kosovo. It was authorized to investigate complaints, conduct investigations, and make recommendations regarding compatibility of Kosovan laws with international standards. Organized into three departments -- general discrimination, gender discrimination, and discrimination against children -- the Ombudsperson Institution reported to UNMIK's special representative of the secretary general, until Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 made the agency accountable to Parliament.

Meanwhile, UNMIK, OSCE, and ICITAP funded innovative community policing programs, such as Community Safety Action Teams that aimed to strengthen ties between the police and the public at the local level. These teams of police and local leaders consulted with communities about the problems they faced and worked together to implement solutions. They dealt with diverse complaints about human trafficking, drug use, water and electricity shortages, illegal woodcutting, and environmental issues. Internal impact assessments showed the primary areas of improvements were in ethnic relations (with ethnic Serbs and Albanians working together), traffic safety, freedom of movement by minority groups, and closer relations between police and community members.

UNMIK's sustained presence allowed the transfer of authority to proceed gradually with the growing competence of the Kosovo police, mostly avoiding the rushed transfer of command that often subverted UN police reform efforts in the past. Beginning in 2001, UNMIK handed over patrol responsibilities. Kosovans then assumed command of tactical functions as first-line supervisors in police stations. Next, Kosovans assumed command of operational functions in middle-management positions in police headquarters in Priština, and finally went on to assume senior leadership positions. By 2006, Kosovans commanded all police stations, and by 2008, all but one regional headquarter.

The one exception was Mitrovica region, the only region with an ethnic Serb majority, where loyalties to Belgrade remained strong. Tensions flared up in February 2008 when the Assembly of Kosovo (the 109-member parliamentary body created by the UN, based in Priština) unanimously established the independent state of Kosovo.

Conflict erupted between ethnic Serbs and Albanians around a bridge connecting their respective halves of the Mitrovica municipality. The 709 ethnic Serb members of the Kosovo police refused to continue serving under pressure from Belgrade, and insisted on reporting only to UNMIK. After a protracted standoff, international pressure on Belgrade, coupled with the Kosovo police's flexibility and patience, resulted in almost all ethnic Serbs returning to work by the designated deadline.

In 2011, 12 years after the cessation of armed conflict, the Kosovo police service could be deemed a mixed success. Polling data in 2009 and 2010 found the Kosovo Police to be the most trusted Kosovan institution. It had a low level of corruption. The police met its training targets and achieved diversity in terms of ethnicity and gender, with 10 percent ethnic Serbs and 15 percent women officers. Certainly, obstacles remained. The dearth of judicial personnel meant that despite successful police investigations, many criminals escaped prosecution, conviction, and punishment. Ethnic tensions remained high in Mitrovica, and higher level policing areas, such as for criminal investigations and organized crime, still needed improvement. Despite imperfections, the institution of the Kosovo police is recognized as the "jewel in the crown of the efforts of the international community" in Kosovo.

ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images

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