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Police, Society, Judiciary: A trinitarian must

By Jude Kagoro

A modern police force and justice system can only be founded on well-structured and functioning social institutions

The trinity doctrine that is central to the Christian faith defines God the father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as co-eternal and one of the same essence—the three are one and none can be comprehended outside the other. At the risk of blasphemy, I am tempted to analogously draw on the holy triad to explain the inextricable relation between the police, society and the judiciary.

For successful policing, the three elements have to be in reciprocal interdependence or subscribe to a pattern that French Sociologist, Émile Durkheim, would describe as organic solidarity. For Durkheim, society’s order and stability are maintained through the mutual reliance of its diverse components.

In that sense, police relies on a cooperative society and a well-functioning judicial system to fulfil its constitutional obligation of prevention and detection of crime and maintenance of law and order. Akin to the Trinitarian doctrine, a deeper understanding of the policing field requires the co-conceptualisation of the police, the society, and the judicial system of a country.

Increased crime rates for example, do not only illustrate a dysfunctional/fractured society, but a failing police, and a weak judicial system. Broadly speaking, increased crime rates would communicate absence of social cohesion and reduced levels of civility—the reverse being true. Perceived or real corruption in the police would reflect a society that is dominated by the corrupt or potentially corrupt individuals. A politicised police would mirror a society with an over politicised civil society, media, clergy etc. on all sides of the political divide.

A police that tyrannises epitomises a society with a reasonable number of tyrants or sub-conscious tyrants. You only have to ask gender activists or victims of domestic abuse in Uganda to realise the harmful potential of sub-conscious tyranny. Or even many of our children to tell you how they are tyrannised by both their parents at home and by their teachers at school. Psychologists will readily tell you that many of these children internalise the traits of tyranny meted out on them which they later externalise as adults after assuming a status of authority.

If I take a detour and look further beyond our borders, the brutal police forces of pre-Civil Rights America cannot be discussed without taking the widespread support of structural racism at the time in this country into account. In short, for any system or practice to survive there must be enough deep-rooted mass support for it.

Policing scientists such as Robert Reiner and Jonathan Jackson illustrate that social institutions—such as schools, families, churches or even informal networks of friends and colleagues—regulate deviance the most, and when these institutions are successful, the police will appear successful; when these social institutions are seen to be weak, the police will definitely appear weak. Ideally, these institutions structure sources of voluntary compliance and cooperation with the police and the judicial system. They equally facilitate law-abiding behaviors and self-regulation among citizens.

Particularly, Jonathan argues that most people obey most laws because they feel that it is the right thing to do. He adds that socialisation, psychological development, moral reasoning and the community context sustain law-abiding behavior that is ingrained in everyday life. So, not surprisingly, Uganda’s police officers do not come from Mars or space but from the same society they serve. I would therefore like to invite the reader of this article to continue reading with an open-minded perspective.

The average Ugandan hardly understands the intricacies of the police-judiciary equation and in many cases this knowledge gap contributes to the failure of the justice system. Allow me to use a hypothetical example before I refer to some true cases to illustrate this paradox.

A chronic chicken thief steals from a poor old woman. The thief is arrested and brought to the police station by members of his community. On arrival at the police station the arresters record the witnesses’ statements. The police officer in charge is happy because he has all the evidence required to forward the file to the state attorney for prosecution. On receiving the case file, the state attorney sets a date for the court hearing. On the D-day none of the witnesses, including the poor old woman, turn up to testify against the suspected chicken thief—for reasons ranging from fear of court processes to lack of interest in the case itself. Without the witnesses the case is weak hence the court frees the chronic chicken thief. Without restraint, the thief returns to his community. On being spotted the community members quickly formulate and spread the perception that the police has failed in their efforts to fight theft, crime and disorder. In this case it is the community members that have failed themselves and not the police.

To continue with the same example, the chicken thief may quietly compensate the poor old woman and the police frees the former. However, the old woman does not mention her compensation to avoid having to share it with the arresters. Later, on being asked about the failure of the case by members of her community, she points an accusing finger at the police for freeing the thief. Meanwhile, the chicken thief also has a constitutional right to a police bond. Were this to happen, most likely the community would not understand the police’s constitutional obligation for letting the thief out of jail. Moreover, the chicken thief may skip bond and never report back to the police and Uganda being a country where the physical address system is notoriously inadequate, the police would require an enormous amount of resources to track this single chicken thief. Much as the aforementioned are hypothetical examples they commonly occur as I personally observed and heard at several police posts in the country.

Consequently, let me now turn to a bona fide account. While at one of the peri-urban police stations in western Uganda, in January this year, I witnessed a dramatic case of defilement. A school proprietor had defiled a 13-year old girl. A vigilant group of crime preventers caught the defiler in action and brought him to the police. The police locked up the suspect in a cell awaiting prosecution. The next morning, as standard procedure, the defiled girl was taken for a medical examination. The examination proved beyond reasonable doubt that the girl had been defiled. The officer in charge (OC) forwarded the case to the main station for further action.

A few people came to visit the suspect and five hours later drama unfolded. The father of the defiled girl came to the station throwing a tantrum, commanding the police to release the suspect, and swore that his daughter would not testify. Obviously, the officer rejected these demands and advised the father to go to the main station. The father proceeded to make several phone calls to a politician in Kampala to intervene. In trying to intervene, the politician discovered that the version presented to him by the father of the defiled girl completely differed from the case in progress.

It later emerged that the father of the girl had received money from the side of the suspect to fail the case. Interestingly, in a side-story to this drama, the father and the mother were also fighting over the same money. The focus of the parents thus zeroed in on the money and the young girl’s misery, in essence, turned into a monetary bonanza. The officer, worried that the case may collapse if the parents withdrew their co-operation, was frustrated in his efforts.

Meanwhile, a rumour spread around the peri-urban center that the police had been bribed and the suspected defiler set free. A crowd gathered at the police station ready for a physical confrontation with the police. In the course of the fracas the father of the girl somehow disappeared. An angry crowd demanded the police to show them the suspect and allay their fears. Luckily one member of the crowd managed to peep into the cell and confirm that the suspect was still in custody. According to the crowd, the suspect had to be condemned to a harsh prison sentence there and then—it did not comprehend, nor did it have the patience for the nitty-gritty of the judicial system. Some of you may also recall my thoughts on the danger of the crowd mentality at this point.

Available evidence points to the fact that this was/is not an isolated case. Several people have turned police processes into money making ventures. Police’s medical examination forms—especially assault and defilement forms—are commonly used by ordinary people, especially in rural areas, to extort money from suspected law offenders. In such cases, a police form confirming that an offense has been committed is used to intimidate the suspected offender into paying money behind police’s back. So clearly, society in Uganda is also failing the police and the justice system in general.

Going back to the Trinitarian analogy, the police, the society and the judiciary are indeed inseparable. A modern and advanced police force and the justice system in general can only be founded on an array of well-structured and functioning social institutions such as family, churches and schools which, as I stated above, are primarily responsible for the production of social order and tranquility. Clearly, every sober minded Ugandan has a role to play in the production of order. Fortunately, the Inspector General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura, seems to have conceptualised the importance of society in the fight against crime and disorder hence rigorously implementing the community policing philosophy.

Dr. Jude Kagoro is a postdoc Fellow at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the University of Bremen, Germany. or

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