U.S. Civilian Police Officer Plays Key Role in UN Peacekeeping Mission to Liberia

April 5, 2012
Deputy Assistant Secretary Holt Speaks UNMIL Deputy Police Commissioner Nielson

Meet Jack Nielsen, former Police Chief of Albany New York. These days, as Deputy Police Commissioner for the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) he oversees over 1,300 police advisers and officers serving as peacekeepers, from over 40 countries. Jack is from Albany, New York, where he had a law enforcement career that spanned over 30 years. He had seen and done it all.

A specialist in both community policing and the administrative functions of a major police department, Jack is one of those great public servants who have taken their skills overseas. After retiring he offered his talent to UN missions and U.S. assistance projects in Haiti and in Liberia, where he has toiled since 2007.

Jack believes in the good work he is doing but there are frustrations as well. There are only about 4,000 police officers in Liberia, a nation with three and a half million people. Last year he asked for ten more positions to oversee police transition. He received six. Ten months later the first new person will finally arrive.

I actually hired Jack for this Liberia job, back when I directed the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotic and Law Enforcement's civilian police program. So it was great to see him in action. He gives advice to the leader of the UN mission on how the Liberian police are really doing and how far away they are from managing missions completely on their own.

He traveled with us to the border town of Harper, where the UN police contingent looked a bit nervous to see their boss. He was briefed on the waves of minor crime which can threaten to spiral into larger conflicts.

For all peacekeepers, the challenge is real. I heard from a civilian staffer in UNMIL that one day, on his way to work, he was engulfed by a crowd that was beating a man to death for stealing. He was alone, and unarmed, but couldn't drive past. He told me, "I would have thought about it every day from then." So he stopped the car, faced the crowd, and pulled the bleeding man into his back seat. The man lived.

When incidents occur, Jack notes, the Liberian National Police have to be the first responders. The public must get used to dealing with them. But if they are overwhelmed, UN "formed" police units that deal with riot control, and then UN military forces, are available to keep things under control.

Jack is in his early 60's, with a serious look while on duty and a creased white shirt with a police badge pinned to the front, a U.S. flag on his left sleeve and a UN flag on his right. The transition from a highly military peacekeeping mission to one that is more focused on policing is on his shoulders. Jack says that for now, the UN's military presence, at least in certain parts of the country, is essential.

Editor's Note: This entry is the first in a three part series. The author and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Tori Holt recently returned from travel to Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire. In the photograph above, Holt, center, speaks with Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Nielson on board an airplane in Liberia.

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