Police officers are the most feared lot of professionals. When they call you to a station, one develops sudden jitters all over the body even when police only want to get important information necessary for further investigations.
When a police vehicle appears in the village, children and elders often run away. If they don’t run away, then they would peep through the window, asking themselves what wrong they have done to warrant police presence and arrests.
“Where I come from at Thondwe, people in the village still run away when they see a police vehicle coming in the village,” remarked a police officer at Zomba Police Training College.
“Even when we have brought a dead body to the village, people rush to accuse us of killing the person even when it’s not us,” observed another officer at Mzuzu Police Station.
That’s not all. People accuse police officers of being inhumanely and often unfriendly on the roads. Traffic officers are, for whatever reason, the public enemy number one for minibus drivers including some well meaning Malawians. Every driver shudders at the sight of a team of traffic officers stationed on the roads, even when no traffic rules have been breached.
Despite the onset of a democratic dispensation, it is rare to see uniformed gun-toting police officers who are walking on the roads chatting or indeed greeting a pedestrian in the usual Malawian social interaction of “Mwadzuka bwanji?” (How are you this morning?)
Although there has been reform programme in the police service, ranging from changing the colour from black to white of police vehicles and other regalia, establishment of public relations offices at all district police stations to intensive trainings in human rights, the police continue to face public disdain.
The reasons for this could be historical, institutional or individual attitudes of the members of the Malawi Police Service.
Historical because in the one-party era under Malawi Congress Party regime, police officers were used or abused as terror agents to victimise those who did not pay taxes or buy party cards or indeed spoke unfavourable of the party and its leadership.
As change takes time, this mindset could still be prevalent in the police institution because police officers who served under that regime might find it tough to shed off the old mentality and come to terms with democratic ideals, resulting in individual officers carrying over the gloomy past onto the present citizenry.
So this is the image police officers, knowingly or unknowingly, carry among themselves. But the new police administration under Inspector General Lot Dzonzi appears ready, not in combat gear but, to mop up the bad image the police have curved among the general public.
Senior Deputy Commissioner of Police Dr George Kainja said the new police chief has a great vision of the Malawi Police Service where its officers become true servants of the people and champions of human rights as guided by the Constitution.
“The new Inspector General wants to hear that when a child tells a police officer to untie his or her shoe laces, the police officer should kneel down and do as requested by the child,” said Kainja.
“The new Inspector General wants to see police officers doing what the members of the general public have asked them to do, to become servants and not bosses of the people, but how many of you can really kneel and listen to such a child?” asked Kainja rhetorically during a meeting with 20 police officers at Mzuzu Police Station.
He was speaking during one of a series of meetings Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) in partnership with Malawi Police Service organised to do a human rights needs assessment for all police officers across the country.
The exercise, with funding from the Irish Aid, involved administering of questionnaires to selected district police stations of Mangochi, Zomba, Balaka, Mzuzu, Mzimba, Nkhata-Bay, Rumphi and some parts of central region districts targeting 20 police officers per station.
Last year, MHRC requested funding from Irish Aid to train police officers and Probono lawyers under the MHRC/Malawi Law Society Project in human rights-friendly prosecution and litigation standards.
So far, over 30 lawyers participated in human rights training in Mangochi in March this year. It is hoped that lawyers will begin to litigate using human rights approaches by not only focussing on the suspects but also the victims of the cases they handle. The human rights assessment exercise for police officers was the second activity under the Irish Aid project.
“We wanted to come to you and get your needs first before we start rolling-out the trainings in partnership with MHRC. We felt that it would be improper for us to train you in things that you didn’t ask for hence, these questionnaires before you,” said Kainja.
“I want to thank Irish Aid for the financial support which has enabled us to travel across the country and conduct this exercise,” he said.
In the questionnaire, police officers were asked about general human rights issues in terms of what they know or lack, general police work, the police training and service superior orders, constitutional requirements of police work, crowd control, corporate image building and other operational challenges.
Kainja was accompanied in all the selected police stations by Willie Mwaluka, Deputy Commissioner of Police and Service Training Officer including Inspector Grace Ligoya of the Police Headquarters.
“The Inspector General (Lot Dzonzi) has told me that as police we should start working with all NGOs and human rights organisations. Gone are the days when as Police we felt uncomfortable working with NGOs,” observed Kainja.
“As I speak Undule Mwakasungula (Executive director of CHRR) is chairing a meeting at the Police Headquarters; this is what the new Inspector General wants to see and happen. He wants a police service that is in partnership with communities and all members of the general public in order to safeguard public order, law and peace and also protect life and property,” he said.
He challenged police officers to help the new Inspector General change the bad image of the Malawi Police Service which has been synonymous with brutal killings and torture when soliciting information from suspects following reports of deaths of suspects in police custody.
The Malawi Police Service received a backlash last year in the manner they handled the July 20 demonstrations which resulted in the killing of 20 protestors and the unexplained death of Polytechnic Student Robert Chasowa.
“Sometimes what we do as police officers is very ironical; we tell suspects that they have a right to remain silent but when they exercise that right what do we do in the end? People laugh at us because of what we do and with this behaviour, our image can’t be good,” Kainja, who is now heads Research and Planning Department, observed.
He said section 153 of Republic of Malawi Constitution empowers the police to be champions off human rights in the country, saying it was important police officers promoted and protected human rights at all times.
Kainja revealed that the new Inspector General has since called for a meeting between Malawi Police Service and all Human Rights NGOs to be coordinated by MHRC to ensure that there is proper understanding between the police and the general public.
MHRC lawyer and Deputy Director of Civil and Political Rights, Chrispine Sibande, noted that the police are, on average, the largest group of legal advisors, assisting 98 percent of the population on legal issues that arrange from domestic relationships, marriage, contracts, debts to land matters according to aresearch conducted.
Sibande observed that whenever members of the general public were aggrieved, robbed or their relations killed, they rushed to police stations to complain where they would get assistance and advice in various forms.
“Overall, police officers are doing a good job in this country by protecting life and property. The Victim Support Units (VSU) have done wonders as they have assisted a lot of families. Some of the cases would have flooded the courts but police have handled them professionally,” Sibande explained.
He, however, said that what the police needed was to build its image and restore confidence in people to ensure optimal cooperation with members of the general public so that community policing become asuccess story and a shining example in the whole region.
“How many of you police officers can stop and respond to a person when asked what time of the day it is? How many of you believe that people can stop you through the ssssh! Ssssh! attention seeker?” Sibande quizzed police officers.
He said police officers needed to coexist professionally with communities for them to work properly with members of the general public as guided by section 153 of the Republic of Malawi Constitution and Police Act.
“This is why we want to hear from you what things you lack in terms of human rights issues so that we can come up with a proper human rights training package for you in the near future,” said Sibande.
In his remarks at the police stations visited, Mwaluka said his institution was committed to ensuring that police officers conducted their job with professionalism through observance of human rights standards as dictated by the Police Act and the Service Training Order.
“We have partnered with MHRC in order to identify gaps in human rights among police officers. We will have several trainings so that we have a police service that is responsive and accessible to the communities in line with human rights standards,” Mwaluka noted at Zomba Police Training College.
Several police officers complained that communities did not appreciate police work when it came to crowd control measures. Police officers also indicated that they were the first to be blamed by NGOs and the public when there is a violation of human rights against suspects.
Police officers further complained that they do not get sympathy from the general public when they have been injured or when their houses have been torched or damaged by demonstrators and looters, citing the July 20 demonstrations last year.
But Sibande observed that all that could be a thing of the past if police officers respected peoples’ rights, live in harmony with communities and wear professional face when executing their duties in order to better build and sustain a reputable police image necessary for public cooperation.
He said the future now looks bright for the Malawi Police Service because the law enforcing body is in the safe hands of the new police chief as he was the main architect and anchor of the famous Police Reform Programme.
*The writer is Public Relations Officer for Malawi Human Rights CommissionFollow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :