DIARY: Police reform must top bill

Last Tuesday’s shooting to death of two people, including a schoolboy by the police at Ashaiman should convince everyone who cares about this country’s progress that all is not well with the Ghana Police Service. I know that intelligent discussion about the police is almost impossible in this country.

The police is perhaps the most defensive institution in the government and takes every criticism as a personal attack on the men and women of the force. This has been one of the main causes of the continued weaknesses in several parts of police procedural implementation over the decades, since independence.

On Tuesday morning, news broke about the Ashaiman police shooting at a crowd with live ammunition and killing two people on the spot and injuring 10. Trouble started when some irate drivers were said to have stormed the Ashaiman police station to demand the release of their colleagues who had been arrested the previous day and kept at the station.

The story is now well known; the drivers blocked access roads as they converged on the police station. The police panicked and shot at the crowd, resulting in loss of two lives. Afterwards, a police officer defended the shooting on the grounds of self-defence and explained that the police only had live ammunition for crowd control.

This is amazing and frightening, and must thus call into question what exactly is the content of police training in the area of crowd control. This is important, because as far as I can remember, almost every crowd trouble has resulted in serious incidents of fatal shots by the police.

How can the police, located in such a dense urban environment as Ashaiman, not have the right equipment, in this case rubber ammo, water cannon, etc. for crowd control? If live ammunition must be used, is there no procedure for frightening the crowd such as shooting into the air? The fact that a young boy was shot dead probably indicates the eye-level at which the police were shooting.

Closet examination of the Ashaiman tragedy raises many other disturbing questions such as why the drivers attacked the police station. I will hazard a guess. Drivers are over-familiar with the police for the wrong reason. There is a right reason for drivers and the police to get to know each other and support each other’s work.

But a relationship cemented on the crime of bribery is not one of them.

Let me put it bluntly. Ghanaian drivers have very little respect for the police, especially the traffic police, with whom they have daily contacts. I have been an eyewitness on countless occasions when drivers have flatly refused to stop when the police ordered them to do so. The police officers simply shake their heads in rueful disbelief. Nothing happens to the errant drivers.

And you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know why. The police and the drivers play a “game” of cat and mouse, even if it is not clear who is the cat and who is the mouse. But it is a game in which the police lose a lot, especially their respect in the eyes of drivers.

This lack of respect for the police is not confined to the driving fraternity only, but has equally spread through the population. The extent of public disaffection for the police is easy to ascertain if the police authorities or even the government is minded to take a reflective backstage and think about what people think about our Police Service.

However, we need to have a mature and intelligent discussion about the police in this country. Public discussions about the Ghana Police tend to veer from the very negative to the impossibly admiring with the little in between. The truth is that as with all institutions, there are good ones and bad ones, but as the Akan proverb says, it is the one bad palm nut that spoils the whole soup.

However, this article is not about the behaviour of individual police officers but about the institutional character of the force. About 10 years ago, a young black man called Stephen Lawrence was murdered at a bus stop in South London by a group of white youth.

Many people, including most blacks, were unhappy with the way the Metropolitan Police, which is the London force, handled the matter.

This led to an official enquiry, led by a senior judge, and one of the conclusions it came out with was that the Metropolitan Police Force was “institutionally racist”. This led to a lot of public discussions in the UK but firmly established the idea of institutional character which can and does determine the behaviour of individual members of the institution.

I think that the Ghana Police Service, over the years, has built up some character traits that it must shed, if it is to conform to the spirit of this age. Today, we live in a time of democracy and human rights. This means that every police action has to conform to democratic principles. Simply wanting to “show power” has no place in today’s Ghana.

The Ghana Police of today is led by men and women who are highly educated in various disciplines and they would be top performers in any other profession. Therefore, if some bad habits persist in the service, it means that these are attributable to institutional defects which can be cured only through branch and root reform.

Ghana’s police officers are doing their best under difficult circumstances, and so are doctors, nurses, teachers, judges, drivers, market traders and journalists. But the conduct of police work affects this country in a unique way and it, therefore, deserves special attention. I am not for a moment saying that police work is more or less important than others, but I am saying that it is special in a specific context.

If we have bad police we will never have good governance, even if God lends us a few of his angels to lead this nation. There is almost a complete breakdown of law and order in some parts of this country and boorish behaviour, not to speak of stealing, bribery and the general criminal behaviour which are all highly tolerated in this country. One of the reasons is that there is inadequate police response to the situation.

Instead of the police spokespeople rushing out to defend anything police officers do, the force itself must be at the forefront of the call for reform. Police reform must begin with addressing police numbers, which the government is working on.

Equipment is critical to good policing and in changing attitudes. The Ashaiman Police would have acted differently, perhaps, if they had communications gear, transport and more critically non-lethal crowd control equipment.

It is true that the police felt under threat, but they are a disciplined force unlike the Ashaiman Drivers Union. That is the crux of the issue. The police cannot predict how the unruly citizens of this country will always act, but we need to be assured of how the police will react. The news that a police force routinely slays its citizens is not a good one.

Police reform must be top priority for all those who are clamouring for our votes to become president of this Republic. They must address this issue now. There is no time to dither on this, at least for the memory of the 11-year-old boy who went out only to sell “pure water” and met his untimely death at the hands of his putative protectors.

Authored by: Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

Email: gapenteng@hotmail.com

Source: The Mirror: DIARY