On Policing


For most members of the community Police is a source of protection and comfort. Most citizens have dialled 000 emergency line at some stage to report an incident, be it a traffic accident or direct and indirect threats or disturbances from individuals.


Police services are the instruments of the state and are responsible for keeping peace. They are the only instrument that can legally use force proactively. Their powers are strictly defined as well as wide-ranging, and the application of the force by the police is expected to be reasonable and proportionate.


There are times however members of the Police can be overzealous, careless or reckless in the use of their powers. They have wide-ranging discretion. Sometime they force the legal limits, at other times they do intentionally break it. In latter instances they know, like a good criminal does, that they can get away with breaking the law as long as they don’t get caught.


The doctrine of habeas corpus requires that no person can be held against their will without court order, so when a person is detained by the police they must be brought before a judge as soon as practicable. What happens between the time of arrest and the appearance before a court however is wholly up to the police acting according to the laws and regulations governing detention.


In this writer’s experience, individual officers do exercise police powers as a form of punishment. Where summoning a suspect before a court is feasible, the police may instead choose to arrest that person at an inconvenient time, handcuff them, publicly frog-march them to their vehicles, interview, fingerprint, strip-search and keep overnight custody. This writer experienced it all except the interview early last week whereas a court summons would have been sufficient for the alleged trifling offence.


Each one of these acts, individually and in totality amount to punishment. For example, the entire process associated with strip search is rarely about search and safety of the detained. It is rather about ensuring the obedience of the detained person to police authority. It is about stripping the detainee naked not only of clothing but of dignity also, and making them feel defenceless and reliant on the good will of the police for safety. The process is not only about punishment but about creating conditions that cause Stockholm Syndrome as well.


There are however good justification for strip search. If a person is detained for drug charges, careful handling of each item of clothing becomes necessary to ensure that nothing remains on the person. If a detainee has shown suicidal inclination, it becomes incumbent upon the police to ensure their safety by checking for instruments that may be used for self-harm. Even a small pencil can be used to cause death, as the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found in 1991. Detainees are rightly stripped of their belts and shoe laces as these can be used to harm others as well.


Abuse of police powers is widespread but that should not distract from the fact that a society without a police force is an anarchical society. Having a badly trained and led state institution to ensure peace and security is better than having none at all. Barring for a few, or more, ‘bad apples’ most members of the police use their best judgement in the circumstances they find themselves in. And if they make mistakes, that is because they are only human like all members of the community.