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Vigilante Injustice

On May 29, 2018, Major Maxwell Mahama was jogging in the Ghanaian town of Denkyira-Obuasi when locals took notice of the gun he had in his pocket, assumed he was a thief, and issued a mob attack against him. The innocent army officer died after being violently stoned, hanged, and set alight by a furious crowd in the country’s Central Region. Recordings of the lynching quickly spread online, rightly sparking outrage in Ghana, where mob justice has risen to unprecedented levels. In a year when hundreds have already died due to mob violence, Mahama’s death set off an explosion of fear and anger over vigilantism that prompted a quick response from authorities. Shortly after the event, the Inspector General of Police, David Asante Apeatu, announced measures to eradicate mob justice in Ghana, focusing on “stern enforcement of the law.” But expanding the scope of the corrupt police force is misguided, since fears of police inadequacy are what led to vigilantism in the first place. To truly counter mob justice, police reform needs to tackle the root of the problem—corruption—and refocus its efforts to include community policing rather than militarization.

According to Transparency International, 92 percent of Ghanaians believe that the police are either corrupt or extremely corrupt. Across the country, extortion and bribery are widespread. Police often collect private debts, create illegal checkpoints, and carry out arrests to elicit payments from detained citizens. A staggering 79 percent of Ghanaians have reported paying bribes to avoid punishment. This extortion is paired with a chronic delay in court cases, which often holds its victims in jail for months as they await trial. Ghana’s Chief Justice, Sophia Akuffo, recently noted that this ineffectiveness is often what motivates mob justice: People feel there is no “point of reporting to the police or going to court… or waiting for the judicial outcome, because it will take too long.” This combination of police corruption and judicial inaction has spawned a culture of exacting instant “justice.”

It’s not as if Ghanaian politicians haven’t sought changes before: As part of an ambitious policy reform experiment in 2010, Ghana doubled police salaries. This change was motivated by the belief that police were turning to petty corruption, such as demanding bribes from truckers on highways to pass their checkpoints, because their salaries were too low. Unfortunately, a study from the International Growth Centre found that salary reform worsened petty corruption rather than reducing it. Raising salaries caused a 19 percent increase in elicited bribes and increased the value of bribes taken at each individual stop by about 26 percent. This endemic problem requires systematic reform.

Community policing models are built to encourage and promote partnerships between police and communities Community policing has been implemented across the world with massive success. In the late 1990s, Cincinnati adopted a “Community Problem Solving Policing” strategy that required the police to connect with members of the community and listen to their concerns rather than focus on maximizing arrests. In the 15 years after the program’s implementation, the city saw a 69 percent reduction in police use of force incidents and a 42 percent reduction in citizen complaints of police tactics. This approach has also been employed in less developed areas: In Coimbatore, India, a city with a history of religious violence, the community formed a committee aimed at keeping police informed on changing community dynamics. The police also instituted an anonymous complaint system aimed at increasing accountability. The police were required to attend attitudinal change workshops and seminars to help inform the way they interacted with the community. When the community has an active relationship with the police, actual productive means of justice can develop and thrive, something that the Ghanaian police force desperately needs.

In Ghana, community policing could take the form of introducing transparent disciplinary procedures, effective mechanisms for complaints, and an anti-corruption strategy based on good management and supervision controls. At the community level, officials can hold community activities and public forums for members of the community to actively voice their concerns to specifically increase public participation in policing. Opening information flows between the police and the community both allows the police to explain their procedures and the public to hold them accountable, giving citizens more options than taking to the streets when they are frustrated with police activity. Furthermore, community policing can improve police–public relationships by strengthening social bonds and dynamics within communities; it’s harder to demand a bribe from someone whom you know and care about. Mike Brickner of the ACLU notes that community policing is not “just about responding to crimes but instead hearing about the overall health of the community.” By targeting issues prioritized by the community, police can build trust, helping to change their negative public perception while holding them to a higher standard of accountability.

In nearby Nigeria, community policing was introduced as a pilot policy reform in 2004 to address mutual distrust that had developed between the public and the police. The Nigerian government used massive awareness and sensitization campaigns such as the “Police Is Your Friend” movement, created through a partnership between the Nigerian Police and the National Association of Nigerian Students. The movement targeted public perceptions of police and opened channels of feedback. Nigeria also introduced intensive training programs such as a day-long national human rights workshop for the Commissioners of Police that focused on how human rights-oriented police messaging and strategies can increase public trust. Police performance, bolstered by increased information flows, demonstrated increased intelligence and improved criminal investigations. The conflict prevention and reduction initiative yielded positive results: The crime rate fell, and most importantly, communities who participated in this reform perceived a general decrease in levels of corruption and acknowledged this in public meetings.

Corruption is one of the fundamental challenges of government, regardless of a country’s location, wealth, or political structure. Its manifestation in police forces is particularly malignant, as erosion in the faith of the justice system can result in public anger playing judge, jury, and executioner. In Ghana, restoring public trust in police will be no easy task. By reorienting policing toward community-based methods instead of militarization, the government can attack mob justice at its pernicious root. A trusting relationship between the public and the police promises to curb the violence that has stolen the lives of Mahama and so many more.

Photo: “Ghana’s Female Police Unit