Recently on television there have been a spate of video clips showing police officers in police forces elsewhere in the world dishing out excessive force to members of the public, or people they have detained. The video’s which have gone viral on Youtbe of the South African police (2x) and the Fijian police using excessive force against detainees or protestors, showed blunt instruments being used to beat people who had already been subdued by the authorities and had been tied up at the wrists and ankles. Whilst not terribly surprising in the case of the authorities in these two countries, they are symptoms of much bigger problems in a branch of the Government that is supposed to be respected by communities.
In 1991 the Los Angeles Police Department was implicated in the beating of a black man whom several police officers of white descent had arrested for speeding. Their acquittal before a jury on charges of excessive force in April 1992 led to a major outbreak of race riots in Los Angeles that caused over U.S.$1 billion in damage and killed over 50 people. Other cases have demonstrated that there is still a degree of corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department despite significant efforts to clean the force up.
The case of the South African police opening fire on black protestors at a mine in 2012 is one of the most damning post-Apartheid era cases of excessive force. In this particular case over 90 protestors were killed after ignoring police warnings to disperse. Instead of arresting the protestors or firing tear gas into the crowd to disperse them, they deployed officers with live weapons who fired into the crowds. The case brought widespread condemnation upon the South African police.
During the Apartheid era in South Africa, when there was significant prejudice being exercised against the indigenous population, police violence was common. Officers of European descent acted with near impunity against black communities; rapes, murders, bribes amongst other criminal acts were all common place. And unfortnately the recent video’s suggest that not a lot has changed. The police, who are meant to be enforcing the rule of law against criminals are frequently part of the problem. Most recently a video showed a person being dragged to their death behind a car driven by the police.
The case of the Fijian police caught on camera using what appear to be clubs to met out a vicious beating to a man who they say was being aggressive, but was in actual fact tied up when the video clip was shot, is one of many that have stained the rule of Commodore Voreqe (Frank) Bainimarama. Other allegations include further beatings, the tearing out of finger nails, along with whipping and sadistic exercises. Since Commodore Bainimarama installed himself as the leader of Fiji after a military coup in 2006, the rule of law has been systematically stripped away by decrees issued by the Commodore and enforced by the Fijian police and military.
There is much to be grateful for in New Zealand. Despite the odd complaint of excessive force being used by the New Zealand police, the level of corruption prevalent in law enforcement agencies is very good compared to overseas forces. No very recent cases of rape or murder exist against a sworn police officer and bribery is virtually unheard of. A Police Complaints Authority exists to oversee the investigation of complaints. The New Zealand education system has legal study courses and law components in some social science modules taught in the high school curriculum. The police as part of their community programme go into schols and talk to students about the role of the police in communities, the public’s rights and responsibilities. There will always be a couple of rotten apples in a Police force – every law agency has a few – but the legal and ethical standards of the New Zealand police are high enough that a general “sea change” would have to happen for such wrongdoings to become the norm.