Fostering a Community Crime Watch in Liberia

In mid-October 2010, The Heritage reporter Eugene Myers and jhr trainer Aaron Leaf produced an article about vigilante groups that play a role helping out the Liberian police force in rural areas. Leaf and Myers’ research into the Liberian penal code’s laws against kidnapping and false imprisonment found that many actions of the police-sanctioned citizen group Community Watch Groups were illegal. However, despite the police’s official stance against vigilante justice and citizens’ arrests, they admitted that they needed Community Watch Groups to combat crime in certain areas. Many communities also value their “vigilante groups” as they help combat crime at night. The article generated a constructive public discussion about the role of these groups and police acknowledgement of the necessity of vigilante groups, which is the first step to moving towards legalization and better regulation of their activities. Read the original editorial article below

The Rise of the Crime Watch Team

By Eugene Myers, The Heritage, Liberia Standing on the front porch of her home in Rehab Community, a crime victim recounts how she survived an encounter with armed robbers. “I thought I was dead,” said Betty Goodluck. “We lay face down on the floor when they were making their demands; the guns were over our heads with threat to shoot and kill us as they demanded more money they said we were hiding inside the house.” They threatened to rape her. She felt completely helpless crying for help and no one, not the police, not even the neighbors were available to rescue her. Rehab Community is home to more than 5,000 inhabitants, including Liberia’s Vice President Joseph Boakai. The community is situated outside Monrovia, in Paynesville along the Roberts International (RIA) Highway. It is one of the largest communities along the highway with less police presence making it very vulnerable to armed robbery. Mrs. Goodluck was robbed of over US$1,900 cash and other valuables including cell phones. She is still struggling to recover from the trauma and effects of the robbery. “I feel frightened at night and any time I’m in a quiet place with men I do not know,” she said.

Betty Goodluck helped found a vigilante group in Paynesville, Liberia, after having survived an encounter with armed robbers

Mrs. Goodluck, the wife of the community chairman Mr. John Goodluck, didn’t sit back. With her husband, she helped form a vigilante group in 2009. Groups like this one had been operating in other communities since 2006. In fact, there had already been a group in Rehab, but it had stopped operating by 2008. By 2009, armed robbers rampaged through Rehab and other nearby communities, including GSA Road, Dupo Road and Zubah Town, creating terror for peaceful residents. Community support for vigilantes was high. It was near this time that police began to get tough with vigilantes, claiming they were no longer needed. Liberia National Police (LNP) Spokesman, Mr. George Bardue, says they are not in favor of vigilantes. He was quick to point out that the intent of the vigilantes may be good, but their weapons and their methods contradict state law. “We never support vigilantes. They are group of people who carry cutlasses and sometime fire arms at night. They have no training, and there is no way that the police is able to guarantee that they are not the very criminals we are looking for,” he said. Vigilantes are groups formed outside state security to protect neighbors. They come into force principally when “the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate.” The Liberian vigilantes emerged out of the proliferation of machete toting gangs called the “Issakaba” Boys mainly in 2006. The police could not easily match them. They were very fearless even attacking people in broad day light. It is believed that the gangs are mostly ex-combatants and street boys living on the margins. The vigilantes are armed with similar tools, including cutlasses and stakes. They keep watch over the community at night with support from their neighbors. According to Mr. Bardue, the LNP does not have sufficient man power to cover the entire country. The entire police is about 3,000 men, which he said, is insufficient to protect 3.4 million people across the 15 counties. Community members, Bardue says, must take initiative to help the police but without resorting to vigilantism. He said the LNP has succeeded in eliminating vigilantes through a new method called the Community Crime Watch, a part of their Community Policing Strategy. “We have stopped the vigilantes, the group we are aware of in communities is the crime watch. They are our information sharing arm in the community on criminal hideouts. We have trained and support them with flash lights if they want night patrol,’’ he said. But many of the group still recognize themselves as vigilantes, particularly because their role has not changed much. “We keep watch from 12:00 A.M to 6:00A.M,” said Philip Quime, a member of the Rehab Community Team. “I’m part of the vigilantes in Rehab. We patrol at night and arrest, investigate and keep you until day if we are not satisfied with your explanation.” He said they are still depending on community members for support. According to him each household is taxed to pay LD$150 per month (the equivalent of US$2). Community Chairman and head of the group, Mr. John Goodluck, said many community members are reluctant to bring their contribution. “Support for the group dropped recently, and the young men are no longer coming in their numbers because of the lack of support from the community,” he said. He did not deny or confirm that that they carry cutlasses at night, but said they use protection and perform many of the functions of a vigilante. Mr. Bardue says the crime watch is absolutely not allowed to use cutlasses and stakes as in the case with the vigilante. “Anybody who carries cutlasses or stakes at night is an illegal group and we will deal with such group drastically according to the law,” he said. He said that the crime watch group can ‘catch’ someone who is a suspected criminal without harming that person, although the police do not support citizen’s arrest. Liberian laws forbid the arrest, imprisonment and detention of people without valid reasons. According to the Liberian Penal Code, “a person commits a felony of the third degree if he knowingly “restrains another with the purpose of holding him in a condition of involuntary servitude or restrains another unlawfully in circumstances exposing him to risk or serious bodily injury.” Likewise, “a person commits a misdemeanor of the first degree if he knowingly restrains another unlawfully so as to interfere substantially with his liberty.” The Rehab police depot commander, Superintendent Dave Jallah, said the group has been helping to combat crime in the area, but said they have changed from vigilantes to a community crime watch team. Although not formally trained, he says, the crime watch team does arrest suspects before contacting the police. “The moment they see or suspect some one of being a threat to the community, they will catch them and immediately contact the police and then we intervene to conduct a proper investigation,” he said. Mr. Jallah said the group is not permitted to hurt anybody or use force, but admits there is no monitoring system to track cases of groups violating a person’s human rights. Motorcyclist Emmanuel Boima said he had an encounter with a community team in Dupo Road and thinks that if proper mechanisms are not put into place, the police might end up backing the wrong force. “They came after me, some with stakes and when I stopped, they attempted to take money from my pockets putting fear in me, but I managed to run away from them,” he said. According to him, the vigilantes harass people traveling at night and themselves commit criminal acts. Tarnue Koboi, a member of the Rehab crime watch group and a concerned parent joined the group because he “cannot just sit when they are hurting other people” referring to armed robbers. But since their inception, the group has not actually faced any armed robbers. A more typical case was last month when they arrested two people coming from a night club. The team detained the man and the woman after they found them in the street about 2:00 A.M fighting. “We heard the woman crying and when we got there, it was the man beating up the woman,” says Koboi. The woman claimed the man had refused to pay after having sex and the man, very intoxicated had been assaulting her. Both people involved were restrained until dawn when they were brought to the police. But armed robberies are still happening in the area. Ms. Martha Kollie lives in Rehab Community. She said she was gang raped by armed men who broke through her door about 1:00 A.M. and took away everything. ” I was afraid and just did any thing they ask me to do. After taking all my things from in my room, some stood outside and kept watch and one by one the three of them laid down with me,” she said. Ms. Kollie cried for help but no help came. Eventually she called the police who came too late to help her. She says it never occurred to her to call the community watch team in her area. Working now as a house girl in one of her neighbors home in Rehab, she has managed to move close to the main street where she feels safer. She said she supports the idea of a crime watch team but could not afford the monthly L$150 because she barley makes enough to pay her bills and save for her children’s schooling. This inability to pay is typical for Rehab Community. Recently, the community watch team founded by the Goodlucks suspended operation because of a lack of resources. Betty Goodluck is hoping the community will offer their support before armed robbers can strike again. She acknowledges, however, that it is new instances of crime that are most likely to spur people to action.

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