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Opinions of Thursday, 6 August 2009

Columnist: Al-Hassan, Osumanu

Police Must Shoot To Kill Criminals

By Osumanu Al-Hassan

I borrowed this headline from a South African Police Commissioner who is proposing the law to be changed to enable police officers shoot to kill criminals without worrying about what happens after that.

The brute force with which the police have dealt with the incidence of armed robbery lately has been received with mixed feelings and while some believe the police should respond to the force of criminals in kind, others insist the police should try and arrest these criminals and put them through the justice system.

The debate over the best action the police should take when they engage in a shoot-out with armed robbers would rage on for times to come, especially when the incidence of violent crimes appear to be rising steadily.

The displeasure at the result of police exchanges with armed robbers is due to what have become known as the Dansoman and Taifa shoot-outs, during which those killed turned out not to be robbers at all, but who died with the tag of armed robbers labeled on them.

Indeed, these are mistakes that every home in Ghana is praying against but unfortunately while we are calling for professionalism from the police to prevent such grievous mistakes, armed criminals appear to have sworn not to allow law-abiding citizens to have peaceful nights.

Incidentally, even with the current operations of the police there are still people who have completely lost faith in the police and are getting their own personal weapons to protect themselves. One such person narrated a harrowing near-death experience he endured on The Frontpage, a radio propramme last Friday, 31st July 2009.

This gentleman narrated how armed robbers forced their way into his house, stole his properties and slashed him with machetes and forced him out of his home onto the streets of Dzorwulu naked in the middle of the night. For this gentleman, only one action can solve the incidence of violent crime and that is to shoot back and kill.

Incidentally just last Friday, a top police officer of crime-plagued South Africa proposed that the law should be changed to allow the police to “shoot to kill” criminals without having to worry of what happens after that. In the opinion of Commissioner Bheki Cele, the police needed to match the firepower of criminals and use deadly force. He pointed out that a new South Africa should be created where people would not have to be told they are safe but to actually feel safe.

Commissioner Cele pointed out that criminals have continued to be armed with the best high-caliber firearms to deal with whoever stands on their and are ready to shoot to kill. The police on the other hand, he noted when responding to armed robbery attack have to arrest their minds, thinking whether what they are doing is right or wrong. The police, he said must think about what is in front of them and do the job, else they get killed.

The law he insists, had placed a burden on individual police officers when faced with using firearms in retaliation and argued that officers should not have to carry the burden of worrying about what happens next as a result of their actions against armed criminals.

The near death experience of the gentleman above by the way is just one of the many traumatic experiences a number of people have had to endure in their own homes, during which some families even lost their members. These unpleasant moments have left marks on lives and for such people the words of Commissioner Bheki Cele would just be sweet music.

On Talking Point on GTV about violent crimes on Sunday 2nd August, 2009, a member of the penal pointed out that the country’s laws state that a man is not guilty until proven guilty in court. As reasonable as the law is, I worry that those who enter into other peoples houses with weapons and caught in the act of terrorizing and robbing their victims are innocent until proven guilty in court. A number of people I talked to have expressed the same misgivings that have been going round in my mind, at the kind of society we are gradually creating where the human rights of a criminal who is killed in a shoot-out with the police is taking precedence over the rights of the innocent victim whose only crime, in the eyes of the criminal, is having worked hard to provide for his/her family. I will not be making justice to the topic without narrating the story of a victim of a very violent crime at Ablekuma about a year or two ago, who was shot point blank by his assailants because he refused to release two pieces of wax prints he had bought for his pregnant wife.

The armed robbers attacked the compound house where this gentleman lived and went from one room to another robbing the residents and happened to have entered the room of this 27-year-old newly married couple. They took everything this young man had struggled for years to buy, including his savings of GH¢200. He however refused to release two wax prints he had brought for his pregnant wife and what did the robbers do, they shot him in front of his wife. What explanation can anybody possibly give this expectant mother about human rights of armed robbers for her to understand, when she had lost her breadwinner through such callous act of violence under her very eyes.

It should be simple really, the day a person decides to violate the rights of another and even go to the extent of taking the rights of another to live, that person also forfeits his own rights to live. And until innocent and law-abiding citizens begin to really feel safe in their own homes, as Commissioner Cele is proposing, lynching of robbers caught in the act will continue.

The proposal to the police by human rights campaigners is for officers to shoot robbers in their legs or hands during exchange of fire to enable them disable and arrest these criminals. How an officer could manage to focus on shooting and injuring a criminal when he is being shot at with the intention of his shooter is to kill, someone would have to explain it really well, not only to the police but to the general Ghanaian populace.

The gory pictures of dead robbers that have become constant features on the front pages of our newspapers or on television could be things of the past if, only if people begin to respect the rights of others to enjoy in peace what they have worked for. Provided others try to brutally and illegitimately take what belong to others, bullet riddled bodies of robbers would continue to appear in news bulletins. The police are professionally trained peace officers but then they are also as human just like any of us, with fears not only for their lives but also the fear of how they could take care of their families, provide food, shelter, clothing and at the same time pay utility bills, rent, school fees etc etc. Admittedly, no matter how trained an officer is, faced with danger and perhaps imminent death, a lot of things might change in this person’s mind.

For once, we should start worrying about the human rights of victims of these violent crimes and the officers who put their lives on the line to ensure law abiding citizens have peaceful lives, instead of constantly making it appear as if the human rights of slain criminals are more important than those of their victims.

News of victims of armed robbery being killed, maimed and raped have continue to make the headlines in the press and the electronic media and not for once has human rights campaigners made statements condemning the traumas these victims have been made to suffer.

Indeed, everyone has rights including criminals but we should focus at defending the rights of those who have been made to suffer than defend the rights of perpetrators of these suffering as we are currently seeing.

We should not in the name of rule of law and human rights create an atmosphere where criminals feel safe to commit crimes instead of law-abiding people feeling safe against attacks of these criminals. The crime situation in this country should not be made to degenerate into what is happening in other countries and we could stop this only by decisive action from the police and the courts.