When a young man declares a desire to become a policeman, it is expected that he would be doing so for a number of reasons: to stop crime, to help the innocent, to serve and protect his country. These are the convictions society would hold him accountable to. These are the qualities that make a good police officer.
So at what point after he puts on that blue suit and badge do these convictions fall by the wayside?
You don’t need me to tell you that Sierra Leone struggles with holding its officers accountable to these things. The reports are everywhere: stolen okadas, illegal checkpoints, extortion, and even brutish beatings. Jail cells have been flooded with people held under questionable circumstances, and some have even been forced to pay bribes before bail. But the issue of police accountability is by and far not restricted to this great nation.
The American city of Seattle, the place where I call home, is known across the country for having one of the most unnecessarily violent police departments in the United States. Just a few months before I came to Sierra Leone, there was an incident where an officer came across two people fighting across the street from him. As he called for them to stop, one of the men began to sprint down the street in the opposite direction. The course of action the officer deemed appropriate was to shoot the man in the back.
About a year before that, another SPD officer came under harsh scrutiny after he shot and killed a man along the Seattle waterfront. The victim was a locally famous wood carver who had been selling his sculptures around the docks for a number of years. A young policeman pulled up next to the man, called for him to drop his “weapon,” and unloaded his gun into the man’s back when he didn’t turn around. Turns out, the wood carver was deaf and hadn’t even heard the officer’s order.
Police accountability is not an issue exclusive to Sierra Leone by any means. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any country that doesn’t have problems in that realm. But that doesn’t mean that abuses of power on part of the people who are sworn to protect us should be tolerated. And lucky for Salone, they are perhaps beginning to not be.
When I attended the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law’s Second Quarterly Seminar for Criminal Justice Reform last Wednesday, Police Superintendent Robin Shyllon fully acknowledged the human rights abuses his department had been accused of, informed the audience that he had dismissed 15 officers in the last two months alone, and then finished by distributing out both of his personal phone numbers, encouraging anyone who’s suffered mistreatment at the hands of the Sierra Leone Police to contact him personally.
I was taken aback by this. I have to commend Superintendent Shyllon’s willingness to place such responsibility upon himself, as such a gesture is virtually unheard of where I come from. But unfortunately, one person cannot control the actions of many men independently, no matter how much he wants to. Achieving full accountability of one of the most powerful forces in the country is going to require more than the words of one man.
I’m not going to pretend to have the solution to a problem with such a grand scope as police corruption, especially in a city where I have only lived for a little over a week. But I can say from personal experience that one of the largest obstacles in the quest to correct this issue is the police officers themselves. In Seattle, one of the reasons police reform has come so slowly is because the police officers are the ones in charge of their own discipline. In the aforementioned cases above, no criminal charges were placed against the officers in question due to the protections put in place by their own department. Officers worked together to protect their own, as any family would, even if it came at the expense of the citizens they were sworn to protect.
This is why I am sceptical of any disciplinary action program that is the sole responsibility of the officers in question. The change must come from the outside; the responsibility must be placed on an independent party.
I don’t know the solution, and I won’t pretend to. But I will say that acknowledgement of a problem is the first step to correcting it. Once complacence becomes the norm however, once the people begin to ponder that a solution may not be possible, that is when hope will truly be lost. We must never give up that hope; never accept our world’s problems as beyond repair. Otherwise all hope for the future will be gone with the wind.
Monday July 07, 2014