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Retired Marine helps build cornerstone for democracy

20 Oct 2002 | Capt. Dan McSWeeney 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit

Retired U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Steve Bennett has a lot of faith in the future. 

As director of the Kosovo Police Service School in Vushtrri, just north of Kosovo's bustling capital city of Pristina, Bennett backs his optimism with action and hard facts.

"From 2001 to 2002 we saw a 52 percent drop in murders across Kosovo," said Bennett, who has been at the KPSS helm since its founding in 1999.  "There have been significant drops in almost all major crimes over the past three years.  There's no question that Kosovo is a more secure place now.  I partially attribute that to the emergence of a professional police service here."
Westerners are accustomed to hearing statistics about almost all aspects of their experience.  In recent years, crime statistics and economic indices have shared the spotlight in the media's efforts to quantify American lives.  It's easy to overlook the significance of these measurements, but in Kosovo they are important milestones.
"In Kosovo, we're all working to establish a functional civil society," said Bennett.  "This is based on the rule of law.  The bottom line is that you need well-trained, professional police officers in order to enforce laws and maintain the peace."
Given Kosovo's recent history, this is a literal statement.  Bennett is one of thousands of people involved in the ongoing effort to transfer control of the former Yugoslavian province from Kosovo Force (KFOR), NATO's military coalition in the region, to locally elected civil authorities.  The challenge lies in the fact that this civil infrastructure, in most cases, is being created from scratch - thus the importance of Bennett's efforts.

In essence, the KPSS is one of the cornerstones of democracy in Kosovo.

Established and overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the KPSS is based on community policing models and stresses democratic ideals in all aspects of its operations.  An essential part of this goal is ensuring that the student body reflects the overall population of Kosovo.  Particular emphasis is placed on recruiting women and ethnic minorities such as Serbs and Turks as students.

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit's recent participation in Dynamic Response '02, a routine KFOR operational rehearsal, offered an opportunity for Bennett to connect with Marines fresh from their trans-Atlantic voyage from Camp Lejeune, NC.

"This is our second time in Kosovo," said Col Richard Mills, Commanding Officer of the 24th MEU.  "We've seen a lot of improvement in the area since our first deployment here last fall.  There has been a lot of building and there is a greater sense of security in the region."

But there is still a long way to go, he added.

Mills and his Marines and Sailors were given responsibility for an area of Southern Kosovo dubbed "the Bootleg" in the German-controlled sector of the province.  Right off the bat, the Marines were required to coordinate patrols, checkpoints, and other peace support operations with local United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) authorities.  A key relationship was with the UNMIK Police Station in Dragas, a leading town in the area populated mostly by Kosovar Albanians and Gorans, a Slavic Muslim minority in Kosovo.

"We work both with KFOR troops and KPS officers," said Chuck Pagliuca, the Dragas station commander.  "Experience levels in policing vary widely here, but we must maintain a baseline of professionalism in everything we do.  Eventually, KFOR and UNMIK will be gone and all policing will be conducted by the KPS."

Pagliuca, members of KFOR, and Bennett must continuously communicate this message to local residents and KPS officers.

Back in Vushtrri, Bennett offered visitors a tour of the KPSS campus, a neatly landscaped collection of buildings housing classrooms, a medical center, gymnasium, library, dormitories, and other facilities.  Brown- and tan-clad students walked about, marched in formations, and attended classes in a wide variety of subjects.

Observing them, one realizes that they are literally the building blocks of democracy.
"Our curriculum consists of twelve weeks of basic training," said Bennett. 

Legal aspects of policing, code of conduct issues, conflict intervention, evidence gathering and interviewing, firearms, defensive tactics, traffic control, and first aid are all covered.

"Human rights issues are woven into all our classes," he said.

The KPSS students seem more than satisfied with their experiences at the school.

"I came here to serve my community," said a young Serbian student from Mitrovica, where interethnic violence has been particularly bad.

"We're working here to make Kosovo a better place," added an ethnic Albanian student.
Again, Bennett returns to the idea of democracy.

"If Kosovo is going to succeed as a democratic society, we must ensure that civil servants believe in democratic ideals and behave in a manner which reflects that," he said.  "The best thing we can do to help transmit this lesson is model democratic behavior ourselves."

Above Bennett's desk, a quote labeled "Grandfather's Advice" sums it all up.

"Don't worry that they're not listening to you," reads the sign. 

"Worry that they're always watching you."
Bennett and his colleagues at the KPSS understand that all too well.

"We're here to serve the community," he concludes.