Tuesday, October 13, 2020

#EndSARS: Why scrapping SARS will make a difference, even if the officers remain in the police

Like other young Nigerians, I spent my Sunday afternoon calling for an end to Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Long removed from its origins as a crime fighting unit, SARS evolved into an extortionary outfit that profiled and harassed Nigerians. The Inspector General of police has since announced the scrapping of SARS, but the protests continue for a variety of reasons, one of which is the lack of public trust that these announcements will result in meaningful and lasting change.

A few people have asked why we were calling for an end to SARS if they would simply be reintegrated into other police squads. I wrote this to address that question and to share some other thoughts on what else is required to begin the long journey of rebuilding public trust in the Nigerian police.

We know people act differently in groups than when they are alone and there is research to prove it (here, here). There are many reasons for this, three of which I would like to highlight: groups produce conformity, normalize behaviors, and intensify attitudes. All three are pretty straightforward. I am more likely to get drunk when I hang out with a group that gets drunk (conformity). In these circumstances, I am more likely to think getting drunk is normal (normalize behaviors). Over time, I am likely to begin drinking more than when I first begun and become more certain that it is right to be drunk (intensify attitudes). While I chose a negative example, this also works in positive ways and people can improve their life outcomes to some degree by changing the groups they belong to.

So how does this relate to SARS and the odious behaviors of its officers? The theories about groups tell us that the existence of SARS as a distinct unit normalizes, reinforces, and intensifies these behaviors in members of the unit. And how does ending SARS and posting these officers to various teams across the police (partly) address the problem? So long as we shuffle the new postings thoroughly and you don’t end up with too many ex-SARS officers in the same unit, they will be joining units with different norms. I hope it is not too optimistic to expect the norms in most other units to be less offensive than the norms were at SARS. And of course, it is important to remain vigilant and ensure SARS does not find its way back into the police under a different name as nothing will change under those circumstances.

I also believe the Federal Government (through the Attorney General) should set up an investigative panel to look into the allegations against the now defunct SARS. Scrapping the unit and asking its officers to undergo psychological evaluation is not enough. Some officers of the unit have been accused of extrajudicial killings and Nigeria cannot simply turn a blind eye to this and other reports of human rights abuse. Erring officers should be investigated thoroughly and made to face the consequences of their actions. Apart from obtaining justice for their victims, this will deter would-be offenders by reminding them that they are not above the law. Transforming the relationship between Nigerians and their police will not happen overnight, but this would be a great step in the right direction.

PS: There are many other things that must be done to improve the quality of policing in Nigeria. Among others, these include: better hiring and training practices, better pay and working conditions, an overhaul of their practices and processes, better ‘policing of the police’, etc.

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