HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsNational Question: Of police, teargas and baton sticks

National Question: Of police, teargas and baton sticks

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The long black truncheon has become part of police uniform. This menacing 85cm weapon, which weighs almost half a kilogramme, can cause serious damage when used carelessly, even with the least effort.

The whole design of the weapon speaks terror. It is an instrument to instill fear in the hearts of anyone who has the misfortune of being at the wrong end of the stick.

In the past, the truncheon was only summoned to action in dire instances when use of force was really necessary to subdue unco-operating criminals or controlling violent crowds.

But today virtually on every beat police details carry this weapon: from those doing foot patrols in the city centre and suburbs to traffic cops at major intersections.

This lot has decided to substitute basic traffic control techniques with indiscriminate swinging of the menacing long baton stick to smash vehicle windscreens and to destroy headlights.

The truncheons represent an unfortunate trait of our police force that policemen want to be feared rather than respected. But there is a danger with this form of policing by coercion. Those being attacked sometimes see a real reason to retaliate and confront the police.

This is so because the victims believe that that police are out to fight the public.

Confrontation between the police and the public can start small, but can escalate into unsavoury scenes with damaging ramifications to the force and to national peace.

I have witnessed a policeman — accused of smashing a vehicle windscreen — in a messy scuffle with the owner of the car.

Illegal vendors have also had occasion to confront policemen to claim confiscated goods. These confrontations are, however, very damaging if they take a political dimension.

This was evident on Tuesday when police used excessive force at the MDC headquarters at Harvest House, in a bid to flash out a vendor who had assaulted a musician.

The police say that MDC youths in the process had a scuffle with a policeman who had pursued a suspect into the building. Police say they had to fire teargas into the building to deal with stone-throwing youths who damaged police vehicles.

The mayhem that ensued as a result of the confrontation between the police and the activists is a salutary lesson of the dangers inherent when the use of force in quelling a situation is not tempered by assessment of collateral damage that teargas and baton sticks in the wrong hands has on unsuspecting afternoon shoppers.

When you attempt to use a hammer to swat a fly, there is a good chance of missing the vexatious insect and ending up with a damaged table. This appeared to be the case on Tuesday.

After gassing innocent people and causing huge inconveniences to businesses, the suspect the police were pursuing escaped. What was all the brute force about then?

To catch a vendor of pirated music, to deal with MDC activists stationed at Harvest House or to just have a bit of fun with teargas and baton sticks? The amount of force employed and the end result pointed at a more than just arresting a vendor.

In fact, there have been a number of incidents involving the police and MDC youths at Harvest House in which the force has justified use of teargas and baton sticks to storm the building.

The activists have over time developed a self-preservation mechanism whenever there is a visitation by the force. This mechanism brings with it retaliatory violence which is very damaging in its own way. There is real danger when the mechanism kicks in on a more grand scale. It leads to anarchy.

Police will continue to deal with the perception out there that the force regards the citizens it is paid to protect as the enemy and when interacting with the public, officers must see and react to each and every situation with aggression reserved for a fore.

The remedy to this is not greater use of force, but a change in approach. It is simply upholding the law and not appearing to be blatantly partisan.

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