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Corrupt police, the American nightmare

Mary Serumaga

According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, in Uganda, “illegal arrests and detentions, torture and brutality, corruption and partiality are all part of the daily work of a police officer.”

It was not always the case. Ugandans who grew up before 1966 will remember that cases of misconduct by the armed forces were few and caused general consternation. By the 1970s, a uniformed officer encountered in the street had become a source of fear.

Today, with gun-wielding soldiers, policemen and ‘security operatives’ visible everywhere, even the fear has become part of normal life. 

At the time of writing, the head of the police's Professional Standards Unit, Joel Aguma is under arrest along with a colleague for armed robberies, murder, abduction and the extraordinary rendition of refugees back to their countries of origin.

Last month, two other officers from Interpol and the Joint Anti-Terror Taskforce were charged with kidnap after they arrested a doctor on false charges and forced him to pay over $80,000 (Shs 300 million) for his release.

While this is happening in Uganda and other countries on the continent, the youth are queuing to get out. Many are under the illusion that human rights are only abused in their countries of origin. However, New York is dealing with its own cases of corruption and police brutality.

Take Ed Mangano, a senior local government official for example. In January 2018, he will face trial on federal charges that have an exotic ring to them: extortion, bribery, fraud and obstruction of justice in relation to government contracts.

After their own local investigations, Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas, listed the charges faced by other Nassau County officials including John Venditto the Town Supervisor of Oyster Bay; bribery, money laundering, a corrupt property deal, nepotism and illegal favours granted to the families of those connected to people in power in Oyster Bay.

Next door in Suffolk County, the District Attorney himself was indicted on October 23, 2017. Thomas J. Spota was charged with witness tampering in a police brutality case.

The incident itself occurred in 2012 and involved then police chief, James Burke, physically assaulting a hand-cuffed suspect. The man was believed to have stolen some personal property from the police chief’s vehicle.

Following Burke’s own indictment, Spota is alleged to have participated in a systematic operation to kill the trial by intimidating witnesses. Spota and Christopher McPartland, the head prosecutor of the anti-corruption unit, are also implicated in the illegal wire-tapping of political rivals and other civil rights abuses.

These recent revelations lead naturally to an internet search of corruption on Long Island and the bumper harvest is worth the effort. It would appear the police of Long Island excel themselves in abusing the rights of and assaulting members of the public. Youtube videos (even taken with the usual pinches of salt) suggest a pattern of behavior alien to what Africans imagine the country to be like.

Going back a little in history, but remaining on Long Island, there is the case of the unfortunate Martin Tankleff. His case calls to mind the 2001 Justice Julia Sebutinde Commission report on corruption in the Uganda Police.

One of the many complaints against the Uganda Police was that people reporting crimes committed by the powerful sometimes ended up being charged as the perpetrators of the very same crimes.

One morning in 1988, Tankleff called the police to his luxury Long Island home after finding his mother dead and his father dying. Martin Tankleff may as well have been living in Bukoto given what then happened to him. Within hours, the seventeen-year-old was under arrest for their murder.

Despite urging from the family, the police declined to investigate a business partner of Tankleff’s father, Jerry Steuerman, who had been at the house the previous night. He had fallen out with Tankleff senior to whom he owed a huge amount of money and faked his own death after the murder.

However the police chief, Detective K James McCready, said that he did not believe Steuerman was responsible for the murders because in his opinion he “could not hurt a fly.”

Many years later, the son of one of the alleged hitmen reported that his father had been hired by Steuerman to kill Tankleff senior. Martin Tankleff was freed at the age of thirty-six. New York State has paid him $3.4 million in compensation for false imprisonment.

However, the police chief has not been charged with perverting the course of justice.

Uganda has an ongoing programme to institutionalize civil rights and corruption-free government. So weak is our Justice, Law and

Order sector that the United States government spends $1 million a year on supporting our efforts to strengthen it. Worldwide, the State Department spends over $2 billion on the promotion of democracy, justice, law and order in the developing world.

It remains a mystery why these values are not embedded in the governance of Long Island and in all the other states in the Land of the Free in which the police act with impunity. What implications does that have for the developing world?

One person who is pondering this anomaly is Dr Norman Finkelstein. A teacher, human rights activist and author of over ten books, he is mostly known as a defender of the rights of the Palestinian people.

In a campaign to halt an injustice being perpetrated by two Long Island lawyers against a friend of his, he wrote several letters to the lawyers demanding that they stop.

On the advice of the American Civil Liberties Union, he gave the lawyers the option to unsubscribe and stop receiving the emails. He also passed out leaflets around their offices until he was advised it was private property.

Most people involved in civil rights campaigns are aware that those two activities are permitted under United States law. However, the office of the district attorney thought differently and had him arrested and charged with harassment.

The day before he was due in court, Dr Finkelstein was picked up at midnight (somebody has been watching too many movies) and subjected to treatment we imagine only happens in failed states. Who knew that in America a man could be chained to a pole for five hours in the middle of the night?

Or that, without having been convicted of anything, he could be made to sleep on a concrete floor without a blanket?

Dr Finkelstein was also subjected to an involuntary psychiatric evaluation. This tactic was invented in the Soviet Union and adopted by Nazi Germany. It is now used all over the world against political activists and other inconvenient people and serves two main purposes.

Clearly, one objective is to demoralize the victim. Secondly, it is a means of by-passing legal due process during which embarrassing truths would emerge. Psychiatry provides a cover for holding an individual against his or her will and prevents him or her from speaking for themselves.

If he does get the opportunity to speak, the idea is to render his testimony unreliable by reason of insanity.

Ugandans were stunned to learn in 2007 that malicious referral to Butabika Mental Hospital was a frequent occurrence.

Wives seeking to divorce their husbands on grounds of insanity, employers attempting to get rid of tenured employees, employees seeking to undermine their bosses and colleagues have all been guilty of having their enemies committed under the Mental Health Act.

Dr Tom Onen, a senior consultant psychiatrist, was quoted as saying most cases showed no signs of illness.

For an American example of this strategy at work, again we need go no further than New York State. Adrian Schoolcraft was a police officer in Brooklyn who reported police corruption and wrongdoing in 2009.

Three weeks later, after a normal day at work, he was dragged out of his apartment at night by a team led by his superior officers and taken against his will to Jamaica Hospital for a psychiatric examination. The New York Police Department and the Hospital compensated Schoolcraft in 2015.

Given the frequency and magnitude of complaints against them, one can’t help wondering whether Nassau County, Long Island and New York generally are just rogue administrations or whether they are indicative of failing health in American public service as a whole as they were in 1970s Uganda.

Some information from the New York Times and cbsnewyork.
The author is a concerned Ugandan.
mkserumaga@gmail.com.

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd