The Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) has started taking note of complaints by the public against officers mounting fake roadblocks and pretending to enforce Covid-19 restrictions, when all they want are bribes, or driving around in cars without number plates pretending they can jail you for a trivial traffic offence, but a bribe will sort everything out.
But the cooperation of the public is needed. For a start, people should be ready to report and complain if they are stopped by dubious police officers, or if they are treated badly by police.
Putting the numbers of the complaints unit in your phone, along with the number of your local police station and the other stations on your normal route, takes a couple of minutes.
Then if you are faced with a suspicious roadblock, a suspect officer in an unmarked car, or just a patrolling officer who is treating you badly, make the quick phone call. If the station or complaints unit confirms the roadblock is genuine, or that the police officer stopping you is doing their duty, then you know where you are.
Otherwise they will give directions on what you must do. One problem is that many members of the public are willing to pay bribes to avoid trouble or to get round a regulation that they dislike. The Covid-19 roadblocks are an example.
People drive round them, and find the blocking patrolling officer. A quick wink, a US$1 note, and you are through. It is as corrupt to pay a bribe as to receive a bribe.
But if you are honest, then you have rights, even if you are committing an offence. You do not have to pay anything on the side of the road. You can demand to be taken to the nearest police station and pay whatever fine might be imposed for a minor offence there.
If you feel the officer is wrong, but genuine, you can go to the station and appeal to someone more senior.
Zimbabwe is not a police state. You do not have to accept bad treatment or criminal treatment. You may have to spend an hour or two sorting everything out, and if you have committed an offence you will have to pay the fine, but there is no need to submit to bullying.
Roadblocks have been getting better. For a start the police now tend to put them up next to bridges across the innumerable streams that flow through Harare. So it becomes impossible to drive round them. And for roadblocks that are genuine, and positioned by someone thinking carefully, you will see a queue of vehicles waiting for clearance, so you have time to get your papers ready and check on your airtime if you suspect you may be shaken down.
Genuine police officers tend to respond positively to polite members of the public, and if there is doubt at a roadblock then they will call over the senior officer of the four or more. Again you will lose time, if necessary while your boss is phoned to confirm you are genuine, but that is all.
But at times there are other problems. Just a walk through the Harare central business district will confirm that a lot of police officers in uniform are stopping ordinary citizens on the streets, threatening to arrest them if they fail to produce letters allowing them movement in the city centre.
But usually there will be more than one officer in the patrol, the police learning to be careful. But if you are not satisfied complain.
The same goes for motorists if they are stopped away from a roadblock, sometimes in the middle of busy roads, and asked all sorts of questions.
We have seen that even police officers who are not from the traffic section have taken it upon themselves to stop motorists asking for all sorts of documents.
This has opened the force to complains by people who accuse the officers of soliciting bribes. People become suspicious if the tactics being used by the officers include soliciting for bribes, threatening arrest when it is evident no crime has been committed and withholding of the driving licence to coerce some form of payment.
While we are happy that the police have been doing well to curtail unnecessary movement and minimise the spread of Covid-19, it is the haphazard manner in which this is being done that has raised eyebrows.
This could partly explain why so many people, including street money changers and some vendors, have been finding their way into city centres when it is clear they are not offering any essential services.
We might not rule out that bogus police officers could be taking advantage of this haphazard policing to accost innocent members of the public demanding bribes to enable their passage.
The average person cannot tell from the uniform if an officer is genuine or fake, and few of us could tell a genuine police ID from a fake one.
This is why you should take up the offer of the police to phone.
But if complaints start arriving, the police can start cleaning up their problems as well. It is not much use expecting the police to put half the force on the streets to monitor the other half; they need the public to give feedback and make reports and complaints.
However, dealing with complaints should be a task done well, and if there are a spate of complaints then further action to find out if it is a rogue police officer, a fake officer or just someone who skipped the lectures on how to deal with the public.
Those in service found on the wrong side of the law should be flushed out of the system because their continued presence leads to the whole force bring viewed in bad image.
Even when temporary traffic section roadblocks are erected, surely it is possible for a sign to be kept in the boot of a Highway Patrol car and the car itself serving as proof that the occupants are genuine. Police cars are marked with the word “police” and have the required blue light on the roof, and unmarked cars should not be used by officers.
We also encourage the police to carry out more awareness campaigns to educate members of the public on what constitutes a genuine or sanctioned road block.
If people stop offering bribes, but insist on their rights, and the police clamp down hard on officers seeking or accepting bribes, we can lick one problem, since those in a police uniform misbehaving are obviously the fakes.