Each day, Cleavens Dechatelier puts on the NYPD uniform, not to go to his usual precinct in Manhattan but to patrol the streets of Port-au-Prince in Haiti 1,500 miles away, along with five other officers.
"I feel like I'm home," said Dechatelier, recalling his childhood in Haiti.
The job is a homecoming of sorts for the officer, who lives in Harlem and works in Washington Heights. He watched from afar the aftermath of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in 2010 that killed nearly 300,000 people. He went to Haiti for a few days that year to check on relatives, and cried about what he saw.
Four years later, the NYPD gave him a chance to help train Haiti's police force.
The department rotates officers into Haiti for four months at a time to help grow and professionalize a national police force in a country plagued by violence, homelessness and corruption.
NYPD Lieutenant Yvan Pierre-Louis is leading one rotation of officers in the country which, like Dechatelier, he once called home.
“The key of this thing is the language. I’m Haitian. I speak Creole. I know the culture. They welcome me,” Pierre-Louis said.
At the rebuilt Haitian National Police academy, six NYPD officers lead classes, teaching Haitian officers policing strategies. Then the NYPD officers go out alongside the HNP officers, patrolling everything from street markets to mountain neighborhoods to the tent cities, where more than 140,000 Haitians are living four years after the earthquake. At its worst, the tents were housing more than a million people just after the earthquake.
“Each tent that you see, there are families that you see. Children, fathers, mothers, that’s what they call home,” said NYPD Officer Herve Francois.
The NYPD and HNP officers also try to get homeless children off the streets each day and into schools and community centers, where the kids can learn and be safe, at least for a few hours. The NYPD officers take turns going to the centers to help mentor the children.
“The kids want to learn but they don’t have the means,” said Detective Barthold Alexander, a 19-year NYPD veteran. “It’s painful to see the conditions they are under, and yet they are still motivated to learn.”
One day, officers found a teenager named Yasmine on the side of the road, selling bits of charcoal to try to help her mother after her father died. The community police officers shared Yasmine’s story with a nearby private school, and the school agreed to take her in.
“As a result of prayer, God sent the officers to me so my daughter can go to school," Yasmine's mother said.
The centers also offer a refuge for the disabled.
"In the States, we have social services. Here, they don't," said Detective Kethly Jean, whose parents immigrated from Haiti. "They don't have that social service. If we could do just one thing that can help them."
The program, which is funded by the State Department, was started by former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and is now being continued by current Commissioner Bill Bratton.
NYPD officers have also helped to set up anti-crime units, and the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti credits the NYPD training program for a major drop in kidnapping-for-ransom cases across the country. In another case, NYPD officers helped catch robbers who were killing motorcycle drivers in order to steal the bikes and sell them elsewhere. The case was particularly gruesome: police had found 14 bodies in a field.
And with help from the State Department, NYPD officers are also helping Haiti set up sex crime units to deal with cases of violence and rape, crimes that in the past often went unaddressed.
“We are dealing with a culture that has for a long time ignored the fact that rape and incest is a crime. Now we have come a long way,” said Venancia Colon, who serves as the gender-based adviser for the HNP.
Resources remain a constant concern, as there are no rape kits or DNA testing, but police are now treating the reports seriously. In one recent afternoon, three alleged rape victims came to one police station to file complaints.
One HNP Commissioner said NYPD officers are helping local police gain public trust after years where military officers were seen as uncaring and abusive.
“It was a kind of fear, a kind of distance between the police and the population,” said Commissioner Michel-Ange Gedeon. “Now we are trying to build that relation thanks to these guys, thanks to this program.”
U.S. Ambassador Pamela White says Haiti has come a long way since 2010: a lot of rubble has been removed, roads and schools are being rebuilt, many parts of Port-au-Prince are bustling again. She credits the work of the NYPD for help making the city safer.
“They are miracle workers," she said.
“They really know what they are doing... It is, ‘We are going to make this police force better,’ and they have,” said White.
The volunteer NYPD officers live in secure housing, but they work the streets where roads are still not paved, where there is no running water or electricity, and where injury and illness are a concern. They're away from their families in New York for months at a time. But they're driven by a need to help in a country to which many of them have personal connections.
“It was my dream after the earthquake to come back and try to give back to the country, to try to help out," said Dechatelier.
The officers know Haiti continues to improve. But they they also know there is so much more work to be done.
"We know we are not going to solve all their problems tomorrow but sometimes that little thing -- just stop and say 'hi' and ask, 'How is your day going? How was your night? How did you do on the streets? How did you eat?'" said Dechatelier.