Namibia: The Police Must Protect, Not Harm

editorial

The needless death of a one-month-old baby boy in the back of a police van last month is a brutal reminder that there is an urgent need to reform the way the Namibian Police operate.

As much as the police have the daunting task of protecting citizens and avoiding danger, too often their work results in the loss of lives.

Stephanus Eiseb (39), the baby's father, had gone to the Epako Police Station in the Omaheke region to report the theft of blankets by a family member so that the police could help retrieve them.

According to Eiseb, when they got to the station, an officer was assigned to help them, but appeared distracted.

The officer told the couple to climb into the back of the police van with the two children.

Eiseb said during what turned out to be a "hellish" ride, the officer made a sharp turn at one point and they ended up being flung around in the back of the van.

During the incident, the baby's head bashed against the side of the vehicle.

The little boy died while in the care of someone who is supposed to be a protector.

While it would not have been the intention of the police officer to cause harm to the baby, his inability in that moment to comprehend the possible consequences of his actions is worrying.

This case is symbolic of broader concerns about how the police deal with members of the public.

It is also indicative of a general need for the Namibian Police to improve their systems and processes.

All the more so in terms of refining their reactions when they do come under pressure.

Our police also need to be transparent about when they get it wrong on the job no matter the circumstances.

All too often, the media or the public are left to pick up on these cases from alleged victims or eyewitnesses.

When, for example, the police do use deadly force, or a police action goes awry, the public needs to be fully informed about the circumstances, what happened, why it happened, and whether it could have been avoided.

Failure to be transparent is tantamount to the police shooting themselves in the foot.

Police officers carry a heavy burden of responsibility which cannot be treated lightly. They are not like other public servants. They carry guns and have the ability to deprive members of the public of life and liberty.

No one doubts that police officers often find themselves in volatile and testing situations. That's when the quality of their training is really put to the test.

Key to this is discipline under pressure and an unassailable understanding of their role to protect and respect citizens' right to life, whether it's in the course of dealing with complaints from members of the public or rounding up suspects.

What is at stake is the integrity of our police.

What is at stake is trust in those charged with upholding the law and protecting us.

Sadly, the ramifications of even unintentional carelessness can prove deadly or costly.

Confidenté reported last year that misconduct and negligence by police officers cost the state millions in taxpayers' revenue.

The police are apparently battling more than 500 lawsuits and damage claims amounting to N$800 million.

Police inspector general Sebastian Ndeitunga appeared to try and shift the blame in the Epako case, but living in denial does not help in challenging times.

"He [the police officer] did not force them to get into the bakkie. They could have easily said 'no, we are not getting into the bakkie'," Ndeitunga said.

The way the police deal with members of the public needs to be above reproach.

For its part, members of the public should hold the police to high standards and support them.

But carelessness and recklessness, no matter the situation, remain unacceptable.

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