DEPUTY Inspector General of Police Bonny Kapeso says police officers should act professionally when giving out permits to political parties that want to hold events. He also says police officers who are charged with the responsibility of ensuring that they receive notifications from political parties, should be truthful to conveners and sit them down to explain what is permissible and what is not, giving clear reasons for the decision.

“It is common knowledge that everybody talks about the Public Order Act. But again, within the description of the POA, certain systems are already established by which somebody should follow in order to ensure that the POA is adhered to. People expect police officers to guide them, and that is why the POA is there. It clearly establishes the kind of procedures that we have to adopt in order for you to have a meeting. The selective application of the POA is just a general perception,” Mr Kapeso said.

We agree with Mr Kapeso when he says officers are supposed to act professionally when giving permits to political parties. We also agree with him that there is a need for law and order when political parties hold meetings. But we do not agree with him when he says the selective application of the POA is just a perception. That statement is far removed from reality.

No one can argue today that policing in this country has become a big political issue because of the way the police have been behaving. We are trying to build a democracy in this country, but any progress we make is taken away by the undemocratic modus operandi of our police service. Anyone who says that the police have been professional in their application of the POA in this country gives us an idea about his political inclination.

Everybody knows that the powers that the police are given offer great temptations for abuse on behalf of the authorities controlling them. We say this because law enforcement requires a delicate balancing act. The conflicts between liberty and enforcing order receive their purest expression in considerations of democratic policing.

What Zambia needs is a police service that is subject to the rule of law, embodying values respectful of human dignity, rather than the wishes of the President and his political party. We also need a police service that can intervene in the lives of citizens only under limited and carefully controlled circumstances and is publicly accountable. These conditions must be inherent to police in a country that wants to be seen as a democracy. Police are an important factor in building a democracy. And its importance increases with the diversity and size of a society.

It is ironic that police are both a major support system and a major threat to democratic society. When police operate under the rule of law, they can protect democracy by their own example of respect for the law and by suppressing crime. Police must be moral, as well as legal, actors.

We are concerned that the powers vested in the police regarding the application of the POA are slowly building towards the rise of a dictatorial and tyrannical regime. Powerful interest groups are riding on the police to abuse the POA for their own selfish interests. In collusion with the political elites, these people are turning political dissent into a crime. Today, ruling party cadres seem to be part of the police while the police chief himself is seen to be a cadre of the ruling party through his conduct.

Police powers cannot be subverted in this way; they cannot be used in this way. Police powers should be used according to the rule of law and not according to the whims of the President or the Inspector General of Police. The police, as the arm of the state’s power, must be used in a restrained fashion and proportional to the problem at hand. We want to return to a time when citizens would accept police authority out of respect rather than out of intimidation. A professional police service is defined by both its means and its ends. Some means are simply too abhorrent and must be prohibited under any circumstances.

We should never allow our police to be a law unto themselves. In spite of strong pressures and temptations to the contrary, they should never be allowed to act in an explicitly political fashion such as disrupting the activities of groups they disagree with or failing to enforce the law against groups they support.

Mr Kapeso is trying to sound professional when he talks about the actions of his men and women in uniform, but he knows himself that he is not being honest. He knows that there is no fairness in the manner police handle political cases in this country. If we may ask him today, if someone went to report to the police that a group of PF supporters were holding a meeting at a named farm in the outskirts of Lusaka, and they were televising their meeting on Facebook, what would be his directives? Would he send officers to go and arrest the group? Would he even tolerate such a report? Zambians may be docile, but they are not foolish!