Most citizens of this country want to live in safety and they rely on the state and its law enforcement agencies to protect their lives and property. They also expect that crimes will be investigated, lawbreakers will be arrested, tried in court, and punished if found guilty.
Felons who commit violent crimes such as armed robbery, battery, rape and murder are usually few in number in relation to the whole population. Their fierce behaviour, however, can have a deep and wide impact on society at large. Security forces sometimes need to take violent measures to respond to violent crimes in order to ensure public safety.
Most citizens of this country would agree that the security situation in the Buxton-Friendship community is extraordinary. Although bandits probably receive some support from a minority of friends and relatives, the majority of residents of that community cannot be collectively condemned for complicity in crime. Crooks scare the daylights out of the residents who are as anxious as the security forces to see them arrested and taken away.
The conduct of the criminals is frightening enough but residents have also come to fear the far-from-friendly forces of law and order which have made the community into something of a war zone. As a result of the law-enforcement operation in late October, for example, not only were two ‘suspects’ shot dead but also a 19-month-old baby girl was hit by a bullet in her neck while sleeping in a chair in her parents’ living room. Two other children were simply abandoned in a house after one of the shot suspects was taken away and his stepfather arrested.
The discharge of firearms has become so commonplace that one villager casually referred to the sound of shooting in the community as ‘normal.’ As gunfire rang out during the recent security operation, parents scurried to remove their children from the nursery school, some keeping them at home long afterwards wondering whether the gunfire would resume.
Lethal assault weapons, designed to kill enemy soldiers on the battlefield in open warfare rather than to disable and arrest suspects in human settlements, have been used all too freely against our own citizens. Bullets do penetrate the thin wooden walls of the houses and shacks. Non-lethal weapons such as pellet guns, rubber bullets and tear smoke, which are ordinarily used in other countries, seem hardly ever to be employed here.
Publishing posters of wanted men in the community is infrequent. Presenting search and arrest warrants is unusual. Kicking down doors of private homes and ransacking personal effects is routine. Suspects can be seized, trussed like farm animals, and tossed into the trays of the security forces’ vehicles. Injured persons, innocent and guilty alike, are transported this way because no ambulance is ever available although casualties are usually anticipated. Inquests into unnatural deaths are all but unknown. Counselling traumatised children is unlikely.
From the time of the shooting of Tshaka Blair in his home by the police in April 2002, Buxton-Friendship has been a free-fire zone for the security forces. The recent operation in which two more ‘suspects’ were shot dead fits the five-year pattern of police killings. As the official account goes, the first man was killed around 10:00 hrs when the police returned fire after being shot and the second man was killed around 13:30 hrs when the police returned fire after being fired upon.
The case of the third man, however, has posed problems for the police. Said to be wanted in relation to investigation into several murders including the assassination of Minister of Agriculture Mr Satyadeow Sawh last year, the man was initially charged only with discharging a loaded firearm and attempting to commit murder in October three years ago and with possessing a small amount of marijuana in October this year.
The man’s attorney even denied that his client was known by the name given by the police, raising awkward questions about the identity of the suspect, the accuracy of wanted bulletins and the efficacy of police investigative techniques.
The trigger-happy style which has become the hallmark of policing in the Buxton-Friendship community seems to be more about misplaced machismo than about the sedulous search for evidence and the careful investigation of crimes. After five years of law enforcement operations in Buxton-Friendship, one might well wonder whether the security forces’ rough-and-ready tactics have been a stunning success that should be allowed to continue in this manner.
Ultimately, no matter how gung-ho they feel, members of the security forces should remember that martial law has not been declared and there is no state of emergency in this country. Policemen and soldiers who take human life, even in the course of duty, are liable to be prosecuted in the civil courts for unlawful killing. Repeatedly storming an entire community as if it were a free-fire zone is a risky policy that could backfire.