Can we make the police our friends?

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By BAMIDELE JOHNSON

Power distribution companies’ officials and greedy landlords are unlikely to rank high on the table of Nigerians deserving of public sympathy. But they can thank their stars that the animus towards them is nowhere near- in intensity and consistency-of what goes in the direction of the police establishment and its personnel. When the police post photographs or videos of policemen leaning to offer comfort or reassurance to a lost kid found on the street, appreciation of the gesture, when offered, quickly disappears in the slipstream of social media vitriol.

While the #ENDSARS protests flamed, murder of policemen, assault on them and police facilities provoked delirious jubilation and industrial-scale ill-will not just towards them, but their loved ones as well. These, I believe, remain latent and seep forcefully to the surface any time there is a report of police misconduct, which is often. It must be so tough to be a police officer in this era and I suspect that many of them would wish they were not, given the current climate of hate.

The police have let us down so badly, especially over recent years, but it is nevertheless wrong to indiscriminately tarnish everyone in the force as the same.

The police have justifiably been criticized for patterns of appalling conduct in their ranks: extra-judicial murder, extraction of confessions via torture, getting into bed with felons, casual brutality and various strains of corruption among others. The media, traditional and social, have been clinical in bringing these to light, just as in other areas of public service.

But I think we should look a bit more deeply into the nature of policing as well as the way officers’ actions are reported. The quiet work of a sergeant, which provides reassurance to a lost but found kid or assistance to a driver with a flat tyre on a lonely road is hardly going to attract roaring applause or be the subject of lavish media celebration. There are, I believe, hundreds of officers and men, whose actions will never be celebrated but are crucial to keeping us safe.

This is by no means an attempt to diminish the nature of cultural problems in the police; it is merely to offer the reminder that it is not right to taint the many decent and principled officers by association, for they are just as appalled by instances of wrongdoing as we are, and are victims of the system as everyone else.

Years ago, I met a police inspector seconded to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). It was the first day of the grilling of Mr. Tafa Balogun, the now deceased Inspector-General of Police, for corrupt practices. The inspector was happy at how things had turned out for Balogun, whom he described as a lucre-obsessed ogre (not his words). He said there were officers worse than Balogun, even within the force’s lower ranks. He told me of officers at his level with as many as 10 homes, cars and other good things because they had bank balances as hefty as Balogun’s physique.

He told me how much he earned as an inspector and how much his family was entitled to if he got killed on duty. Both sums, which I no longer recall, were measly. His first son, who was in the terminal class in secondary school, he told me, was going to train as tyre mender (erroneously called a vulcanizer) once he was done because he was sure not to have money to fund his education beyond that level.

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I asked how he found himself excluded from the gravy train, to which he responded that his colleagues made money via hideous schemes, which were against his Christian values (I tend to sniff at such claims to piety). He added that he was persuaded that evil would befall the children of police officers involved in obnoxious activities. A fellow inspector with so much money, he said, saw his first two sons run mad, something he attributed to punishment outrunning the father’s deeds.

The police have let us down so badly, especially over recent years, but it is nevertheless wrong to indiscriminately tarnish everyone in the force as the same. Who would want to join the police at a time like this?  The ship of state relies on public service, part of which is the police. Society does not and cannot work without them. I am not suggesting we pull our punches, by the way. Neither am I asking the public to stop the important work of exposing malfeasance because it is crucial for building greater accountability into the systems that underpin the police institution.

Police officers, it is safe to say, are a high-risk group for the development of mental health issues. The public does not seem to think this is important.

At the same time, I think we are at a stage where brilliant and decent people will not want to serve the country by joining the police because they are seeing those in service badly exhausted by the drip, drip of bad-faith attacks. These are marked by the rush to judgment and lack of compassion in assessing their work, promoting the attitude that the institution is universally awful.

A percentage of the awfulness (don’t know how much), I believe, is attributable to the conditions of service. Pigs are likely to balk at the offer of spending just one night in most of our police barracks, where flies do not need  their wings when seeking filth to perch on.  Or police stations. The dire sanitation in such facilities will produce compassion-deficient people, the result of which we see daily.

Police officers, it is safe to say, are a high-risk group for the development of mental health issues. The public does not seem to think this is important. If the authorities think of it all, they do not appear to take it as significant. These are just two examples. There are many, notably related to operations. To have the police become our friends-from the foes they currently seem to be-everybody, the media inclusive, needs to draw attention in a sustained manner to the deficits plaguing the force.

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