Gregory “Buster” Coleman is a cop who’s been through a lot.
He was the Liberian National Police Commissioner during the Ebola outbreak.
He and his men would wear protective equipment when they were out on patrol during the epidemic. But the garb is “not made for policing,” says the robust 36-year-old. “If we had to make a difficult arrest the suit could tear.” He paused. “Every night I would have to strip outside my house, be sprayed down with chlorine then shower before I could even greet my children.”
That was a bit unnerving.
So was going to Harvard.
Coleman is a 2016 graduate of the one-year Mid-Career Master in Public Administration program at the Kennedy School. It’s an honor just to be invited to enroll. The program says it selects “demonstrated leaders from developing, newly industrialized and transitional economy countries to prepare them to address the world’s most compelling development challenges.”
“What challenged me most was getting past my fear,” says Coleman. “Because the name ‘Harvard’ is intimidation by itself. So I came in very intimidated.”
He soon found out he wasn’t the only one. “I started to interact with other students,” he says. “I found that people share the same fear. And I was able to overcome that.”
Then there was the matter of reading material. That was intimidating as well.
“I am a slow reader,” he says, “and we had to read 200 pages a night, it was taking me twice as long as others but little by little I built my speed. I mean, 200 pages became a nothing.”
In some ways, Harvard turned out to be easier than school back home. “In Africa, professors try to make it seem like things are difficult so you think this person is a tough teacher,” he says. By contrast, the Harvard profs “are like, ‘Yes, you can do it. We’re here to support you. If you need any help, reach out to us.’ “
Even before he came to Harvard, Coleman was changing his views about police work. In Liberia, the community doesn’t have great trust in the police — it’s a legacy of the civil war and of past corruption.
So it’s not enough for officers to “just sit in the police station and wait for cases,” he says. “It’s about working with the community, going out, settling disputes.” He’s a big believer in leading by example, “being present every day.”
“If I was to meet a little kid and try to tell him what I did,” he says, he’d tell the child: “My job [is] to make sure that justice prevails and most importantly to assure him the police are not bad guys — we are the good guys. We are there to keep you safe.”
And sometimes providing a meal as well. To improve community relations, Coleman created a rice farm that’s run by the police in Lofa county. The idea is to grow enough rice to feed officers and to give to the poor — and also to donate “seed rice” to community members who farm.
Another issue on Coleman’s agenda is post-traumatic stress disorder, a major concern in a country that’s gone through internal strife and then an Ebola epidemic. And it’s a very personal mission.
“I was having anxiety and heart palpitations,” he says. “I thought I was sick, but the doctor told me it was PTSD.” He hopes to help both officers and community members with PTSD, to “let them know PTSD is real” and to “create a structure with therapists and experts” to help youth who are affected.
Harvard taught him the importance of asking “the right questions to bring the answers out of the people I am serving, to create the solutions that will improve their lives.” And about the importance of statistics — collecting them, analyzing them, using them to figure out patterns of crime and behavior.
“I do know that coming to Harvard, as JFK said, you become a man of enviable distinction,” Coleman says. “So when you go home, there’s this high expectation that you’re from Harvard and you know everything. You’re supposed to institute change.”
He’s definitely optimistic about changing his country: “If I, a refugee, a kid from the bush in Liberia can graduate from Harvard Kennedy School, anything is possible.”