8 February 2018

Uganda: Smile for the Camera, Said the Cop to the Suspect - Guilty or Not, You Must Be On TV

opinion

A few days ago, the police arrested a man in connection with the death of popular musician Mowzey Radio.

Media platforms were awash with pictures of the man, including one, apparently handed out by the authorities, in which a police officer towered triumphantly over the suspect.

A statement from the office of the Inspector General of Police followed with a congratulatory message to the teams involved in the arrest. Other details poured forth, about how the man had been tracked, and pictures of detectives leading the man around the crime scene.

By the time you read this report ,it is likely that the man would have been charged (with murder), denied bail and remanded to Luzira Prison. Swift. Efficient. Or is it?

What if, Dear Reader, the man in the picture is innocent? And, even if he isn't, can he expect to receive a free and fair trial after being condemned by the public opinion court?

Our police officers work long hours for low pay to save us from ourselves and from one another.

They also receive a lot of flak for their partisanship and routine incompetence. One can understand their keenness, when they think they have gotten it right, to nail their flags to the mast.

Hardly a day goes by without the police parading some hapless suspect: burly alleged robbers handcuffed next to their illegal arms; burglars squatting next to flat-screen televisions; the occasional village pervert, tethered to a bewildered-looking goat that he was caught, in flagrante delicto, in some thicket, trying to point in the general direction of the Devil's Metropolis.

Evening news bulletins are not complete without a police officer, barely able to contain their pride, describing how a suspect, to whom the camera frequently pans, killed, stole, lied or committed some offence, and how the suspect is now destined for the courtroom.

There are reports of cases in which a suspect having been arrested, say for allegedly stealing a bicycle in some dusty village, is kept in custody until a TV news crew arrives, and then dragged around by locals long enough for the police officers to "arrive and whisk them to safety".

What we are never shown, or told about, are the many suspects who, after being thus paraded, are released without charge. Neither are we told about those who, after long stays in prison, are set free because they were victims of mistaken identity or jealous rivals and enemies.

The original stain is one that, in many cases, can never be washed away.

During its centennial celebrations in October 2014, the Uganda Police Force declared a shift from colonial to community policing.

Several reports, including one that will be launched in Kampala this week by the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung shows a mismatch between the promise of crime prevention and improved community relations, and the reality.

It is easy to see how a desperate need to be seen to be working can fuel antics, including those that jeopardise investigations.

Yet police can enforce the law while operating within it. Many moons ago your columnist offered pro-bono guidance to our men and women in police uniform.

It wasn't taken, but here is a summary, based on the basic understanding that every one is innocent until proven guilty in a competent court of law through a free and fair trial.

When suspects are apprehended, police can indicate as much, including giving some descriptions of age and gender, but without naming names.

The nuances also need to be made clear: has someone attended a police station or been arrested; is someone a person of interest, a suspect, or simply helping the police with an on-going investigation? And when suspects are released, is it on bond, or without charge?

Once investigations are complete - and for crying out aloud stop giving step-by-step details of who is looking for what where - and suspects formally charged. The police can then name names and provide a mugshot of the suspect. In trying to improve police-community relations playing within the rules is more important than playing to the gallery.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man's freedom fighter.

Twitter: @Kalinaki.

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