In Rural Liberia, Where Police Lack Cars Or Equipment, Criminals Rule

(Last Updated On: May 11, 2023)

PHOTO: An old Police pickup

By King Brown with New Narratives

JOEZOHN COMMUNITY, Grand Bassa County– Matta Roberts could not stop crying as she recounted a recent attack that left her bruised and bloody. The 37-year-old mother of two says a man she had never met but who gave his name as Emmanuel, punched her and slashed her in the forehead with a knife on a recent afternoon after a heated argument.

Roberts says the man had flogged her 13-year-old son for alleged “rudeness”. When she protested, he attacked her too punching her several times and slashing her face leaving blood pouring. But when Roberts ran to the nearby police depot in Buchanan for help she was shocked. Police told her she needed to rent two motorbikes at $LD400 each to transport them to the crime scene.

“I cannot depend on the police or our justice system anymore,” said Roberts through tears. “I was bleeding and ran to the police but since I was not able to transport them, they abandoned my case. They did not arrest the man who hurt me like this. Only God will take revenge for me.”

Residents of Grand Bassa County say they are living in fear as a state of lawlessness takes over the county. Police – with no vehicles, fuel or other resources – say they are powerless to enforce the law. As a result, serious crimes are going on with no effort to arrest perpetrators.

According to Col. Johnson Williams Wuo, Grand Bassa Police Commander, crime is rising. He said theft, murder, rape, criminal mischief, reckless driving and kidnapping are some of the crimes they handle on a daily basis. Among them theft has gone up to 60 percent while the other reported crimes are up between 20-25 percent since two years ago. Criminals offend with little fear of consequences.

The lack of resources in Grand Bassa is playing out across the country. $US23 million was allotted to the Liberia National Police in the 2023 national budget. Of that $US15 million covers salaries leaving only $US8 million to pay all operating costs and vehicles for all LNP offices across the country. That is not nearly enough according to Williams.

“Some police are buying their own uniforms just to be decent,” said Williams. “In order to maintain the peace, there should be a trusted security system that is built that has the capacity, logistics and manpower to respond to the needs of people.”

Several recent cases have brought the crisis to boiling point here in Grand Bassa. In November a 26-year-old man allegedly raped a 14-year-old girl in District Four.

Samuel Wilson, a member of “Early Warning and Response”, a local civil society group trying to buttress police efforts, went to the scene and detained the suspect. He called police and waited three hours before the man fought his way free and vanished.

“Our lives are at risk,” said Williams. “We do not know as to whether we get police officers in this country or not because criminals do whatever they want with no fear of arrest. There are instances where armed robbers have attacked people and the police have not been able to respond.”

Anger erupted in January this year when a crowd burned down the only police depot in St. John City, District Two on the outskirts of Buchanan, serving 60,000 residents. The people were angry when the body of Justine Davis, 25, washed up on the banks of the St. John River after he jumped into the water to flee officers of the Drugs Enforcement Agency who had accused of Davis of possessing narcotic drugs.

During the riot, the few police officers on the scene escaped for fear of being harmed by the mob, leaving the police depot unguarded. A lack of vehicles also meant officers of the Police Support Unit (PSU) of the Liberia National Police based in Buchanan could not get to the scene. Neither could the Bassa Police detachment – based 47 minutes’ drive away in Buchanan district.

In the end it was left to ArcelorMittal, the iron-ore mining international company, to provide a bus to transport the PSU officers to the scene and bring things under control.

Gunnigar Town Community in Buchanan has seen an increase in crime according to Thomas Dickson, Zone leader. He said they see four to five major crimes every month. In the latest incident a 28-year-old man allegedly stabbed his girlfriend to death. The police did not respond to calls and the suspect escaped.

With little hope of a police response community members are taking justice into their own hands. A mob of 50 angry community members beat a 27-year-old man accused of theft in February to death with sticks, rocks and iron poles. Dickson tried to call the police to intervene but received no response.

“When we call the police, they will tell us to wait until they come,” he said. “Police should respond to complaints at any time. In some cases the police turn out and in some cases they do not turn out at all.”

The St. John River and Wee Statutory District incidents are two of a dozen riots that have taken place in recent years across Grand Bassa County. Mr. Williams said all of these incidents happened because the police officers do not have vehicles, fuel or personnel they need to respond to crimes and gather evidence. He said this encourages bad actors to commit crime with impunity.

“Police are the first responder of the criminal justice system,” Williams said. “They are under obligation to arrest and keep evidence that is to be presented in court, and to also protect the crime scene. The issue of logistics and manpower is a serious constraint for the police.”

Commander Wuo confirmed that out of ten depots, there are no functioning vehicles for the seven police depots with five duty stations outside Buchanan.

According to Wuo the government gave the county one Toyota pickup in 2009 and it finally broke down in 2017. For five years after that the Grand Bassa Police detachment operated without any official vehicle at all until ArcelorMittal donated a new Toyota pickup in February this year.

But the new vehicle is mostly used in the capital leaving rural depots with nothing. Col. Wuo said police officers in rural areas have complained that they are unable to respond to multiple crimes at the same time because they have no vehicles. He said almost all stations lack essential equipment such as uniforms, internet, computers, speed and alcohol detectors.

“Some officers use their personal motorbike to go and arrest,” he said. “There are no batons, tear gas and other essential materials for them. We hope to receive supply from the government. Police stations outside of Buchanan City do not have anything to enhance their work.”

Police are also short on personnel according to Col. Wuo. He said the county has just 83 officers for the population of nearly 300,000 people. He’s appealing to the national government to send an additional 500 of 1500 police officers currently being trained at the Policy Academy in Monrovia to Grand Bassa ahead of October’s elections when he worries violence will increase further. 

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the “Investigating Liberia” project. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Liberia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.