By Nita Chicooree-Mercier
The polemic raised over controversial authorization given to the police force to monitor public movement and call at citizens’ homes for investigation and arrest without any warrant leaves room for several interpretations. There is the fear that the authorities would misuse the law to send the police to deliberately harass political opponents or anyone who criticizes the government. It may translate into policemen barging into houses at any time of the day and in the middle of the night under false pretences, and target those who are chafing the nerves of the rulers. Or policemen might just misuse the law to settle scores with anyone they have in their sights and flex muscles unnecessarily to impress and frighten.
“Coastal beaches also require due attention. There are fewer policemen on duty on Sundays. So there are scarce patrols to make picnickers respectful of regulations. Cars are parked anywhere, bottles, cans and plastic and paper wraps are simply thrown away on the beaches…”
The official standpoint is to have the law applied during the time of pandemic for a more effective control of public movement and propagation of the disease in case of a second surge so as to alleviate the tasks of the medical staff and all frontliners. The ultimate goal is to instill more discipline to combat the virus. Fines are already raised to a disproportionate level to deter potential offenders, especially those who take the wheel for no reason, and another category who is impatient to congregate in total disrespect for confinement which most law-abiding citizens are putting up with.
The aim is to avoid a situation akin to the nightmare authorities in India had to cope with because thousands of people assembled for religious purposes in fearless disregard of confinement rules and contaminated loads of other citizens. It is a matter of applying the same law to all citizens, and not allowing sections of society to have their own law. In such cases tough measures are expected to act as deterrent, and may imply that police forces have to call at houses without any prior notice.
Public health and safety is important to people themselves, and is an essential service to the economy. So police action is understandable on this ground. It should certainly not open the way to abuse of opponents and random arrests of citizens on flimsy suspicions. Nobody wishes that a sense of discipline is transformed into authoritarian nonsense.
Abuse of power
Reservations on the use of police authority over the public on suspicious grounds are not unfounded if we go by previous reports. Resentment and animosity ill-inspire politicians to order arbitrary arrests and retaliatory investigations with a view to harass and pester opponents. A few unruly elements among policemen resort to brutal force to crack down on erring citizens. A few days ago, a young policewoman patrolling with her male colleagues in a coastal village indulged in gratuitous verbal abuse of an elderly person, hurling swear words ending with ‘mama’. Women like her stupidly mimic the vulgarity that characterizes some policemen. The man was just standing in front of his gate. His relatives came out of their house and gave a piece of their mind to the bunch of policemen and the young woman. Cases of routine patrols degenerating into unnecessary blows were reported in the early days of confinement. Lately, cases of muscled handling of prisoners ending in death are totally unacceptable.
What training do policemen get before being enrolled to act as representatives of law and order is worth reviewing. Whether they are inculcated with a full understanding of their duty, a set of principles to guide them and a sense of discipline is an open question. The typical question a venal officer asks if you don’t have all the documents available during a random check is: What do you want to do now? You expect him to simply give you the damned paper to go and pay a fine. It is only later that you are told, in case you tend not to be aware of local practices, what the fellow really meant in repeating the same question Ki pou fer aster?
The criteria for recruitment in the police force follow the same pattern in many countries with more or less the same IQ level for the average policeman. Generally, most of them take their job seriously and fulfil them appropriately. Law and order are an essential service in society, and police forces are expected to carry out their duties in accordance with well-defined guidelines, principles and right ethics.
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What about imposing a fine to promote cleanliness in public places? Indeed, while the public is largely sensitized on sanitary measures it is the right time to launch a campaign in favour of environment-friendly behaviours. Use MBC television to raise awareness on keeping streets clean, avoid littering roadsides with plastic bottles, beer cans, cigarette packs and such likes.
In post-lockdown period, municipalities should send their teams to town centres, markets and crowded spots to enforce regulations on cleanliness. The mess around the market in Port-Louis at 5 p.m. is nothing flattering for a capital city. It is left by vendors and hawkers of all kinds. The time has come to move to another location, and shift Parliament and the ministries there as well. In the meantime, there is a lot to be done to instill discipline for a pleasant and clean environment in the towns and villages.
Coastal beaches also require due attention. There are fewer policemen on duty on Sundays. So there are scarce patrols to make picnickers respectful of regulations. Cars are parked anywhere, bottles, cans and plastic and paper wraps are simply thrown away on the beaches.
What can be done to avoid accidents and deaths in times of normalcy? Motorcycles overtake buses right and left these days, with policemen watching the scene and doing nothing about it. It is happening when there is not much traffic now. On normal days, you see it on the highway leading to the capital and in the villages on a daily basis. It takes years to develop a new mindset geared towards discipline in individual choices and behaviour in the public sphere for the common welfare. General awareness that a back-to-usual way of doing things is increasing.
Moreover, in managing public funds, government must strike the right balance between business growth, devise a new fiscal policy to reduce glaring inequalities, and promote welfare of workers. A lot of boldness, goodwill and energy will be needed to bring about real change.
* Published in print edition on 15 May 2020