Wednesday, October 28, 2020

P30 million-a-month target for police districts

There is a very good reason why almost every stretch of road in Gaborone has a police roadblock. From what Sunday Standard learns, the Commissioner of Police, Keabetswe Makgophe, has issued an instruction that each policing district should raise P30 million a month and that each station within it should raise P30 000 a day. With 16 districts, the target works out to P480 million a month and P5.76 billion a year. The money raised will be pooled and used to buy vehicles for the Botswana Police Service.

The long-term operation targets every kind of operation through which the police can make money but the most resources are being concentrated on road traffic because the Road Traffic Act provides for higher charges. The result is that officers now spend a disproportionate amount of their policing energies out in the field, scouring for motorists who contravene the Act. While resentment might be the most natural reaction from motorists, the reality is that the police officers themselves are under greater pressure than members of the public because they have to reach the lofty targets set for them. Failure to meet the targets is viewed unfavourably by police management and in a disciplined force, that can have profound implications for career advancement. The desperation of police officers is such that they now accompany motorists to nearby auto-teller machines to withdraw money with which to pay the fines.

To relieve themselves of the immense pressure they have been placed under, police are doing what is – to all intents and purposes, unconventional and in some instances unethical policing. On Wednesday morning, uniformed officers from the Broadhurst Police Station positioned themselves across the street opposite the Gaborone Private Hospital – some 50 or so metres from the set of traffic lights at the eastern corner of the hospital. Nothing suggested they were monitoring traffic passing through the lights because they were not even facing them. Actually, that was the whole purpose of their being there that morning. Vehicles that ran red lights were stopped and the drivers told to pay a P1000 fine on the spot. One motorist, who needs to have a car for his business, said that the officers said they could only “forgive” him if he paid the fine immediately. Not being forgiven meant having his car impounded and tested for roadworthiness at the Central Transport Organisation testing centre in a week or so. 

Motorists would obviously have been less inclined to run red lights if they saw the officers standing at the road intersection but the latter would not have been able to make enough money that way. Strangely, there was not a single lookout officer at the Broadhurst traffic lights, leading someone to make the not-altogether improbable theory that the police may have rented a roadside house to use as a secret lookout post. A couple of motorists contend the charges that they were slapped with. One, who mentions by name, a certain Mogoditshane officer who has acquired notoriety for unmatched traffic policing zeal, says that he was fined for running red lights when he never did.

In the past, motorists could get away with a warning but in the ongoing fundraising campaign, officers are reportedly are under strict orders to make each and every lawbreaker pay. There was a time when motorists could get away with the infraction of the light illuminating the number plate being defective but things have changed. A Gaborone motorist says that he was stopped by traffic police who carried out an unusually thorough inspection of his car and finding that this light was not working, ordered him to pay a fine on the spot. On-the-spot fines are another important dimension of the current policing regime. It used to be that officers would write the offender a ticket and let him/her go with the understanding that the fine would be paid days or weeks afterwards. That doesn’t happen any more because those who can’t pay have their vehicles impounded.

The rationale for this fund-raising operation is being questioned by police officers themselves who feel that it is coming at a huge cost to proper policing. The first point they make is that the uniform target that has been set for all stations (P30 000 a day) is unrealistic because different police stations around the country serve communities of unequal population size. Kang Police Station, which serves a very small population, is required to make the same amount of money as Gaborone West Police Station which is in the capital city and polices a highway (A1) which connects Southern Africa to the rest of the continent. A source says that to make up for their inbuilt disadvantage, Kang police have resorted to the TransKalahari Highway which passes through the village targetting in transit motorists. In Tshesebe, a small border village, the local police are said to have launched aggressive stop-question-and-search operations in order to smoke out and charge illegal Zimbabwean immigrants.

The second grievance is that the Botswana Police Service has no constitutional mandate to raise money, that it exists to protect members of the public against criminals and that the money that funds its operations should and has always come from the central government. A police source says that this is the first time in his decades-long service that he is being required to raise money through his policing.

“I have always known that my job is to protect people, not to make money for the government,” he asserts with frustration that he says he shares with most of his colleagues.

The third and most fundamental point is that the current operation has come at a very high cost to policing itself. At the Broadhurst scene last Wednesday, a sizeable contingent of officers had been deployed around the traffic lights to corral wrongdoers. As an unwitting motorist ran the lights and made an immediate left turn into the parking lot in front of Standard Chartered Bank, an officer on foot hurried over and officially notified him of the offence he had just committed. At one point, there were five officers verbally laying charges to motorists who were either still inside their vehicles or just getting out. The police service has always had an acute manpower shortage problem, which was the reason special constables were introduced. As a result of the ongoing operation, a majority of officers now have to avert their eyes to the roads and away from non-paying offences with the hope of catching out-of-line motorists.

Says a police source: “The end result will be that real crime goes up because all police officers are after motorists. You have to realise that we have no option but to do just that. If a station puts resources in criminal activity for which culprits can’t be charged or for which charges are low, that station will definitely not be able to reach the P30 000 a day target and the station commander will have to account for such poor performance. In the circumstances, it makes sense to concentrate policing resources in areas where you are likelier to reach that target. Putting boots on the ground helps deter crimes like housebreaking but at this point in time, deterring 10 cases of housebreaking crime won’t help you make P30 000 a day.”   

While they don’t compare with heavy-traffic areas, high-density night entertainment areas (like Block 6, Gaborone West and Maruapula malls in Gaborone) also offer some financial promise in the form of charges for public urination and drinking alcohol in ungazetted areas. One can be fined up to P5000 for the latter offence but to be realistic about the financial situation of culprits as well as their own immediate financial needs, police usually charge offenders between P100 and P200. The end result has been that in the dead of night, police intensify their presence in such areas and prowl around for lawbreakers.

This form of fund-raising is not fundamentally different from that used by the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry to raise money from members of the public. Through an escalator levy that is now at 50 percent, the ministry raises money that is subsequently used for budgetary support. The levy, another one of President Ian Khama’s initiatives, was originally meant to fight alcohol abuse but ironically, its current use means that it is in the government’s financial interest for people to abuse alcohol.

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