African Press International (API)

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Liberia: Is our police ready to fight crime? (editorial)

Posted by African Press International on May 5, 2008

Publisher: Korir, africanpress@getmail.no source.theanalyst.liberia

story by abdoulaye w. dukule.

Just last week, in our article on the visit of UN Secretary General ban Ki Moon visit to Liberia, we wrote that the Liberian police, without the basic logistics such as transportation and communication could hardly be force to combat crime.

With mounting criminality, especially armed robberies, the police, in the absence of social and economic solutions, are the last resort to fight crimes. My argument then was based on our bold perception of the police as well as sporadic contacts and conversation with police officers I offered rides to from time to time. An accident brought me into a police station last week and I saw officers at work and was able to document.

The accident occurred on Sunday afternoon when Emmanuel Dolo with whom I was riding on Tubman Boulevard to pick up Winsley Nanka, near the junction of Catholic Hospital decided to make a U-Turn and we were hit by a taxi that could not stop because of its speed. While we waited for the police to arrive, Emmanuel put the seven passengers in a taxi that drove them to the emergency room at the JFK Hospital. The police arrived in a pickup truck and inspected the scene. By the time we got to the Zone 3 police station in Congotown for the report, it started to get dark and we had all but forgotten about going to the beach. We followed the police officer into the traffic office, a small room with a padlock on the door. When we entered, I was taken aback by the state and small size of the room. There were two broken armchairs, with their upholstery worn out, with a yellowish sponge exposed through the torn plastic cover of undeterminable color. Emmanuel, as the driver, took a seat in a chair facing the policeman. After looking at each other and at the armchairs, Winsley and I felt safer to take seat on a small wooden bench against the wall. The floor in the room was cover with some plastic tile. Piece of the same tile covered the desk.

A yellowish light bulb hung from the ceiling in the middle of the room. Given the state of the wire and cardboard ceiling, it would only take a spark to set the whole place at blaze. On the floor, three old car batteries that seemed to have been out of service since the last days of J. J. Roberts while five tires piled up behind the desk. I asked the officer if they had light because the night was setting in by the minute and he was squinting to read his own notes from an old school notebook. He said there was no electricity at the station. Our generator broke down almost three weeks ago. He reached in his drawer and pulled out a two-inch burned out candle, and said this is my source of light. He sat behind the desk and proceeded to interrogate Emmanuel.

Once we were done, he said we needed to go to the hospital to see the passengers of he other car. He asked if he could ride with us in the taxi we had hired since they had impounded Emmanuels car which had lost one eye and its front fender. I asked him if he could get back there in the police car. He said they only had one vehicle that took officers to various emergency locations and return to base. So if you are victim of a crime, you have to hire a taxi, go to the police station, bring an officer or two with you and then ride with the police and the person who victimized you to the station. He finally took a taxi.

On Monday morning, we reported to the police station at about 8:30. We got there early and waited outside, watching the surrounding. There were at least six cars badly damaged by accident. Three of the damaged jeeps were government vehicles, judging by their license plates. These were expensive late model jeeps, costing in the high US $40,000. It seems that a great part of the government budget goes into buying expensive cars and providing gasoline to officials. It is hard to fathom the logic behind paying someone $12,000 a year and putting in their care a $45,000 car and give them 200 gallons of gasoline a month? Why not pay them well and allow them to buy their own car through a credit system? At least government could make some money collecting duty fees on the cars imported by merchants. And officials would take better care of their own car they paid for.

When the commander arrived, the young lieutenant drew a very precise diagram of the scene of the accident and a blackboard hanging by a thread to the ceiling. He used bits of chalk of different colors that he fished in a small basket. They went through the motion of questioning and finally, the taxi driver admitted going well above the speed limit and was charged with the responsibility of causing the accident. Nanka and I sat quietly and listened to the whole exercise. It was certainly the most professional display of police work. From the diagram to the questions and to the reasoning behind ever step,the commander left nothing to chance and I felt that I was taking a driving lesson. Then when time came to write the report, the commandant left his office and brought a manual typewriter, a relic of the 1960s. I took a walk in the corridors and there was another such machine in another office where a woman was giving a deposition.

It was very apparent that the officer knew what they were doing and talking about. But here is the problem: how could they fight crime, or simply do their job under these working conditions? This is what we wrote about last week: we can have the best trained police in the world but if they dont have the basic logistics, they cannot work. How can a police station in the city of Monrovia not have a small generator to light the building at night and provide current? How does an entire police station function with one vehicle? How do we expect police officers to be typing reports at candlelight? These people did not even have chalk to write with. In the morning, police officers fight like everyone else to find a seat in the overcrowded taxis that ply the dangerous roads of Monrovia. Minister of Justice Philips Banks was on the air and in the newspaper declaring war on crime. He cited the highlights of a great program that looks wonderful on paper and in the air. But as former US Defense Secretary said, you go to war with the army you have and not you expect to have. How much does the Minister know about the moral of his troops?

Did the tough talk of Minister Banks convince the public? Did he scare the criminals? Do our men and women in uniforms have enough incentives to fight crime in its multiple forms? It is too early to draw any conclusion. However, as Minister Bropleh always speaks of change, we must change our attitude towards the police and their role in our society. We cannot train a professional police force and relegate it to the old status. In our candid conversation, one officer told us that they only receive one uniform per year. How many times a person can wear the same shirt every day to go to the same job? In the end, you start to lose respect for yourself. Fighting crime is not just a law enforcement issue, it has several components that all need to be in place for it to be successful. But if we have to rely on the police in the immediate future to deal with the emerging social fear, it must be given the ammunitions to fight.

There is fear in certain quarters about arming the police, because of our recent history of conflict. But we must start at some point to trust them. We cannot wait until UNMIL phases out before giving guns to our police. Sooner or later, the police will be armed. It may be better to try them now while we still have UNMIL than later we are left on our own. Beyond the issue of arms, revamping the police means also providing them with adequate working and living quarters, transportation, uniforms and other logistics needed to protect society. If our police stations continue to function under the current conditions, if our police officers have to stand at street corners and beg for ride or hustle taxi drivers to get home, if the stations lack the basic necessities such as chairs, electricity, computers and chalkboards, we can hardly expect them to fight crime. Fighting crime can only be successful if law enforcers are well trained and well equipped in this world where criminals have access to the deadliest weapons. If we take our security seriously, we must take the police seriously.

Using very graphic images, some legislators called for stiff penalties for arm robbers. There are talks about forming a special armed unit in the police. All that is good and well, but the first line of defense is the community police. And to hang someone, as people are saying, you must first arrest them. To arrest a criminal, you must have a strong and determined police, with the adequate logistics and working conditions.

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African Press International – api

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