When he learned about a job training police in the Pacific islands of Micronesia in 1978, former Los Angeles police officer Bryan Vila seized the opportunity to work in paradise. Little did he know that the hard lessons of teaching police officers from 2,000 different islands over six years would make him an expert on training in other cultures.

Vila, now a Washington State University professor of criminal justice and criminology at the Spokane campus, had been a Marine in Vietnam as well as a member of the sheriff’s department in Los Angeles, when he landed with a bang on an unpaved runway in Saipan.

The island-hopping plane rides, lack of communications, and tropical humidity were not the only things that surprised him. In Micronesia, with 12 different cultures and nine different languages in an area the size of the continental United States, he taught young police officers how to be effective at law enforcement while Vila himself learned to adjust to new cultural norms.

Bryan Vila and police in Micronesia
Bryan Vila (second row) joins police officers—his trainees—in a 1979 ceremony to celebrate Kosrae’s status as a state in the newly formed Federated States of Micronesia. Courtesy Bryan Vila

He was part of a group of police trainers and others who were assisting the former U.S. Trust Territory as it became the self-governing Federated States of Micronesia, with a goal of developing culturally appropriate institutions.

“Our role wasn’t to encourage American police methods on them. It was to help them find ways to meld our ways with the new legal system they adopted,” says Vila. “You try not to stuff what you’ve got to teach down their throat, but show them and help them develop a connection that would make sense for them. It’s nice to say, but actually doing it is horribly complicated.”

For example, Vila and another trainer had to address an incident after a homicide in which a “bunch of boys were out drinking and somebody urinates on somebody else. Someone takes offense, grabs a piece of concrete and caves the guy’s head in. The police were trying to find out who did it. They took one of the suspects and dangled him off this bridge, fifty feet off the water at night, until he talked.”

Vila was not shocked. “I’d been a barrio cop, and it wasn’t my first time on the merry-go-round. But we had to say, ‘Your job is not just to solve this crime, it’s to instill respect for the law and respect the law yourself.’”

He drew on the strong community and family connections of the police officers to explain the proper procedure, asking if they would treat their own brother that way.

Vila details this story and many others in his 2009 book Micronesian Blues: The Adventures of an American Cop in Paradise, which he co-wrote with his wife Cynthia Morris. They hoped it would impart some of Vila’s experiences to others training police around the world.

“When we wrote the book, Iraq and Afghanistan were in the forefront and we were uncertain about how the idea of the lessons learned in such a different seeming place could apply to somewhere other than Micronesia,” he says.

He found the storytelling approach did help anchor universal ideas of the skills and knowledge for training police effectively in foreign cultures, as trainees absorb more and remember the captivating anecdotes. Vila received endorsements for the book from former ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, members of the military, and policing experts.

Some of those universal lessons, such as respecting local cultures without compromising core values and human rights, were often thorny ones to negotiate while he moved from island to island in Micronesia.

Vila enthusiastically embraced other lessons, like participating in local culture and learning some of the language. As part of his work, he took over as police chief on the island of Kosrae (pronounced Koash-RIE) because the former head officers died or were gone. Several months there taught Vila about really learning local customs.

“There’s not a lot of entertainment on this remote island, so these guys power-lifted and they had arms like my thighs,” says Vila. “So I’d be walking down the road talking to one of my cops about procedures or training, and I’d be holding hands with them. It was the way they worked, so it was the way I worked.”

From trying out betel nut chewing to learning the Kosraean language, he found ways to connect to his hosts’ cultures. Vila’s six years on the island taught him something else: Don’t underestimate the trainees. Even though many of them had faded uniforms and wore flip-flops, Vila realized that the cops he taught on Palau, Truk, and the other islands were there to serve as police and eager to learn.

Vila’s WSU research work now focuses mainly on sleep and fatigue among police officers and infantry troops in counter-insurgency operations, but he hopes his experiences with policing in Micronesia 30 years ago can help U.S. troops and contractors training police and military forces around the globe today.

“How do we train people to start to gain these skills and help cops and war fighters see these skills as part of their core field craft, so they value them just like they do being able to shoot straight or fight?” he asks.

Another lesson he tries to impart is sustaining the law enforcement establishment when the foreign trainer is gone. Vila says, “You need to find the right people to train up and become the cadre of trainers. Who are the best people with ties to the community who can be effective agents of change?”

For all of this to work, Vila says, it takes an investment of more than money. “It’s not enough to say, ‘We’ll fly a big airplane in here and dump off this stuff. We’ll give you two weeks of training and be on our way.’ That won’t make any change. Change takes time.”

Web extra

An excerpt from Micronesian Blues