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Contemporary paradoxes in policing

By Jude Kagoro

Militarisation of crime and violence against police officers in Uganda

On July 17, Eric Garner, a giant 43-year old black man died during an arrest by the New York Police Department (NYPD). Garner’s crime was selling untaxed loose cigarettes on the streets. Thanks to an amateur video, this incident was extensively circulated in both mainstream and social media. In the video, police officers can be seen literally squeezing life out of Garner, who prior to passing out pleaded several times “I can’t breathe”, “I can’t breathe”. Without paying any disrespect to the memory of Eric Garner, let us also keep in mind that since 1988, the same Garner had been arrested on 31 different occasions for charges ranging from drug possession to violent conduct. I raise this point to lead into two interrelated arguments I will be presenting in this article.

On one hand, the article provides a general discussion on contemporary challenges in the policing industry, including the increasing overlaps between the police and military spheres, while on the other exploring violence against the Uganda police in particular. Whereas police violence has over the years received overwhelming attention in the public sphere, violence against the police has hitherto been under-discussed. The article is certainly intended to go beyond the usual prejudices and to open-up some new perspectives on the police debate in Uganda.

So, to return to the case of Eric Garner, it was not an isolated incident and, of course, the NYPD has for several years been under scrutiny for alleged excessive use of force and the over reliance on the “broken windows” policing theory—over-policing of communities as a strategy of standardising social order and forestalling anti-social behavior. In different ways and to varying degrees, some commentators have illustrated that the “broken windows” model has been used to target black and Latino neighborhoods in the US. In fact, the NYPD had been facing the daunting task of repairing its image in the same communities long before the recent Garner incident. We are talking of New York; the “melting pot” of the world, the global commercial capital and the host of the UN headquarters. Had the Garner incident happened in Kampala, most likely, the American ambassador would have publically given a patronizing lecture to the Uganda police.

Coincidently, in late July 2014, the Garner affair came up in the course of a presentation I held on the Uganda police at the 23rd World Congress of Political Science in Montreal, Canada. Prof. Michelle Bonner, a police scientist and the main discussant of my paper brought up the subject, arguing that, to make a complete academic debate on police forces in Africa, one equally needs to pay attention to advanced democracies vis-à-vis the contemporary challenges of their policing industries. Generally, the insecurity landscape has profoundly been re-shaped by post-cold war consequences, terrorism, drug trafficking, highly organised and heavily armed criminal networks and the like.

Police, military overlaps

At a normative level, police are mandated to enforce civilian law and order, investigate crimes, and to strictly follow legal procedures even when in pursuit of chronic and dangerous criminals. Ideally, it has been argued, there should be strict dividing lines between the police and military; the former for domestic purposes with the latter protecting citizens from external threats. In his article on the anti-militarisation of the police in the United States, Kurt Andrew Schlichter aptly put it that the military is designed, organised and equipped to execute rapid, violent and efficient obliteration of the “enemy”—whoever the enemy may be. He adds that military methods are by nature not architectured to deal with shades of grey that a police officer encounters on a day to day basis, but are tailored to the stark black and white of the battlefield.

Empirically however, drawing clear boundaries within the security structures to limit each to a specific type of security seems to be a complex task, especially with regard to contemporary insecurity challenges highlighted on above. Simply put, the magnitude the security threats logically defies the distinction between police and military roles. In fact, it is not only the military that is getting more involved in domestic threats, but police forces are also getting more involved in external threats such as confronting transnational criminal cartels and even terrorism. To that end, Lt. Col Geoffrey Demarest of the US Army took the debate further by writing that the three concepts of what is military, what is police, and what is civilian are no longer as distinct as we might suppose.

Against this background some police forces have equally adopted military tactics in the enforcement of “civilian” order. Across the United States for instance, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams were introduced. Over the years Congress has encouraged the U.S. military to supply intelligence, military grade weaponry, and training to civilian police. Similarly, as many commentators have illustrated, the Pentagon has been equipping SWAT teams with lethal weapons such as M-16s, armoured personnel carriers, and grenade launchers. The SWAT teams also conduct training exercises with active duty Army Rangers and Navy SEALs. Though the SWAT teams were meant to confront heavily armed criminals and to perform extraordinary missions such as hostage rescue, counter-terror, and high risk arrests, today they are involved in routine patrol. Sean J. Kealy has written that police departments routinely send their SWAT teams out on the streets in tactical uniforms armed with military style weaponry. Faced with similar challenges, this U.S. example should help us to understand why it is not so surprising that the Uganda Police Force has been borrowing from the military milieu to up-grade its own capability. As Gen. Kale Kayihura remarked at the recent re-burial of Uganda’s first indigenous IGP, the late Lt. Col Erinayo Wilson Oryema, in Nwoya district, “you don’t expect a police officer to use a baton while confronting an AK47 wielding criminal.”

I was one of those Ugandans who naively thought that a neat dichotomy between the military and the police was a simple task. At the same time I was guilty of perceiving the Uganda situation in isolation. My perspective has significantly broadened through my keen academic interest in the theme of security. During my time at Bayreuth University in Bayern, Germany, I developed close relations with officers of the Oberfranken Police (upper Franconia, Bavaria/Bayern) for scientific reasons. In many of our discussions, the officers urged me to always understand police tactics in the context of the nature of crime and the capacity of adversaries (criminals and law breakers).

Most importantly, between November 2013 and April 2014, I spent five months studying the Uganda police at both police stations and field manoeuvers such as patrols and drunk-driving operations. This period gave me a deep ethnographic understanding of both the Uganda police and the security landscape of the country. Besides the terror threats posed by extremists groups such as al-Shabaab, the country is also faced with criminal networks that are highly organised and heavily armed of which prototype police tactics can never foil. Consequently, President Museveni’s appointment of military generals to head the police has turned-out to be a smart choice. Were we to step back from the emotionality of our usual political grievances, I think we would, however begrudgingly, acknowledge that the generals, especially the incumbent IGP, Gen. Kale Kayihura, have been able to re-organise the force, establish a well functioning command and control structure, and improve police’s penetrative ability of society. In that sense, the police force has done well to maintain peace and stability that is usually taken for granted in many circles. Of course, most of the police’s pre-emptive strategies and achievements are by nature not discussed in the media or public.

Violence against police

Many political commentators and human rights activists in Uganda are quick to condemn the police without providing a complete analysis of the context within which the force operates. I personally condemn any form of violence and there have been cases where the police has over reacted and used more force than necessary. However, as we condemn police violence, we easily forget violence against police. For instance, in the last two years, over 30 police officers have been attacked by gangs and criminal elements within society. In some cases the criminals kill officers and make off with weapons—obviously for the purpose of using the same weapons to terrorise society.

In some cases, crowds make efforts to protect criminals. In early July, a police operation nearly failed when the Kiseka market-based criminal gang, B13, which has been using the Nakivubo channel as its safe haven, rallied a crowd to pellet the police with stones. At the same Kiseka market, I once personally witnessed some elements throwing large rocks at officers who had gone to arrest a man accused of assaulting his wife. Besides there have been incidences where traffic police officers are roughed-up or intentionally knocked dead by reckless drivers. Sadly, when police officers are killed or assaulted, opposition politicians and activists that usually criticise the police go practically silent—a clear indicator of lack of appreciation of the problem.

Political demonstrations are some of the platforms where violence is meted out on police officers. For instance, in April 2007, during the riots against the planned giveaway of parts of Mabira forest to Mehta Group, two men of Indian descent were stoned to death by a mob. The rioters attacked a Hindu temple and maliciously damaged many businesses believed to be owned by Indians. The innocent Indians were attacked because they were unfortunate enough to be of the same race as the Mehta Group’s owners. In this riot, many officers were wounded in the process of restoring normalcy.

In September 2009, riots broke out in many parts of Kampala against the government’s decision to forbid the Kabaka from travelling to Kayunga district on security grounds. Business was disrupted in several parts of the city and, in Kawempe; four police officers who had attempted to stop a rowdy group from barricading a road were forcefully disarmed. Four other security personnel were rushed to Mulago hospital, one of them, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, with his leg crushed. In March 2012, an Assistant Inspector of Police, John Bosco Ariongo, died instantly when unidentified rioters shattered his head with a rock during a procession led by Col. Kizza Besigye. The point here is not to draw a villain-angel dichotomy but to illustrate that the Uganda police is operating in extreme circumstances that many analysts hardily appreciate.

In sum, I argue that all efforts should be made to avoid police excesses, especially the disproportionate use of violence in police operations. The unfortunate case of Eric Garner vis-à-vis the NYDP shows that police, even in advanced democracies, are prone to error given the fluidity and complex nature of the security landscape. Considering the contemporary security challenges across the globe, it is clear that the overlaps between the police and military spheres are neither new nor limited to Uganda. Finally, it would be helpful if critics fully contextualised the environment in which the police functions including paying attention to violence against the police as well.


Jude Kagoro is from the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) University of Bremen, Germany.

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