Police investigate traffic accidents, assigning causes and fining those at fault and have a responsibility to enforce all law, including traffic regulations and safety standards. But, it had become apparent in recent years that a major stress of the police force was collecting fines, with the proliferation of roadblocks and the continuing trawling of regulations looking for ever more obscure offences to fine while largely ignoring major safety problems like speeding and drunk-driving.
Now new Minister of Home Affairs and Culture Dr Obert Mpofu wants to start afresh, creating systems that allow the police to do their work, but removing any temptation for corruption, let alone the actual crime. We believe that this is possible and that restoring the relationship between the police and the public is achievable, especially as the major problem was always the traffic sector.
One start would be to ensure that all fines are paid directly to the Treasury, the administrator of the Consolidated Revenue Fund, and not to the police. This is now easy, especially for traffic funds. The cash shortages mean that almost all Zimbabweans, and certainly those who drive, now use at least some mobile cash, swipe cards, Zipit and Internet banking. So police stations, and road patrols, can refuse cash; in fact they can be banned from accepting it.
Instead motorists and others charged simple admission-of-guilt deposit fines can be instructed to pay into one of a set of mobile and bank accounts, such accounts and their numbers being well publicised in the media and printed on charts hanging in every station and displayed at every roadblock. These accounts will not be under police control, but instead will feed deposit-fine revenue directly into the central coffers.
At the beginning of the switch it may well be necessary to ban police on traffic duties from carrying cash and have spot searches. This would create the prime facie evidence of bribery if cash was found in their pockets.
The second step is to ensure what are called “fine books” are properly dealt with. Legally the police fine no one. What they do, and the forms people sign make this clear, is to charge the person with a minor offence and if, and only if, the person wishes to plead guilty and renounce their right to appear in court at their trial, invite them to pay a deposit towards any fine that a magistrate might subsequently impose.
This implies that there has to be a trial and that a magistrate must physically examine the fine books. The trials might just in practice last 60 seconds while a magistrate glances through the case and initials or stamps the sheet to signify acceptance, or it might lead to other things if the magistrate finds police have exceeded their powers.
The point is that an outside judicial officer has to continually monitor the police.
Third, the Minister must insist that the police put their own house in order.
The traffic branch is the core of the problem, but there are anecdotal reports that the rot has started to spread into uniformed officers at police stations, those unsung women and men who do so much to oil the wheels of society, doing far more than just recording crime reports.
Indeed anyone standing in line at the inquiries counter of a police station will be astounded at the range of work that so many officers are called upon to perform and usually do so well. There might be a little “fee” work starting to appear, but it can be stamped out. The CID units appear to be clean, if irritated in the past by political protection forcing them to drop cases, but that appears to be over under the new President.
The Minister is limited in his role as a police administrator, but he has the Ministerial duty to ensure that the police force is run properly and legally and he can insist that this happens.
A strong-minded Home Affairs Minister backed fully by his President, and these two conditions now apply, can make it clear that he has zero tolerance for corruption and bad policing, and can make it clear that professional standards will be enforced. We believe most officers will respond positively and earn public respect again.
Of course these professionals doing their duty will expect their Minister to support them and battle in Government for a fair share of limited resources and the like. But the Minister will find it easier to sell budgets and improve conditions if he, in turn, can show everyone what a wonderful police force Zimbabwe has.