The unrestrained exercise of authority-based violence in purely noncustodial settings, particularly those involving Police interactions with civilians in public spaces, was the most worrying concern expressed by a wide range of the Liberian public as UNMIL began its draw down and eventual pullout from Liberia.
Foremost on the minds of the public was whether the national security apparatus, particularly the Police, could measure up to its responsibilities to serve and protect the common interests of all Liberians without bias, fear or favor. Such concerns were heightened by reports of cracks in the vetting and recruitment exercise of Police officers that permitted the absorption of criminal elements or individuals with a questionable past.
Interactions between Police and civilians in public spaces, especially during public protests and demonstrations, have shown a ready disposition on the part of Police to resort to the use of overwhelming force involving the use of live ammunition. And this has often resulted in civilian casualties or serious physical injuries and created further image problems for the organization that counter whatever public impressions it has sought to cast as a “force for good”.
While this newspaper appreciates the fact that Police officers may often become exposed to difficulties and dangers in the discharge of their duties, they must nevertheless remain mindful of their fundamental obligation to discharge their duties in full compliance with the law and ethics of the profession. This is very important because breaches of the law by Police officers can have a severe negative impact on society, which could serve to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the institution and injure their capacity to discharge their duties effectively.
This means, for example, that there must be clearly spelt out orders and procedures governing the exercise of their authority and which can be availed to the public for proper scrutiny. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), law enforcement officials “are given specific powers to enable them to carry out their tasks: the power to use force and firearms, to arrest and detain, and to carry out searches or seizure.
They must respect human rights when exercising those powers, which means, in particular, observing four fundamental principles that should govern all State actions with a possible impact on human rights:
1. Principle of legality: all action should be based on provisions of the law;
2. Principle of necessity: it should not affect or restrict human rights more than is necessary;
3. Principle of proportionality: it should not affect human rights in a way that is disproportionate to the aim;
4. Principle of accountability: those carrying out the action should be fully accountable to all relevant levels (the judiciary, the public, the government and the internal chain of command)
In this respect, according to the ICRC, “Commanding officers have to ensure that institutional ethics are formulated, promulgated and constantly upheld, thus clearly establishing full respect for the law as the fundamental standard to be met at all times”.
But the troubling fact is the LNP Duty Manual, adopted into use in 2008, provides very scant details on the role of LNP officers in upholding and protecting Human Rights in exercising their Police functions. Additionally, it remains unclear if the LNP duty manual contains a clearly spelt out “USE of FORCE” policy as well as a firearms control policy that includes adequate chain of custody procedures.
A key question that arises is, was the use of such lethal force on the threat posed by protesters proportionate to the lives and safety of the Police sent to contain the situation? From all accounts, this was not the case. So, who gave the orders to open fire directly on the protesters and not into the air first; and why?
Further, why were the officers not provided with non-lethal equipment including tear gas, water cannon or stun grenades? Do the Police lack such equipment in their armory?
Although Police authorities always claim that their officers are exposed to human training, their conduct in the field does not support this claim as the events in Kingsville laid bare.
And this is not the first instance of Police use of disproportionate force. During worker unrest at the Kinjor gold mines in Cape Mount for instance, Police are reported to have opened live fire on workers, which resulted in death and injuries. Similar occurrences were also reported from the Golden Verroleum oil palm plantation in Sinoe County and elsewhere.
These incidents of the unrestrained use of live ammunition do not help the tattered image of the Police. But Police authorities’ unawareness, feigned or real, of the implications of such breaches under international law appears to be a contributing factor to the laxity of control and disregard for Police Standard Operational Procedures, which should include a Firearms Use policy.
The probe ordered by President Weah into the incident is welcome but insufficient. He must be seen to be taking concrete and stern action to deal with those officers found culpable in this matter to serve as deterrence.
Further, in view of a rising crescendo of public complaints about Police biasness and ineffectiveness it is high time to take some action to redeem the fast eroding image of the Liberia National Police. It is important, therefore, that those entrusted with the responsibility to enforce the law do not and are not seen to breach the law without consequences.