Recently, there have been two ‘police vs citizens’ clashes that have raised concerns.
We refer to the running violence in Okakarara and the break-up of the students’ demonstration outside the offices of the Ministry of Higher Education, Training and Innovation in Windhoek.
In reviewing these clashes, we are reminded of the various explosions between the police and the so-called struggle kids over the last few years, resulting in the death of an unarmed participant during one of those melees.
Recognising that it is easy for those not on the scene during a police action to sit back and criticise law enforcement, we are less concerned about the reason for the demonstration, but what is the level of training of police officers.
Are they regularly trained in crowd control, avoiding violence between armed police officers and unarmed citizens, community policing tactics, hands-on work with local leaders and organisers and non-violent reactions to provocation?
Currently, we see a “beat-them-up-and-ask-questions-later” tendency with our police forces, and this is a concern.
Namibia is a democracy; free speech sometimes means that protesting people who the police do not like will act in ways that the police do not prefer.
Our Constitution and the moral imperative demands that police officers must not willingly and with malice aforethought, violate the civil and human rights of anyone, even those protesting, hurling verbal insults or otherwise behaving badly.
Confrontations featuring violent reactions by fearful and questionably trained police forces, never end well for either side.
After the police forcibly removed the protesting students this week they said they were justified in using ‘minimum force.’ It is clear that their idea of minimum is not the same as ours.
Beatings, rubber bullets and tear gas on unarmed and in some cases, seated or kneeling protestors is excessive. It tends to demonstrate a lack of police tactics, situational training and preparation to implement modern crowd control options that are used by other police forces around the world.
More interesting is the contradiction of the police actions this week with the words spoken in March this year by Minister of State Security, Charles Namoloh, who said, “The Namibian Police Force is allowed to use minimum force when apprehending dangerous suspects.”
What ‘dangerous’ suspects were outside of the higher education ministry that required such supposed, ‘minimal force’ against the protesting students?’ Merely blocking an entrance (when there were other exits available for public use) is not a provocation for such violent aggression.
In our view, there is nothing ‘minimal’ when a rubber bullet hits an unprotected body causing blunt force trauma and can break a rib (which can puncture a lung) or could put out an eye or breaks a nose or when tear gas burns eye tissue or causes allergic reactions from those affected by the fumes. People being hit on the head with clubs can suffer debilitating concussions.
Reports of running street violence in Okakarara are also disturbing. The resulting arrest of almost 40 people, siege at the police station, bottles thrown at police officers and general chaos, present a difficult challenge to law enforcement. What is the strategy for handling these situations?
Again, following the definition offered by Namoloh, what dangerous suspects were being apprehended or resisting arrest in Okakarara? Reportedly, in that situation, the person originally asked by police to come to the station for further investigations went willingly, driving his own car behind police vehicles.
Street confrontations between the police and protestors can quickly escalate in seconds from verbal exchanges to physical clashes, particularly if macho men, shebeens, bars and beer are involved. Are the police trained enough to manage these situations?
What about working with protest leaders or the loudest rabble rousers to calm things down? What about using well-padded linked-armed police lines to separate irate crowds from their targets?
Verbal de-escalation interventions by respected people, traditional leaders, clergy in collars and nuns in wimples, grey-haired grannies and other methods are used effectively in other countries to dampen violence in crowds, why not here?
Why aren’t mature officers standing within the crowd throughout the event, talking to protestors, handing out water, providing mobile toilets, first aid and places to sit for those who get tired? It is all about tactics.
Police and public interaction at demonstrations without a ‘We vs They’ mentality and acting and speaking calmly could help to diffuse tension.
Officers are human beings, just like the protesters. Fearful and confused police officers escalate towards violence quickly whenever they feel the authority they have been trained to exert, is being ignored.
When their uniforms and commands don’t work to make things go their way, naturally, human emotions can emerge and the rules and regulations can fly out of the window. At that point, the gun comes out or the police baton cracks a head or two in the crowd.
These days, anyone in a mob/crowd could also have a gun or a stick to respond. Worse, a bullet can ricochet (as concluded in the case of the fatality at the ‘struggle kids’ demonstration) and unintended victims may suffer.
Effective policing involves the extent to which regulating achieves its proper, officially sanctioned goals.
As Namibia hosts more international events that can require crowd control and heightened security (like the SADC Heads of State Conference) or undertakes policies which could attract protestors (i.e., a seal cull) or as we move closer to the already controversial land conference in October, or as different segments of civil society (such as Nam Vets) undertake marches, it is imperative that law enforcement identify their officially sanctioned outcomes, plan a strategy to achieve this, and most importantly train its officers effectively.