Police to do "mental test" but I'm worried. Here's why.
So the other day I came across this headline in the national dailies announcing a new “initiative” from our dearly beloved police: AIG orders mental tests on Lagos policemen. (I actually was late to the party as it had been announced since mid-August and I only happened on it by the end of the month.) But you know when you see something that leaves you uncertain whether to laugh or to cry? That's how I felt about this bit of news. If it wasn't so real, it would have been hilarious. I took to Twitter and ranted about it.
Well, I'm writing about it.
Let's back up: what exactly are the police saying?
Because I'm sure some people will say, “Ah-ahn, Doc Ayomide, you've come again! You mental health advocates cannot be satisfied. Aren't they at least trying to do something?”
Let me break down what's wrong here. (Hint: those last two words are themselves part of the problem.)
So we're on the same page, here's the opening of the article I linked to earlier:
The Assistant Inspector-General of Police in charge of Zone 2 Command, Onikan, Lagos, AIG Abdulmajid Ali, has ordered that mental test be carried out on policemen in the command.
The AIG, who also ordered drunkenness test on all personnel of the command, said the move was necessary in order to “avoid any accidental discharge or extrajudicial killing.”
There are three elements here of mental health interest, and there's a problem with each of them.
- One, something called “mental health test”
- Two, another something called, “drunkenness test.”
- Three, the purpose is to “avoid any accidental discharge or extrajudicial killing.”
And taken together, the three reveal a bigger problem that shows why there's still a lot of work to do in mental health advocacy in this country.
What's wrong with this police initiative?
Let's unpack the issues together, one by one.
#1. “Mental health test.” Look, there simply is no such thing as “mental health test.” And if we get over the Africa-is-a-country syndrome that makes us see mental illnesses as one thing, instead of many, it's easy to see why “mental health test” can't be a thing. There are over 200 forms of mental illness — which one exactly would they be testing for? There are tests for specific mental disorders — I have tests on this very website for depression and anxiety, for instance — but I very strongly doubt that was the plan here. (And if it was indeed the plan, then that's even worse. I'll explain in a bit.)
#2. “Drunkenness test.” Let me start with what drunkenness is, just so we're clear. Drunkenness (medical name: acute intoxication) is basically more alcohol inside you than your system (specifically, your liver) can handle at once. Keywords there being "at once." Think about that for a minute. Someone can have an alcohol problem and not be getting regularly drunk: they're just drinking more than is good for them. So, are we talking here about drunkenness or alcohol problems? Cause if it's about drunkenness, that's an as-it-happens thing: the person is drunk only when they are drunk. If they're sober when you do the test today, what about tomorrow? And the day after? And the day after that? Exactly.
#3. “Avoid any accidental discharge or extrajudicial killing.” The stated purpose of these tests is, in simple English, to prevent stray bullets and killings by police. It's a great purpose to aim for, the problem is with the plans for achieving it. I mean, let's face it, the only way these tests can have any value would be to do them regularly — in the case of the “drunkenness” one, every single day, in fact. (It's not like they are checking their height or something else that won't change — mental health issues can change from one month to another, and a sober state can change within a few hours. So in the end, this “mental test” and “drunkenness test” exercise might be expected to have about as much of an effect on accidental discharges and extrajudicial killings as a single grain of salt in a pot of tasteless stew. Not exactly zero, but not exactly worth measuring, either. Except of course, you just want to as we like to say, “do something — let it not be like you didn't do anything.” (Or, as in the sweeter-sounding pidgin version, “At-all at-all, na im bad pass!”)
(I won't even lie, that last bit really bothers me: the Nigerian “do-something” mindset. Just do something. I mean, there's a sense in which it's right — the done-is-better-than-perfect sense that's at the heart of our entrepreneurial spirit. But it's one thing to apply to issues that are visionary in nature, for which there's no definitely known end point; it's entirely another to apply it to practical issues with known workable solutions. But I digress.)
There's an even bigger issue, though…
And that is the bigger issue of how this stems from — and further reinforces — the mistaken idea that mental health problems are the cause of violence. I hinted at it again earlier, when I pointed out that this won't be very effective in practical terms. The reason is simple: the misguided assumption underlying this whole exercise is that the only reason a policeman might fire off a stray or attack and kill a citizen is if he or she is drunk or mentally ill.
Let's just say I'm not sure of agreement from survivors of the hundreds of victims of police-related deaths, every year. Not that drunkenness does not happen — of course it does, and maybe even often. But like I've said over and over and over again, people with mental illness don't have a monopoly on violence and are even more likely to experience it than to perpetrate it!
[bctt tweet="People with mental illness have no monopoly on violence—they're even more likely to experience it themselves!" username="DocAyomide"]
It's just a mess that we keep linking them together. And our continuing to do so is bad not only for people with actual mental disorders (especially for their ability to get help), but also for the issues on ground — when we feel like something's been done when nothing really has, we're far less likely to do anything more.
As for drunkenness, even if that was frequent, might it not be a symptom of a deeper problem? The more systemic problem of standards of professional behaviour within our police force?
Consider this passage from a report by Nigeria Watch (link to PDF), a research group supported by the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme.
The Nigerian security forces are responsible for many killings on a daily basis, not to mention torture and extra-judicial executions. They are trigger-happy and unable to maintain law and order professionally and peacefully. On the contrary, the more they intervene, the bloodier the fighting. In a majority of violent cases where they got involved, they were responsible for causing death. The police, for instance, killed in 1,561 of 2,707 lethal incidents where it intervened in 2006–2014, an annual average of 58% lethal interventions that peaked at 80% in 2013–2014. The proportion is quite similar (57%) if we take into account all government security forces for the period 2006–2014, including the army, the secret services, customs, immigration, and civil defence. The pattern is too systematic to permit us think that this so-called “collateral damage” consisted of unfortunate mistakes. It has much more to do with a general culture of violence and impunity within the security forces.
Let's just face the truth: reducing the rate of extrajudicial killings and accidental discharges will require more than a “test” to catch “problem people.” It's a systemic problem and needs to be addressed systemically (read my article on that here). And, given the difficulty of finding any data on this, one place to start would simply be more accurate records of their frequency and the real contributing factors.
Maybe also placing the burden of proof on officers to justify why they didn't hold back — or would that be too harsh a resort? After all, to be fair, being a police offer is risky work — the Nigeria Police Force records almost a thousand officers killed (PDF) within the six-year period of 2000-2006. But being a Nigerian citizen is risky business too. (Shall we say, as we used to in primary school, “ojoro cancel”?)
If “initiatives” like this are allowed to continue unchecked, however, being mentally ill might become the riskiest thing of all. And that's not something anyone of us needs.
Our police — and all of us — can do better.
Till my next post, it's been me.
[bctt tweet="Being a police offer is risky. But simply being Nigerian can be risky business too…" username="DocAyomide"]