Columnists Features

Are Zambian police brutal, really?

LAST week I shared with you a story from the Washington Post on how a lone female police officer employed positive community policing to defuse an imminent physical clash between two groups of teenagers in Washington DC.
The officer challenged one of the teenagers, a 17-year-old high school student, to a dancing contest. “If you win, you all stay but if I win you all disperse,” she challenged the youth who was taunting her, and it was a deal.
The two rival groups turned their attention to the dancing bout between the girl and the police officer.
After 10 minutes of Nae Nae dance the girl got tired and quit. Both she and the officer claimed to have won and hugged each other. The teenagers dispersed in peace.
I shared the story because lately our police have been ducking under barrages of flak from some citizens and organisations who have accused them of brutality.
I am not the spokesperson of the Zambia Police Service, but as a free citizen, a journalist and former police officer I feel duty-bound to express my personal views on the matter.
The champions of human rights have been ignoring the police’s constitutional and statutory mandate to maintain law and order.
Personally, I don’t agree that Zambian police are brutal and unprofessional, although some individual officers have committed excesses here and there.
I have been to several southern African countries and I can safely assert that our police are among the most professional in the region.
In most cases they have exercised maximum restraint when enforcing the law and restoring order despite coming under extreme provocation. Examples abound.
Imagine a horde of unruly political party cadres storming the divisional police headquarters in the capital city, Lusaka, to witness the interview of their leader.
They budge through a human cordon of officers, some of them armed, and engage in physical tussles with them for trying to restrain them.
Mind you a police station is a gazzetted and protected security installation.
Some overzealous cadres violently push and even try to punch a police officer for trying to stop them.
Rioting students are pictured kicking a fallen police officer.
Acting on a rumour that a suspect has died in detention and that police are holding ritual murderers residents descend on the police stations, breaking anything in their path and send officers scampering for safety.
A police officer is almost stoned to death while several others are seriously injured by residents for trying to persuade them to stop rioting in protest of the death of another resident in a road accident.
In another incident a leader of a political party is scheduled to appear in court to answer some charges. A whole army of his cadres defy police counsel and try to budge into the court premises by force under the pretext of solidarity.
In half of the African countries I have visited all these incidents would have resulted in deaths because police would easily have resorted to the use of lethal force to preserve peace, order and public safety.
But in most cases the Zambian police have been so lenient with the rioters that some people have even heaped scorn on them for being “too soft”.
Notwithstanding the fact that they have been managing the mobs without modern crowd management tools and skills.
What the vocal critics should appreciate is that there is no law in Zambia that says police officers should timidly kneel down in front of law breakers and plead with them to stop breaking the law, or ask suspects of crime for permission to arrest them.
If that is what being “professional” means then I disagree! Police are there to enforce the law, not to ‘negotiate’ with law breakers.
The law allows the police to use ‘appropriate’ force to restore order or prevent the breach of peace.
When I was going through my basic and advanced police training years ago my instructors taught me one thing I have never forgotten:
That a group of 10 or more people who have gathered to carry out a common purpose that threatens public peace or safety is called “a mob”. And that I should fear a mob as much as I should an armed individual.
“When 10 or more unarmed people gather to carry out a common purpose that threatens public peace or safety you should fear them as you would an individual armed with a fire arm.
“They constitute a negative force and a danger to the public, which should be neutralised. The mob can harm innocent citizens or disarm you and turn your own weapon on you if you are weak,” our instructors in Law and Police Duties used to emphasise.
They said the rights of the larger public supersede that of the unruly few.
That’s what I learned at Mindolo Mine Police Training School and Kamfinsa Police College in Kitwe, which still makes a lot of sense to me.
Allowing a few people to break the law with impunity, or treating law breakers as if they are heroes is not being professional, if that is what the police critics mean.
My instructors at Kamfinsa taught me that if a suspect – armed or unarmed – is running away from you and defies your orders to stop, including your warning shot, you should shoot him in the legs to incapacitate him and then apprehend him. To some self-styled human rightists that is brutality, unprofessional.
Another thing my instructors taught me was that if a suspect is resisting arrest and you have a short or long baton the law permits you to hit him hard in the legs and arms – from the toes to the thighs and from fingertips to the shoulders – to render him incapable of using them.
I am yet to know if this has changed, but please give the hard working cops a break for once. They are among the most professional in the region.

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