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Volume 13 Number 1
New Delhi, Spring 2006

Use of Force by the Ghana Police: Unbridled or Reasonable?

Robert Wakulat & Kingham Ochill
Intern and Administrative Assistant, Africa Office, CHRI

“Law enforcement officials have a vital role in the protection of the right to life, liberty and security of the person, as guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reaffirmed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
- Preamble to the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use-of-Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials

While undertaking their duty to protect the rights of Ghanaian citizens, members of the Ghana Police Service often find themselves having to decide what level of force is appropriate in apprehending suspected lawbreakers. It is not uncommon to see headlines related to this issue such as, “Cop Faces Murder Charge”, on a page in The Daily Graphic last year. Even when the Police successfully arrest a suspect, the level of force they use is often not warranted given the circumstances.

This problem, however, does not seem to stem from a lack of guidelines for applying force. Section 6 of the Criminal Procedure Code of Ghana (Act 30) and Sections 3-10 outline procedures for the Ghana Police Service in applying force while attempting to arrest or detain a suspect. Section 6 states that the person being arrested should not be subjected to more restraint than is necessary to prevent his escape. At the same time, Article 14(2) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana states that a person who is arrested, restricted or detained shall be informed of the reasons and of his right to a lawyer, all of which must be communicated in a language that he understands. It also states that no person, under any circumstances shall be subjected to torture or other cruel and inhuman treatment or punishment. Furthermore, the Police Service gives officers instructions on the use of firearms in section 97 of the Ghana Police Service Instructions.

With all these rules in place, we are left to question why the problem associated with use of force persists in the Ghana Police Service. Superintendent Paul Avuyi, based in Jasikan in the Volta Region, believes the problem lies in the lack of standard operational procedures on the use of force, adding that their main point of reference is a rule that tells them to use a level of force that is reasonable given the circumstances.

“Who determines the level of reasonableness?” Mr. Avuyi wonders, “All that is said is that force must be used reasonably and it ends there. It is left to the discretion of the individual police officer”.

The inadequacy of this rule is demonstrated by incidences such as that on 13 June 2002, when a joint police/military patrol team, in responding to a call for assistance from a resident of Taifa, encountered a group of seven men in a taxi. They suspected these men to be armed robbers and fired at them, resulting in the death of five, injuring the other two. It was later realised that these men were members of a Neighbourhood Watch who were responding to the same call.

On 1 July 2004, The Daily Graphic reported that suspected armed robber Kofi James was fatally shot at 2:30am while running away from the scene of the crime. The officers shot James twice before he was brought down even though there was no indication that he was threatening the lives of the officers or any innocent bystanders.

Clearly, incidents such as these, as well as the 2001 Accra Sport Stadium tragedy where about 126 lives were lost, and the recent combined police/military shooting of demonstrators in Prestea, indicates a problematic understanding of the appropriate circumstances for using force by police officers.

Democratic policing requires public inputs and public participation. Known by different names like community policing, sector policing or participatory policing, public participation broadly signifies a collaboration between the police and the community to identify and solve community problems. It usually entails public inputs into all police processes from preparation of policing plans and budgets, to providing all crime related information (preventive and investigative in nature). A successful community-policing programme requires traditionally centralised police organisations to shift decision-making and responsibility downward, and recognise that it is street-level officers who have to make the new community policing approach work. The police and public have to interact as equals and with a sense of shared values. In diverse societies with unequal power relations, community policing must engage with diverse groups so that it is not hijacked by dominant groups to the detriment of the marginalised and vulnerable.

Mr. Avuyi cites a lack of professional training and re-orientation as a root cause for the misapplication of force by the Ghana Police Service. It continues to operate in a para-military culture that was prevalent during the many years of military rule prior to democracy’s rebirth in 1992, and has not adapted to the new constitutional reality. When the Office of the Inspector General of Police was questioned about the training of new recruits, it was mentioned that they receive 9 months of training at the Police Training School, but they would not say how much of that is actually dedicated to the use-of-force and firearms.

The Superintendent also expressed dismay at the lack of resources provided to the Police. Even if there was a well-designed training programme, the country could hardly expect its officers to learn anything while they live and work under their current conditions.

“If you put a hungry and angry person in a classroom, you won’t be able to teach them. Newly trained constables are crammed into sleeping areas with no bathroom, kitchen or toilet facilities,” Mr. Avuyi explains. “The system doesn’t respect the dignity of police officers or their rights.”

The performance of the Ghana Police Service would improve if it operated under the standards of the United Nations 1979 Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the 1990 Basic Principles on the Use-of-Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. These documents offer detailed standards that, although not legally binding, embody a guiding principle for UN member states on how best to implement international conventions on human rights and the use-of-force during law enforcement operations.

The principles promote that any use of force should be subject to international human rights standards and that force should only be used when non-violent measures have failed. In addition, lethal force is only permitted in situations that conform to Article 9 of the UN Basic Principles, which states “law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury”. Whatever the situation, the essence is that police must only shoot an attacker as a last resort and it should never be arbitrary. At least in theory, the Police Administration agrees with this principle. Unfortunately, as outlined in the examples above, the actions of officers belie their commitment to the ideals of Article 9.

A second provision that relates to past behaviour of the Ghana Police Service is UN Basic Principle 11 which calls on governments to “regulate the control, storage and issuing of firearms, including procedures for ensuring that law enforcement officials are accountable for the firearms and ammunition issued to them”. Perhaps rigorous adherence to this standard would have prevented Constable Suphihyia from taking his weapon to arrest weed smokers and peddlers without proper authorisation; sixteen rounds were fired from his AK47 resulting in one death and two critical injuries. This was a high profile incident that was given significant media coverage, but Mr. Avuyi is sure it only represents the tip of the iceberg.

“A lot of people just bear their pains and that ends it. They feel that even if they take up the matter that it is not going to go anywhere. So most questionable shooting incidents hardly go to court,’ related Mr. Avuyi.

In order to effectively comply with UN guidelines, the Ghana Police Service will have to reform its method of training new recruits. Only then can the country move towards fulfilling UN Basic Principle 19 requiring “governments and law enforcement agencies to ensure that all law enforcement officials are provided with training and are tested in accordance with appropriate proficiency standards in the use of force.’’ Moreover, Principle 19 stipulates that such training should emphasise “issues of police ethics and human rights, especially in the investigative process’’ as well as alternatives to the use of force and firearms. For this to happen the Government will have to provide sufficient funding and demonstrate the political will to provide its citizens with the police service they deserve.

Ghanaians have lived in a democracy for over ten years and have earned the right to ensure their government is creating a legal framework within which they will feel safe and secure. The Police Service should be the leading force in creating this environment but until now has tended to contribute to its destabilisation. Simply acknowledging the UN standards has not created the pressure to initiate and sustain the process of implementing respected use-of-force procedures. This must be implemented by the government but pushed for by Ghanaian civil society. It is only by taking responsibility for their rights and freedoms that they will finally have a Police Service to call their own.

CHRI Newsletter, Spring 2006

Editors: Mary Rendell & Clare Doube , CHRI;
Print: Chenthil Paramasivam ,
Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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