One can never predict the outcome of an encounter with Zimbabwean policemen, be it at roadblocks, walking in the street or even in the comfort of your own home.
Innocent people have been beaten up, threatened, in some cases forced to pay “protection fees” or killed by rogue cops.
Even Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has been a victim of law enforcement brutality inside a police station.
While corruption and human rights abuses by police have been of major concern during the past decades, the public focus has largely been on brutality by the partisan law enforcement agents, especially during election periods.
Cases of police brutality are well-documented but what is worrying is not just the extent of their abuses but that nothing much has been done to hold perpetrators to account and stop the trend.
Just when everyone thought the police under the inclusive government may be about to change their ways, another violent incident occurs, clearly demonstrating that the police force under the leadership of Police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri has gone to the dogs.
In a chilling incident, police officers recently killed a Shamva mine worker, Luxmore Chivambo, and injured several others over a wallet.
Aspias Shumba, a 48-year-old inspector who led the brutality against Chivambo over the theft of his wife’s purse, reportedly did not show any emotion as he was charged with murder in court this week. His behaviour was symbolic of police arrogance and insensitivity.
Their case had to be moved from Bindura to Harare after people showed outrage at their fatal brutality.
Given the viciousness with which the police dealt with MDC-T activists and others accused of killing a police officer, Inspector Petros Mutedza, in May last year, people are closely watching how the Chivambo case will be handled.
Analysts say the Shamva incident highlighted rising police brutality, lawlessness and lack of respect for life by law enforcement agents who now tend to think they are above the law.
They say police had always used brute force in dealing with civilians, including peaceful demonstrations and protests, instead of civilised methods of policing.
Police, who otherwise are sometimes commended by citizens for keeping crime levels under control, have in the process gained notoriety for being partisan and brutal, especially when dealing with political cases.
Political commentator Blessing Vava said the security sector was a law unto itself and was contributing to the breakdown of the rule of law through partisan brutality and impunity.
“The police have become a law unto themselves and are thus failing their basic duties of maintaining law and order in a professional and civilised and also protecting citizens. They have become the biggest culprits in perpetrating violence and abuse of citizens,” said Vava.
“Police have been given too much power to the extent that they can get away with murder –– literally. It’s mainly because the police top brass are partisan and have publicly sworn allegiance to a political party, Zanu PF. So all their actions are now being executed on a partisan basis and reflect the attitude of their political masters towards citizens.”
Vava said the security establishment, including the police, has always been brutal and violated human rights with impunity since the Gukurahundi era.
During the 1998 food riots, at least 10 people were killed by security forces which included the police, but no one was held accountable for those murders.
Even though people have from time to time won damages in the courts for abuse by police, court orders are often ignored, showing authorities’ contempt for the rule of law.
During the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, in 2000, 13 fans died and dozens were injured at National Sports Stadium during a match between Zimbabwe and South Africa after police fired teargas into the crowd following the anarchy that was caused by Bafana Bafana’s 2-0 victory.
The police –– apparently angered by fans’ waving of the open palms symbol synonymous with the MDC which had almost defeated Zanu PF at the general elections that year –– were widely blamed for causing the deaths and injuries of innocent fans. There have also been many incidents where the police’s actions fuelled violence at football matches.
In Chiadzwa, several cases of police and army brutality have been reported by villagers and documented by human rights activists, even though government continues to deny them.
Social commentator Maxwell Saungweme said what happened in Shamva was just a tip of the iceberg on how Zimbabwe’s security services operate.
He said since 1980, Zimbabwe has experienced systematic police brutality and serious human rights violations including harassment, assaults, torture, enforced disappearances and murder with impunity at the hands of security forces.
Saungweme said the true story of police brutality in Zimabbwe is yet to be fully told.
“This Shamva incident is just one among many cases in which Zimbabwe’s police have become a rogue force which perpetrates human rights violations with impunity, instead of protecting citizens,” said Saungweme.
However, he said it was encouraging police had arrested the officers accused and hoped justice would prevail. He also said there was need to deal with previous police abuses to restore confidence in law enforcement agencies.
“There is need to open up all these cases and ensure full investigations are done and suspects are arrested. Opening up investigations on many of the cases of police brutality against innocent citizens, opposition political parties and NGOs will be a key step in moving towards security sector reforms and dealing with impunity,” he said.
“Without this, we will continue to have these cases of police officers taking the law into their own hands, more so during elections.”