Policing during and beyond the state of emergency

Tuhafeni Helao

Following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent devastating effect around the globe, the President declared the ‘state of emergency’ on 17 March 2020 and introduced 4 phased stages to mitigate the pandemic. On 27 March 2020, a lockdown was ordered for Khomas and Erongo regions.

However, the state of emergency regulations were applied across all regions in the country. The declaration was in line with Article 26 (1) of the Namibian Constitution that provides for declaration of a state of emergency ‘in a time of national disaster or during a state of national defence or public emergency threatening the life of the nation or the constitutional order’.

The state of emergency resulted in severe restrictions (though necessary) put in place that required citizens to alter their way of life, e.g. limited movements and less economic activities. Again, on 12 August 2020, the entire country reverted to stage 3 that continued until 17 September 2020. Such restrictions created a mindboggling way of life and livelihoods as thousands of people struggled to adapt to this abrupt way of living, though temporary.

The lockdown caused the unplanned exodus of people from the lockdown regions to their regions of origin, viz; northern, north-east and southern parts of Namibia. Therefore, as a matter of necessity, there was urgent need to guarantee all people that the government and its machinery, including police agencies, are working around the clock to safeguard and protect people’s lives.

Protection in this regard may include ensuring people’s that their livelihood is will be sustained.

The state of emergency has placed a colossal civic responsibility on the law enforcement agencies in the country. Never before, in an independent Namibia, the nation witnessed an intense effort in which law enforcement agencies patrol the streets, tour rural villages and communities to order citizens to cease their routine way of doing things, and urge them to ‘stay at home’.

Although, this task falls within the parameters of the Police duties and operations, the state of emergency in general, lockdown and curfew in particular, have caught the police unprepared in terms of resources, deployment plan, training, capacity (skills and competences) and above all contingent plans and readiness to perform this arduous task.

The call for the police to contain the spread of Covid-19 came at a time when the nation was exasperating and trying to come to terms with incidents of human rights violations perpetrated by law enforcement officials during preceded countrywide police operations, e.g. the Operations Holkrantz, Operations Kalahari Desert and the current Operations Namib Desert.

Those unethical incidents were widely reported in local newspapers. Supported by the Namibian Defence Force, police officers were allegedly manhandled, harassed and maltreated innocent civilians. Some innocent people have even lost their lives at the hands of the very same law enforcement officials who are obliged by law to protect them. This portrays a shameful failure by law enforcement agencies in their noble duty to observe and safeguard human rights during police operations.

The state of emergency and lockdown restrictions have created a hollow and put strains on already apprehensive and anxious people whose daily economic activities have either been suspended or restricted in an attempt to enforce the state of emergency regulations.

People’s ‘bread and butter’ issues have been altered, their customary livelihoods interrupted, and to make matters worse, all people were indiscriminately confined to their homes, which subsequently negatively affected their means of survival. Therefore, enforcing laws (regulations) in that kind of environment comes with many challenges.

Patrolling the streets, communities and rural villages and compel citizens to stay at home, close shebeens, stop their street vending activities and limit their movements have turned out to be an immense task, let alone urging people to comply with the lockdown regulations and curfew.

On numerous occasions, the Minister of Justice has to come out to clarify the notion of ‘stay at home’ or rather the concept ‘home’ in the context of the state of emergency, to guide law enforcement personnel in the execution of their duties. The Attorney-General has also, on various platforms, explicated the aims and objectives of state of emergency regulations.

Evidently, during Covid-19 police officials are placed at the crossroad in terms of espousing correct and ethical policing approach, if they are to remain relevant and act professionally. Enforcing the laws during Covid-19 pandemic allows no margin for error. Police officers are called upon to excel, be fair and just in the process of policing.

Epidemiological evidence seems to suggest that Covid-19 may not end anytime soon. Even after the end of the state of emergency, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Ministry of Health and Social Services (MHSS) will continue to prescribe strict adherence to Covid-19 precautionary measures. It should be understood that while the state of emergency has ended (though might not the best option), policing will continue.

The revised regulations by MHSS that come into effect from 18 September 2020 will require the police to enforce them. The police should continue to enforce the laws, protect and safeguard the rights of all citizens. Covid-19 has changed the social environment and livelihoods, therefore, the new normal will impact the future of policing in Namibia.

From policing viewpoint; how would one police in a ‘new normal’ environment? To what extent are declined livelihoods impact policing going forward? What should police leadership do to regain confidence and trust of hysterical society? What good lessons and practices have the police learned during the state of emergency?

Answering the above-mentioned questions rests in the manner both government and security sector agencies prepare and commit to serving the nation in difficult times. Covid-19 serves as a testing lesson for police leadership going forward.

As a learning organisation, the police should reflect on its activities during the six months of state of emergency, and adopt best policing practices necessary to police and handle crisis post-state of emergency and Covid-19.

There is a need to train police officers in various policing issues such as human rights, ethics, interpersonal skills, communication skills, mediation, etc. for them to render effective policing and support government efforts.

Moreover, effective police leadership is central to ethical and professional policing, which can be mirrored through policemen and women on the streets. Planning, capacity, regular briefing and debriefing are ingredients of professional policing to advance the good intention of the government.

Yes, law enforcement agencies, under the circumstances, have done a commendable job. Conversely, more still needs to be done if policing is to remain relevant in society.

Experience gained during state of emergency and Covid-19 lockdown should refocus and alter law enforcement traditional way of doing things. Covid-19 presented an opportunity for a new way of thinking, institutional realignment and accountability-conscious to win the fight against the pandemic, without necessarily risking police officers’ lives. It is not the time to count success but to reflect on the police strengths and weaknesses to help to readjust policing methods and strategies. As cautioned ‘we are not out of the woods yet’ (Abigail Adams, 13 November 1800).

Tuhafeni Helao (DPA) teaches criminal justice in the Department of Social Sciences at NUST. This is his personal opinion.

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