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POLICE BRUTALITY CANNOT BE AN EXCUSE

By Titus Boye-Thompson, Strategic Media & Development Communications Unit

Whenever it is said that Sierra Leone is a progressive democracy, it reflects the ongoing processes of establishing potent and robust institutions to maintain a way of life that engenders security for private life and property and the respect of human rights and political freedoms. The term progressive democracy therefore refers to the strides being made to reconstitute state institutions after the period of utter breakdown in law and order characterized by civil unrest. In making this statement, it should be clear that the essence of reconstruction is not to rush to judgment at the performance of fledgling democratic institutions but nonetheless, recognition and a general consciousness of the need for law and order as substantive requirements to promote peace and stability.

There are those who would seek to deflect attention from perpetrators of antisocial behavior or equally miscreant activities to refocus attention on the result of seemingly repressive police enforcement as argument for castigating the entire police force as being brutal in its determination of local incidents. Not taking any particular incident to issue here, the arguments forwarded by such protagonists of police brutality are as yet insufficient to uproot the significant strides that the Sierra Leone Police force is making in establishing law and order in this creeping democracy fresh out of such a brutal and wanton lawlessness breakdown in social order and a complete dislocation of the very institutions of state that should uphold law and order.

Police brutality is therefore a reflective term, attenuating the police response to the gravity of a given situation and where the status or persona of the alleged victim is considered to be disproportionate to the police response, a presumption of a heavy handed police attempting to override the rights and privileges of the subject becomes flagrant. For example, when police storm a university campus to dislodge striking students barricaded in a dormitory, the use of tear gas as a result of attacks by the students on police is adjudged to be a brutal response without any forensic examination of the cause and effects of the students actions vis-a-vis attacking the building’s fabric or damaging the physical facilities of the university. There is no time when police brutality becomes a veritable excuse for overzealous application of operational mandate but when the situation at hand requires forceful policing methods, then there ought to be a presumption of professionalism and an expectation that a robust police force must be well equipped to tackle a conflagrating situation with appropriate skill and dexterity.

Policing in a modern setting is always difficult and problematic. This being the case, the reporting of incidents involving policing methods is at best in themselves inflammatory when the focus is directed at the individual outside of the general consideration of the policing directives. Hence it is often posited that modern policing must be equipped at all times to tackle incidents as mundane as getting a cat stranded up a tree to dealing with fundamentalist terrorists. All in all, the requirements of a modern police force go well beyond the operational needs of resources and administrative expenses. Theirs is a requirement for training and constant up-skilling of rank and file to an extent where a level of flexibility in assessing situations are characteristic of each and every officer or commander rather than operational command structures that rely distinctly on orders from above.

 The need for police officers to be able to assess and deal with a situation before it embellishes itself to something much bigger to handle than when it started is a driving principle of a motivated and highly skilled force. The assumption is that the Sierra Leone Police has reached that status but the pragmatic realism is that the Sierra Leone Police is rapidly extended to reach that status at the moment but nonetheless, it is well and truly primed to attain that status in a short period of time, given the measure of commitment and dedication to duty exercised by senior cadres of what is steadily becoming a professional police force that is making a name for itself in local and international spheres of operations.

Inspector General of Police, Francis Munu, recently raised these concerns to His Excellency the President when he called for flexible resource settlements for the Police force, intimating that the financial requirements of the Sierra Leone Police may be hard pressed if put to such a rigorous and constraining stricture of periodical accounting and resource rationalization as is currently the case. The requirements for security in the face of emerging challenges of cyber fraud, cyber terrorism and cyber threats are no match for a fixed budgetary allocation. There is a case for a more reflective allocation of resources that could be much more aligned to the expropriation of social and geo-political benefits such as public safety, security, peace and stability.

Information and communication resources are not currently at the fingertips of the Sierra Leone Police, at least not in the way that allows for an officer on the streets to keep in touch with a central communications unit at the touch of a button. Police communications are necessarily two fold. Those that relate to intelligence gathering and information collation that relate directly to the identification and assessment of incidences that may be of interest to local policing. In Western countries, every vehicle is logged into a police database, such that the police can tell the owner, driver and insurance company details of a vehicle by a simple query of the vehicle’s license number. Alternatively, a citizen’s name address and date of birth could bring up every information of police interest by two-way communication within a real time response framework and clear identification system duly logged on electronic data systems.

The existence of such sophisticated architecture of information retrieval and communications systems not only reduces the incidence of the type of police engagement that could be interpreted as abrasive to the extent that allegations of heavy handedness are made but also minimize allegations of police brutality due to the systemic processing and management of scenarios. Notwithstanding the absence of such systems the Sierra Leone Police is determined in its efforts to offer a professional and community based policing strategy to accord fairness and respect for all citizens who come across the police in an operational theatre.

The Police have a difficult task indeed when attempting to maintain stability and protect life and property; there are instances where reasonable force may be required. The essence of reasonable force can be determined as that amount of force necessary to contain a situation and to avoid it from exploding into a more volatile and lawless scenario. In these instances, the police are damned if they do anything to contain violence and damned equally if they do nothing. Instances abound, even in the United Kingdom when an operational decision by the Metropolitan Police was to do nothing and in consequence, riotous conduct resulted in the loss of and damage to property. However, the Metropolitan Police had a fallback on CCTV cameras across London and they were able to capture some of the culprits long after they had gone home through electronic footage. It is for this reason that the recent announcement by the Inspector General of Police that his force is actively considering introducing CCTV to Freetown’s streets must be applauded as contemporary policing.

The stakes are high and rising. The zeal to be proactive in meeting the needs of such a dynamic environment as is characterized by post conflict volatility must not be underestimated. What is important for now is to recognize that blaming the police for all eventualities does not make progress as much as a better understanding of their operational constraints are addressed. More needs to be done.