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Police corruption is becoming a pandemic too

During COVID-19, police collect bribes and turn toward brutality and abuse

Illustration by Sheyda Sabetian

This blog is part of a series, Citizens Report COVID-19 Corruption, to raise awareness about the human cost of corruption during COVID-19 and encourage citizens to report corruption.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, countries imposed curfews, roadblocks, and mandatory quarantines to slow the spread of the virus.

But these protective lockdowns also created new risks for millions of people around the globe.

Hundreds of people report bribery and corruption

Since January, Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALAC) have received over 1,500 reports relating to COVID-19, including those involving police and military abuse. ALACs offer free and confidential legal advice to witnesses and victims of corruption in more than 60 countries around the globe.

In many countries, police officers and soldiers are demanding bribes from people who pass roadblocks, stay out past curfew, and want to leave quarantine centers. They are even demanding bribes from essential workers, like doctors and nurses, who are trying to get to or home from work.

In addition, in some countries, quarantine centers that were set up to isolate potentially sick people are being used to detain and punish healthy individuals who break minor rules.

Corruption undermines public health measures to contain the virus and exacerbates inequality by dividing communities into those who can afford to break the rules and those who cannot.

A global pattern of police abuse

Since the start of the pandemic, people have contacted ALACs in Guatemala, Kenya, Madagascar, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe to report police officers demanding bribes at roadblocks.

The Zimbabwe media has carried reports of police demanding money from pregnant women and sick people trying to go to the hospital. In South Africa, police officers at roadblocks have not only sought bribes but also stolen money from vehicles.

ALACs in the Republic of Congo have heard several disturbing accounts of police abuse. One was from a bread deliveryman, who had his bike, phone, and money taken by the police despite counting as an essential worker. Another concerned a man who was arrested for not wearing a mask in his own home while playing chess with a friend. The man died from a heart attack at the police station, where he was forced to perform manual labour after he could not afford to pay a fine.

An 8 p.m. curfew in the Republic of Congo has been increasingly difficult for workers in the informal economy. Police officers have abused and sought bribes from people out after curfew.

The situation is particularly urgent in Venezuela, where police are detaining people who are returning to the country and forcing them into crowded centers and spaces.

The Venezuelan ALACs have also received complaints about soldiers selling fuel at a profit; police officers seeking bribes from and sometimes threatening health-care workers; and government officials selling fake letters of safe passage.

Kenya: A case study in police corruption

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Kenyan government set up mandatory quarantine centers for all incoming travelers.

People were supposed to be released after testing negative on their fourteenth day of quarantine, but a bottleneck in testing meant many people had to stay longer as they waited for their results.

Soon the four ALACs in Kenya began hearing from people whom the police had detained in quarantine centers for minor infractions, like violating curfew or not wearing a mask.

Not only did the police force these people to spend at least 14 days in quarantine, but they also made them pay US$20 per day. People who could not afford to pay were not allowed to leave the facilities.

Instead of isolating potentially sick people from the general population, quarantine centers were putting healthy people at risk.

The Kenyan ALACs realized that the number of cases was too great to take each on individually. Working with partner organizations, the ALACs pressured the Kenyan government to clarify its quarantine policies.

As a result of such efforts, the government eliminated fees in quarantine centers, a move it hopes will encourage more people to get tested.

Ending corruption to save lives

Restrictions meant to control the virus have also created opportunities for police officers and soldiers to abuse their powers.

Their corruption is undermining the very public safety measures they are supposed to enforce.

Countries cannot effectively combat the COVID-19 pandemic as long as police and military forces use the lockdown as a pretext to shake down vulnerable people.

We call on governments to end police corruption by taking the following steps:

  • Issue clear and transparent guidelines to police on how to manage the COVID-19 response, including in quarantine centres.
  • Support safe and accessible reporting mechanisms for citizens who report police corruption in response to COVID-19 and protect whistleblowers who step forward to report police wrongdoing.
  • Call for investigations into all cases of corruption reported to authorities, with resulting sanctions as appropriate. Discipline police officers and soldiers who are caught soliciting bribes.

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