Police Struggle With Crowd Control

Locals say officers can’t cope when violence breaks out at public gatherings.

Police Struggle With Crowd Control

Locals say officers can’t cope when violence breaks out at public gatherings.

Tuesday, 2 February, 2010
Police in the southern province of Katanga say a lack of money and equipment means they struggle to control the crowds at football games and demonstrations.

Faced with rowdy mobs, police officers frequently rely on their weapons, firing into the air to try to bring some calm to the situation.

But critics argue that this is not the best policing method and can incite panic among the crowd, resulting in injury.

Football games are a frequent source of conflict between the police and crowds.

Expressing the concerns of many parents, Lubumbashi resident Daniel Salumu says he won’t allow his son to attend matches, because the police aren’t able to cope if violence breaks out.

“The under-equipped police cannot protect them,” he said. “I have witnessed several incidents at Kenya Stadium [in the Katangan capital Lubumbashi], where trouble-makers engage the police by throwing stones at them. In response, the police shoot into the air, alarming those that they should be calming.”

Police officers admit there are problems but blame a lack of essential equipment – such as protective shields or tear gas canisters – for their failure to control large crowds.

“We do not have the equipment needed to maintain order in such situations,” Dedy Tshiyombo, a Lubumbashi police office, said. “Often we are forced to fire into the air, not because we lose control but out of self-defence. A police officer has the right to survive and, if he does not act in this way, he could lose his life.”

But it is demonstrators, rather than the police, who are usually injured when officers lose control of a large crowd.

Two people were seriously injured in late November when a march by 1,000 students from the University of Lubumbashi turned ugly.

The students were marching on the office of the Katanga provincial governor to protest a sudden hike in university fees, which are set to increase from 100 to 400 US dollars this academic year.

The police had erected fences to keep the protesters away from the government offices, but eyewitnesses say that they were able to climb them without difficulty and started throwing stones at the police.

The police fired over the students' heads and although no one was hit, dozens were reportedly injured in the panic that followed.

Lubumbashi resident Gilbert Nduwa, who witnessed the incident, said that officers seemed inexperienced and unprepared.

“The policemen were waiting until the last moment to intervene,” he said. “The march started from the university campus, some five kilometres away from the city centre.

“Why did the police not come out earlier to supervise demonstrators, and bring them peacefully to the government building? They waited for the students to reach the city centre [before reacting].”

But one policeman, who was involved in securing the administrative building of the university, said that the officers had little choice but to draw their weapons.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said, “Our job is too difficult. Sometimes we are being asked impossible things. We have no appropriate equipment to repel demonstrators. Look at me. I have only my weapon. This is my only means of defence. If I don’t use it when I am faced with aggression, then it means I accept being killed or seriously injured.”

Members of a special response unit formed last year to introduce a better system of crowd control were dispatched to the protest but had to be reinforced by regular officers.

The 50-strong unit, which was established in May 2008, is specially trained in calming street protests without relying on firearms.

"The special-response unit does not carry weapons,” explained one police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They have shields, tear gas and other ways of helping to control the crowd.”

Analysts say that all police officers need this kind of special training for dealing with potentially hostile crowds. That is something the Carter Center, a United States-based human rights NGO, is addressing with police training programmes in the capital Kinshasa, the Tchangu district just to the east of the capital and Lubumbashi.

Borris Nzanga, field office manager for the Carter Center in Kinshasa, says that the organisation has so far trained almost 350 police officers in the country, including a number of senior level officers, capable of being deployed and replicating the training course for other officers.

Nzanga says that guns should only be a means of last resort for maintaining the peace and refers to the 1979 United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, which says that the use of firearms is considered an “extreme measure”, and that every effort should be made to exclude their use.

“We teach police offers that they should exercise restraint when it comes to the use of their guns,” Nzanga said.

Héritier Maila is an IWPR-trained reporter.
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