A cop is killed, and failed brute-force policing continues

Jun 4, 2011

The Zimbabwe Republic Police force is widely considered to be partial to the long-ruling ZANU-PF party, rather than primarily loyal to the nation, a charge which is only half-heartedly denied. Senior police officials have expressed open contempt for the MDC party which is now in a ruling coalition with ZANU-PF. MDC officials have consistently complained of persecution and general ill-treatment at the hands of the police.

While the police force does not have much general respect by the citizens as an institution, because of a widely perceived lack of professionalism of which partisanship is only a part, there is no tradition of civilian attacks on the police as in some other countries where similar conditions exist.

So it was with shock that most Zimbabweans met the news of a policeman who had been stoned to death by a mob in Harare. The reports of what happened are conflicting. Because of the political overtones and conflicting accounts in a tense pre-election period, we may never get to know the truth of the matter.

The police say it was a group of MDC young hooligans who deliberately targeted the plain clothes policeman as he went about doing his job. The MDC denies that its members were involved, and accuse the police of being quick to build a story apportioning blame that fits their pre-conceived bias against the party.    

The police have understandably reacted with outrage to the killing of one of their own. But in their tactics of so doing, they show why they are considered by many citizens to be a praetorian guard for the ZANU-PF party, rather than a force primarily to protect any Zimbabwean against crime from any source. They have also entrenched the brutality for which they have become known, feared and despised.

The apportioning of blame for the murder to a group by their alleged membership of a political party was wrong and premature before an investigation, and incendiary in the current tense political environment. It has apparently been made because the policeman was thought to be part of a team that had gone to investigate an illegal (i.e. not approved by the police) 'political gathering.'   

If this is true, regardless of what then went wrong, it is at the very least unfair and unwise for the police to place blame for it on the party, when the individuals concerned could well have been members of one political party, but who cannot be necessarily said to have assaulted the policeman in the name of the party or on its behalf, as some senior policemen have implied.

The police have long been accused of absurd working definitions of what constitutions a political gathering that needs police approval, and of cynically applying the strictest definition to only the MDC. Apart from that, it is regarded by many that the applicable law requiring police authority for political gatherings is not applied impartially with strictly public safety in mind, but is one-sidedly applied against the MDC in its biggest strongholds, the major urban centers. 

MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti said, "Our own investigations have revealed that the police officers in question had a fight with patrons at a beer hall, following which the late officer was injured. We call upon the police to look at such things as the relationship between the deceased officer and the members of the public in that area."  

Good community relations have never been a big priority for the police force in Zimbabwe. From before independence, they have been accustomed to being bullies and getting away with it. Even if the policeman's unfortunate death is found to have taken place according to the police version of events, it would be wise going forward to consider the role played by their poor relations with civilians, and their declared hostility to the MDC party.   

The police certainly haven't helped matters, or their reputation, by the appearance of the suspects in court bruised and complaining of torture while in police cells, for which the Zimbabwe police have become world infamous. The reputation and image of the police are on public trial as much as the suspects are on trial before the courts.

Alec Muchadehama, a lawyer, aptly said in an interview published in The Standard newspaper , “The situation we have in this country is that of impunity in the operations of the police and a public, which is losing faith in the force mainly because of their selective application of the law.”

“You then have a society moving towards an anarchical society where people take the law into their own hands. Under normal circumstances, when a policeman gets murdered as happened recently, society is supposed to be outraged and members of the public would voluntarily come forward to assist in investigations but people are not doing that because they no longer trust the police to  protect their rights.”

Because of the out-dated, repressive instincts in how they relate to the public, the police have already begun to lose the public relations battle of this tragedy. With cooler heads and smarter tactics, they might have had the rare opportunity to use it to gain more public sympathy and respect. This would make them more effective in a job they can't do well with the public suspicious, fearful and contemptuous of them, and perhaps increasingly willing to resist routine abuse by them.


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