Foreign Policy Blogs

When Police Become Killers

A new story today by the BBC details the growing problem of police violence in Nigeria.  The morgue at the Nigeria University Teaching Hospital overflows with bodies brought in by police, often unnamed but reported to be suspected criminals, such as armed robbers or thieves.  In some cases, that may be the case but in others, people are resolute that their slain family members were innocent of any alleged wrongdoing and in no way deserved to be shot and killed.

Being a police officer is a difficult job, and one that carries risks.  The outcome of some standoffs with armed criminals will almost inevitably be the death of someone, whether it be the police officer or the criminal.  But the reason why the police death toll in Nigeria is capturing more cynical attention is not just because of the numbers, but because of past indiscretions involving the police.  The most infamous of those recent cases is the “Apo Six,” who in June 2005 were allegedly gunned down at a police checkpoint with automatic rifles, and then accused of being armed robbers.  The government rejected the police’s story and the case went to trial, but has gotten nowhere since then.  Blog posts out of Nigeria wonder if there will ever be justice for the Apo Six while detailing the never-ending legal process that surrounds it.

There are also signs that not much has changed in Nigeria since the Apo Six.  The BBC story points out the names of seven people brought in dead by police: Kennis Victor Okonkwo, Adolphus Odumegwu, Sunday Okoye, Hussein Yusuf, Ugochukwu Ogbonnaya, Amichi Nnamdi, and Ifeani Eze Leonard.  On September 11, the Inspector of Police held a press conference where the seven prisoners accused of kidnapping in Enugu State were lined up before the press as a sign of excellent police work on an issue that has taken on more public importance in recent years.  However, within five days, all seven were dead and brought into the university morgue by police.  How seven detainees in police custody wound up dead has yet to be explained, and based on the activity around the Apo Six, probably never will be.

Of course, Nigeria in not alone in this problem.  Just today Human Rights Watch released a report on extrajudicial police violence in Brazil, while Amnesty international released a report on the lack of government interest in extrajudicial military violence in that country’s drug war.  The lack of accountability for police forces in Mexico has been covered by this blog before, and has been covered by other FPA blogs for Brazil.  Further afield, South Africa is still dealing with the fallout of a police shooting of a three year old boy supposedly suspected of holding a gun (which was never found).  Again, this is not to single out specific countries, because they certainly are not alone.  However it does highlight the particular problem that occurs when police become killers.

This is because rights do not exist in a vacuum and are not automatically upheld simply with their proclamation.  For rights to truly exist as a social norm, they need reinforcement by being upheld when they are violated.  Usually, we delegate this important role to the judicial system, which by its very nature relies on police to bring to it the people who need to be held accountable for such crimes.  This system works well where both the police and judiciary can be counted on to stay within the bounds of their fields, however when it is the police themselves guilty of criminal acts, it becomes increasingly difficult to address the problem.  This is because the police are often not willing to hand over their own so easily, while the judicial system often does not have the capacity to investigate and arrest people without the help of police.

Given the importance of the police in upholding most rights, governments should pay more attention to how their police forces act.  Extrajudicial violence does not only hurt those who are its victims, but also society at large because of their inability to depend on the police to do their work properly and within the bounds of the law.  The reports that came out today demonstrate that police violence continues to be a problem in many parts of the world; it is only right that the rest of the world should start paying attention to the toll that this takes on all human rights.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa