Tribal Killings and a Criminal Island Uprising: I Was a Cop in a South Pacific Paradise

LA street cop Bryan Vila met a guy in a bar who offered him a job on the Micronesian island of Saipan. He took it and ended up staying for six years, dealing with everything from political uprisings to a prison escape.

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Feb 18 2015, 3:50pm

Bryan outside the ramshackle police station on the island of Kosrae

Patrolling paradise sounds like a pretty ideal job. So when former LA street cop Bryan Vila heard that the position of Director of Law Enforcement and Security for the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands was up for grabs, he jumped at the chance.

The Trust Territory was run by the United Nations and administered by the US from the late-1940s to the mid-1980s. It contained the modern-day sovereign nations of Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia, as well as numerous other islands—all of which were tiny and relatively isolated.

Vila thought it would provide the perfect opportunity to get away from the crime-riddled streets of LA, and give him a place where he could ride out the rest of his career relaxing in the sun. Unfortunately, the situation wasn't quite as he'd expected. After arriving, Bryan was faced with tribal killings, political uprisings, and a prison escape in which the inmates stole a load of guns and attempted to take over the island of Pohnpei.

I got in touch with Vila, who's now a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University, to find out about his experiences policing one of the most remote parts of the world.

Bryan and the Kosrae police force

VICE: Hi, Bryan. So how did you first hear about the job and why did you take it?
Bryan Vila: I heard a guy in a bar saying that he was looking for somebody who could train police officers in Micronesia [the sub-region of Oceania that the Trust Territory was located in]. I thought, Well, that sounds great! So, six weeks later, I sold my house and moved halfway around the world. My home was on the island of Saipan. Micronesia was a complicated place, with multiple different languages and cultures.

I'd imagine that was pretty difficult to adapt to.
Yeah, the rules varied between the islands even in so much as how hard you shook a hand. There were some islands where people ate dog, and some islands where the inhabitants thought that people who ate dogs were primitive and disgusting. On the island of Pohnpei they thought of the river eels as their ancestors, but 300 miles south, on Kosrae, they ate them—the cultures were all very different.

What were the main differences between being a policeman in the US and in that part of the world?
I'd been a street cop in South Central LA and a supervisor in East LA, so I was used to heavy, fast-moving policing in a tough area at a tough time. I went from that to working in a place where people were born together and lived together all their lives. There's another funny thing that was different about Saipan as well—their main recreation there was power-lifting. This meant that they were shorter than I am but about the same width. If you talked to someone and didn't touch them, they felt threatened, so to connect with my policemen I had to walk down the street holding hands with these great, big, powerful guys.

The South Pacific Islands are frequently portrayed as being a crime-free paradise. Would you say that's actually accurate?
That was what I had in mind before I went there. I thought it'd be a vacation in paradise. By and large, people were very peaceful, but at one time Palau had a homicide rate that was about the same as Detroit. It turns out that isn't unusual in small tribal societies.

So was the murder rate there high because of inter-tribal violence?
Yeah. Some of the islands have people on them who are very gentle and quiet on a day-to-day basis, but resentments can build up and suddenly erupt. The feuds tended to be kept within the same culture. Chuuk [state] provides a really good example. On the islands that were further out from Moen, which was the main center, the people were much fiercer and more traditional than in other places. There was a lot of inter-village warfare, but you wouldn't get conflict between the Chuukese and Yapese or anything like that, because there was too much ocean in between [Chuuk and Yap are both islands in what is now the Federated States of Micronesia].

Bryan outside his home on the island of Saipan

Did career criminals exist on the islands that you policed?
You had people who were consistent sources of problems. Also during that period, you'd have some political violence, especially on Palau. The folks on Palau would argue a lot. They were sometimes quite aggressive, and there were riots when they had political differences between the legislator and the president. They burned down the president's office one time, and another time they threw dynamite bombs.

Also, a couple of years into my time in Micronesia, the inmates broke out of jail on Pohnpei. An American prisoner came up with these grandiose plans involving taking over this, that, and the other. The plans didn't work, but the escapees did shoot a policeman and steal all of the weapons out of the armory.

That sounds like a full-scale uprising.
That's what they had in mind. There were five or six or them. They decided that to make their plan work, they would have to cut off communication to the outside world, so they went to the local radio station—which they confused for the communications station—and shot the DJ in the eye. Pohnpei is around 1,500 miles away from Saipan. We didn't have any aircrafts except for commercial ones, but three of us from the headquarters still went to try and deal with the escapees. We thought we had to save the islanders.

Bryan in his police vehicle on Kosrae

That sounds pretty intense.
Well, by this point the escapees had already shot a policeman in the back. It seemed like they were going to hijack an airplane, because that was the only way they were going to get off the island. We went in armed with stuff we borrowed from the military and law enforcement agencies on Guam. We got a ride to Pohnpei on an Air Force weather plane. One of the local police had a snub-nosed .38. A few of the local guys had .22 rifles. They didn't have any police cars, because the escapees had stolen the two police jeeps, so they got in a couple of pickup trucks and found out where the escapees had gone. By the time we got there, the chase was on, and we got involved in the tail end of it. One fella started shooting at the police as they were racing down this jungle road. The police fired back and killed him.

Were there any alterations made to the security at the jail after that?
They took the escapees back to jail and did a very good job of keeping them locked up. We had underestimated the locals; they had sorted it all out and taken care of their community.

Bryan on the island of Chuuk

What was the judicial system like?
The system tended to work well, but the magistrate on Chuuk and his sons ran amok at one point and acted like bandits, murdering, raping, and plundering, so we had to step in and deal with them.

I've read that there's a big problem with addiction to the psychoactive betel nut in Micronesia. Is that something you encountered?
It would be easy for people from the outside to see it that way. The people who regularly chew betel nut are from Yap and the western Caroline Islands. To get on with them I had to chew it as well. It was an important social interaction that everybody needed to participate in.

There's also a form of kava [a psychoactive plant that grows on the Pacific Islands] that they have there. They bring these massive fruits in from the jungle, lay them on a huge stone and pound them. They then take the inner bark of the hibiscus plant and flatten it out to use as a straining cloth, much like a cheese cloth. They put the mush in it and twist it. It typically takes two men to do this. It will then run down the main twister's elbow and into a cup. It's got the consistency of elephant snot.

The Kosrae police department showing Bryan off on his last day

Sounds nice.
Drinking it is a great honor and a very serious thing, though. It makes you alert but very quiet. When somebody kills somebody's son or steals something from someone else, families get together for a conference and drink kava before they start negotiating.

So it's intended to help them put their egos aside and discuss things calmly?
Yeah.

What do you think the Western world could learn in terms of policing from the former Trust Territory?
In the US, many people are tuned into catching criminals and taking them to jail rather than winning people over. Micronesia was the place where I first realized that the police could play this useful role of being a neutral arbitrator, guarding people and helping them to stay safe. I think this is very important, especially with the current policing situation in the US.

You can read about Brian's adventures in the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands in his book, Micronesian Blues.

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