“Can I see your ID?” my friend asked the putative police officer.
Last Sunday night around 9pm, my friend and I were returning from watching a movie at the Accra mall. A blue, Nissan Navarra police truck perched at the intersection in front of my residence with its lights on. A police officer stepped out of the car and waved for us to stop.
“Not all police officers wear their IDs,” he responded. The two of them engaged in a back and forth. The police officer seemed annoyed by the challenge and stated he would like to search the car. My friend opened his hands as if to say, “We have nothing to hide.”
A second police officer came out of the truck and approached my side of the car. After a few moments, the two police officers returned to their truck and drove away.
I was stunned by the episode. In America, challenging a police officer is an invitation to get arrested.
When I got to the house, I asked my friend to explain what just happened. I’m not accustomed to civilians challenging police authority. His explanation shocked my First World sensibilities: without a badge, men dressed as police, driving around in vehicles marked “POLICE” are not police. They are (armed) robbers.
What the f***?
These men may be somehow affiliated with the police force but the fact that they do not wear their badges suggest they are up to no good. They do not want to be identified. The next day I called an attorney friend and he confirmed that “Anybody can dress up as police officer.” This February 2014 article, “Three Ghanaian policemen arraigned for robbery”, in VibeGhana pretty much describes the scene my friend and I encountered.
Unlike American police officers, the Ghanaian police do not cruise around the streets looking for people up to no good. Instead they set up “barriers” or check points on heavily trafficked roads and stop every vehicle. They engage in a form of profiling, they may ask for insurance, drivers license, and registration documents, and may search your car. These barriers are in semi-fixed locations throughout Accra. They are meant to catch thieves and smugglers.
My understanding is that these irregular check points may not be sanctioned. My friend said beware of police officers who are hidden in shadows and may not be standing beside the plastic barriers found at regular barriers.
This may seem obvious to the African audience out there but American police typically sit with their radar guns in strange places. Can I say they “lurk”? For instance, you can expect a police officer with his radar gun hidden behind a hill on I-5 in California near Kettleman City. These areas are called speed traps.
Apparently, most civilians have a low opinion of those charged to serve and protect. In March 2014, the Inspector General of Police (IGP or Police Chief) started a campaign to try to win back the public’s trust. At a ceremony, the IGP was distributing bumper stickers that proclaimed, “I don’t bribe police.”
Foreigners need to be en guarde when dealing with the Ghanaian police. The rules in their home country do not necessarily apply here. Last year, it was widely reported that a Nigerian police officer was caught on video asking for a bribe. (Several more videos have surfaced.) My understanding is that the Ghanaian police are the least corrupt of those in police services in Sub-Saharan Africa.