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The Arm of the Law?
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Coen van Wyk

Sep 15, 2023

Policing is central to modern society, economic development and welfare. Yet all too often we hear of police brutality and overreach. Policing is integral to a criminal justice system and deserves our respect. But respect has to be earned. Let us get back to basics. And let us look again at the whole concept of criminal justice. Because without justice, the law of the jungle reigns.

The men and women who keep us safe, who enforce the laws deserve our respect and appreciation. They face danger, long hours and harsh conditions so we may sleep in safety. But respect must also be earned, and unfortunately too many cases of police excess dominate the media. Where is the problem?

I'm from South Africa. And recently, South African police were videoed handcuffing a suspected drug smuggler to the back of a van and driving off. Meanwhile, a Seattle police officer was recorded making heinous remarks about a person killed by a police car. While these reports were not verified, and while I do not have all the facts about these events, there is often doubt about police impartiality. 

Modern policing is based largely on the principles set out by Sir Robert Peel, in 1829 London, England. Most significant is that "... the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them."

But then policing is only a part of the issue. Nobody will trust laws that are patently unfair, or unfairly enforced. An exhaustive study of attacks and murders in the South African farming community pointed out that very few cases were prosecuted, and even fewer resulted in convictions. 

It goes further. The regional political instability in West Africa is as much an effect of religious separatism as it is linked to trans-national crime. And there is ample evidence that the events of 9/11 were fueled by organized crime. 

Politicians are quick to posture in favor of order, to threaten the strong arm of the law. But if laws are unfair, unfairly applied, then it becomes an exercise in futility. Peel's most quoted principle: "The police are the public and the public are the police." 

In 'The Prophet' Khalil Gibran discusses crime and punishment, saying that "... the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all." And again, of those who delight in making laws: "They see only their shadows, and their shadows are their laws."

Is it not time to re-examine the basis of our laws, our policing and our criminal justice system?

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