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The plight of abandoned police officers in far-flunked posts

…leaving communities crime-ridden

KEISO MOHLOBOLI

It certainly doesn’t look like a police station but a crumbling mining compound whose very right to exist literally ended the moment management decided it no longer made economic sense to continue with the mining operation.

But this is not a deteriorating, once-thriving mine now dying a very slow and painful death due to depleting precious ore, but Sehonghong Police Station whose very existence has now become a source of anger and embarrassment to both local residents and members of the Lesotho Mounted Police Station (LMPS) stationed at the centre.

The same appearance of neglected buildings and backyards is equally strong in neighbourhood police stations of Sehlaba-Thebe, Monontša and Mantšonyane. The police officers’ official homes are in no better shape either.

In fact, local villagers who spoke to the MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism on a recent visit to the area threatened to beat-up Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli should he ever set foot in their area while the police stations are in their current, derelict state.

a 2015 picture of Deputy Prime Minister Monyane Moleleki visiting police posts while serving as Police Minister

During the visit, the most glaring being in Sehonghong, the police officers’ dilapidated shacks could hardly keep out the rain even though it was a mere drizzle. There is no electricity in the police station and the officers’ homes to afford the law-enforcement agents and their families, one of the basic necessities of life.

Yet probably the most shocking discovery during our visit was that the police station does not have a holding-cell for prisoners or suspects awaiting trial, leaving officers with no choice but to release the accused and rely on their good will to return the following day.

Our visit also revealed that police officers fail to attend crime scenes which are far away from the station due to lack of transport, either in the form of vehicles or horses.

another visit to remote police posts in 2015

In addition, the police station could go for “a very long time” as described by one officer, without basics such as stationery, making it difficult for them to take statements from suspects.

Yet such a shambolic state of affairs does not only affect police officers and local residents but also leaves locals at the mercy of criminals who must certainly be aware of, and capitalising on the limitations and despondence of the local police force.

“There is dire need to improve Sehonghong Police Station and police residences, otherwise no officer would want to be posted here which would leave us at the mercy of criminals,” said a resident of Sehonghong area who would not give her name.

A police source who spoke to the Centre during the visit said hopes were very high in the LMPS when a new government led by Prime Minister Thomas Thabane came to power in 2017. But according to the source, that feeling of optimism has since gone, with many officers not seeing much change from the previous government led by Dr Pakalitha Mosisili.

According to the source, what made the situation in the LMPS worse were the promises of better working conditions promised by Molibeli when he was appointed police commissioner in 2017.

“Maybe he set the bar too high by promising change which has not happened the way most officers expected. In addition to that, there are still arbitrary killings which unfortunately, continue to happen as if it’s nothing unusual.

dilapidated shared pit latrines at a police staff village known as White City in the heart of the Maseru City Council

“Yet police misconduct involves illegal or unethical actions or the violation of an individual’s constitutional rights by police officers in the conduct of their duties. Police misconduct includes brutality, dishonesty, fraud, coercion, torture to force confessions from suspects, abuse of authority, sexual assault, including demanding sexual favours in exchange for dropping any charge one might have been facing.

“Any of these actions can increase the likelihood of a wrongful conviction and they continue to happen, yet these are the things the police and the public at large, had hoped would end when the new government and the new police commissioner came to power,” the source added.

“I am not saying it is right for the police to behave in this unlawful manner but maybe it is the result and the frustration of working in abandoned police stations like Sehonghong when some favourites are comfortable at Police Headquarters and being paid handsomely for sitting in meetings without any discomforts at all.”

Another source said yet another problem in the police is that it is still polarised despite the optimism of a united LMPS following the 2017 general elections.

“One would think that since the minister of police was once a police officer herself, she would show serious commitment in terms of changing the police system for the better. For instance, she and COMPOL Molibeli committed to rooting out corruption surrounding the awarding of police uniform tenders and they also promised new uniforms to all police officers.

“But neither has happened. For instance, police officers who are benefitting from the new uniforms worth millions of Maloti are those working at PHQ; the uniforms hardly go to police officers working in the outskirts of Maseru.

“And as for the police working in the remote areas of the country, those have been forgotten and they no longer wear uniforms but their own clothes. Those who still do, dye the uniform to make it look new or presentable or wear it as worn out as it is if there is no other solution.

“The police had high hopes that the new boss would motivate officers by making sure that police stations are well-equipped. They also had high hopes that there would be more care about the wellbeing of police officers because of his experience as the president of the Lesotho Police Staff Association (LEPOSA).

“He knows our challenges but because this institution is polarised, he is doing nothing,” the source added.

Speaking to the Centre about the sorry state of Sehonghong Police Station, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Mashai constituency, Tšoeu Mokeretla, said the crime rate in the area is very high and some cases are not attended to at all because of lack of resources for the police.

MP Mokeretla from the main opposition party, the Democratic Congress, however, also said before talking about resources at the police station, the officers houses and their well-being should be prioritised.

According to Mokeretla, criminals take advantage of the situation because they know that there are no holding cells at Sehonghong Police Station to keep suspects for the allotted 48 hours of interrogation before going to court.

The long-serving legislature further said it was “a disturbing situation” which should be addressed with immediate effect if the current government is, indeed, serious about crime-prevention.

“Because they do not have proper houses but shacks to live in, they are very angry when they attend to their duties. They end up resorting to assaulting suspects and releasing them without taking them before the courts of law because there are no prison cells in Sehonghong, let alone vehicles or other major resources needed by police officers to properly do their job,” he added.

White City

Meanwhile, some police homes in ‘White City’ in Katlehong in Maseru are on the verge of collapse, putting yet another dent into LMPS. One could easily see people outside through cracked walls and the ceilings are also in a state of disrepair as a result of being old and neglected.

 “Life here is very difficult. It is so frightening and uncomfortable but because we stay for free and it is nearer to the police stations we work, we continue to live here,” one of the residents said.

“There is no access of electricity; the toilets are a death-trap because they can collapse anytime and they also have no doors which means there is absolutely no privacy at all.

“One is forced to go and use the toilet either very early in the morning or very late in the evening when there are no people moving around, otherwise you will be embarrassed by passers-by as you relieve yourself,” the resident said, further emphasising the poor state of the houses puts families’ lives in constant danger.

Another ‘White City’ resident told the Centre that the houses were “old-fashioned” because they were built “in the 1960s” when officers who used to be allocated the homes were single.

“But these days, police officers stay with their wives and children so these two small rooms are not enough for such a big family,” the source said.

On his part, LEPOSA secretary-general Motloli, said police brutality and misconduct were the result of “bottling” mistreatment at work.

He also insisted the conditions under which the police were working were “just too horrible.”

He continued: “I agree with you that police stations and police houses in Sehonghong are dilapidated and not in good physical shape for a human being to work or live in.

“Over the years, police stations such as Sehonghong, Monontša, Sehlaba-thebe and others in the most remote areas of the country have been used as punishment for police officers who do not get along with their superiors.

‘”For example, if a police boss does not like his or her subordinate, that person would definitely be transferred to the most remote areas of the country where police stations are abandoned and under-resourced.”

He also said he would not want to work at Maseru Central Charge Office because of the proximity of the offices to the prison-cells.

“The cells are just too close to the offices. They smell horribly and the terrible smell contaminates the place and it is also embarrassing for officers to deliver services to people who come for those services,” he added.

However, in an exclusive interview with the Centre, COMPOL Molibeli confirmed he was fully aware of the police anger and the horrible conditions they were working under.

“I fully understand the state they are in and I want to assume that their judgement when dealing with a suspect, would not be spot-on because of the anger and trauma they might be in,” he said.

The commissioner, however, refuted claims that police uniforms were being bought in small quantities to only serve officers stationed at police headquarters.

“It is not true that uniforms are bought in small quantities because there is currently no budget for uniforms. Ever since I was appointed the police commissioner, the police have not been bought uniforms. Again, the purchase of uniforms is not done by the LMPS but the ministry of police.”

COMPOL Molibeli also said the demolition of old police structures and construction of new police facilities in Sehonghong and Thabana Morenapolice stations would start this financial year of 2019/2020.

He also said he would not be afraid to visit any police station for fear of being beaten-up or even killed by disgruntled police officers.

“I take such threats as a way my colleagues have decided to express their anger and frustration,” he said.

Speaking on police brutality, COMPOL Molibeli said it was unprofessional and illegal for police officers to be violent on suspects.

“Police brutality is a crime, so as a deterrent, one should be charged criminally and also face our own disciplinarily hearing. Currently, we already have a directive from the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) about specific police officers suspected of police brutality,” COMPOL Molibeli said.

However, he added it was important for the LMPS to work on the psychological wellbeing of officers to avoid high cases of police brutality, hence the establishment of the Police Psychological Support Unit (PPSU).

“On 6 May 2019, at Police Training College (PTC), an internal police training workshop facilitated by Baylor and the Ministry of Health’s Department of Mental Health, was kick-started in order to address issues of police anger and trauma. And it is from that training that we would be able to effectively start PPSU where police officers would undergo the psychological support needed.”

He also indicated that all police officers, not only those ones working in rural areas, needed to be encouraged by giving them appropriate resources to do their job properly.

The commissioner further said they had looked into enhancing police training for it to last longer and be more competent.

 COMPOL Molibeli also revealed instructors from the PTC had been taking turns to visit Botswana and eSwatini for purposes of benchmarking their performance over their counterparts.

He added: “A major concern now is the type of weapons the police are using. When things are right, the police should be given options, depending on the resistance one is faced with.

“We are considering having pepper-sprays, laser-guns and baton-sticks for police officers so that they can have options when they deal with defence. Currently, our only police weapon is a gun and even in situations where the gun is not needed, they shoot as a defence mechanism,” COMPOL Molibeli added.

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