Whither the Police Force?

Our law enforcement system plays a crucial role in upholding our democratic institutions by promoting effectiveness and fairness; failure to do so will compromise our democracy

By Sada Reddi

By now every newspaper has chided the way the police handled the protests of last week. For many, the scuffle that broke out was not inevitable. Why a protest with a symbolic burning of tyres can result in a disproportionate use of force and provoke similar protests in other places requires some explanation. It is therefore necessary to probe further the issue for a better understanding.

It is incontrovertible that the main cause of the citizens protest was the rising cost of living, increasing poverty and hunger. This crisis has been looming on the horizon. Politicians, economists and other observers in the media have been warning of the dangers which result from the depreciation of the rupee, inflation, joblessness and high prices of many basic commodities. While all social classes are affected by the rise in prices, the impact on different classes of the population is uneven. Segments of the population living in chronic poverty are the worst off. Hunger and anger have driven people to the streets to draw attention to their plight for empty bellies cannot wait for budgetary measures to alleviate the pangs of their suffering. Timely and urgent measures could have been taken by the Ministry of Social Security to provide immediate assistance to the deserving poor but this did not happen.

Not surprisingly inaction resulted in protests with the burning of tyres which has becomecurrent practice in many countries. There is no doubt that tyre burning as a road block is illegal and a traffic hazard, and it was appropriate that police should act. It should not have taken a lot for the police to extinguish the flames, parley with protesters and nudge them towards peaceful action.

Since one or two decades, in addition to training at the Police Training School, police officers had benefited from police studies at the University of Mauritius for better policing of society. Their training programme has been enriched with modules on social science, law, psychology, ethics, human rights and leadership. Off and on-the-jobtraining were expected to better prepare our police officers to deal with challenging situations as society becomes increasingly complex. Police officers have been trained to develop a high degree of individual autonomy and judgement when confronting any situation according to certain standards.

Most officers carry out reasonable policing, displaying empathy, compassion and understanding. Two days ago, a working woman walking alone on her way back home along a deserted road was stopped and questioned by a police officer for not wearing a face mask. The officer was on the point of booking her, but she was allowed to explain that in a hurry to go home before dark she had forgotten to put on her mask. She apologized and promised not to break the law again and the officer decided not to book her.

A few years back, a police officer at the airport was ordered to arrest a person on board a plane because it was alleged that he was carrying away some official documents. The passenger and his luggage were searched thoroughly. As no such official document was found, the officer allowed the passenger to reboard the plane much to the displeasure of his superiors. That officer at the airport was doing his duty according to law and did what was reasonable in the given circumstances and refused to carry out an arbitrary arrest.

There must be numerous cases of police officers acting reasonably and sensibly. But there are also cases where officers would have done things illegally — and that without any instructions whatsoever ‘from above’. A few decades ago, a rumour spread widely from supposedly first-hand witnesses about a suitcase containing drugs that had been allegedly conveyed in a police car to its recipient in a village in the south of the island.

It’s rightly said that the standard of policing depends at all times on the integrity of an officer or the lack of it. While some would deplore inadequate training of police officers for any deficiency in ethical conduct and practice, others would point to the politicization of the police force as the main culprit. Those who had craftedthe Constitution ensured that the police force remains outside government control, but the way things have evolved have come to give a very different perception of things. There is now a strong perception held by many that over the last few years some police officers appear to have become almost subservient to politicians, and who allegedly act on orders “from above” but most probably do so of their own volition in certain cases.

The Covid-19 legislation has expanded the powers of the police with restrictions on the movement of fellow citizens and mass meetings, and these have shielded politicians from political protests. The recent incidents at Plaine Magnien, Vacoas, Camp Diable and Camp Levieux demonstrate that at times the police appear hard-pressed to make judicious decisions that would avoid making mountains out of molehills. Why on earth should a person shouting the word ‘stupid’ be arrested and detained? Is it so difficult to understand that an injunction order issued by the Supreme Court means that it has to be enforced immediately and to do otherwise would undermine the rule of law and show disrespect for the highest institution in the country?

Let us hope that leadership of the police force realizes that the force has to be not only efficient in managing people and crisis situations, but it must most importantly be seen to be fair and impartial. Not only has it to be properly equipped, but there must be precise and well-established limits to the use of force with a view to preventing any abuse. Most of all, it has to secure the goodwill and cooperation of the public.

As a law enforcement independent institution, it has the responsibility to preserve the rule of law in the country. The credibility and trust in the police force is already low with its failure to solve some serious criminal cases and bring their perpetrators to account. Our law enforcement system plays a crucial role in upholding our democratic institutions by promoting effectiveness and fairness; failure to do so will compromise our democracy.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 29 April 2022

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