Saturday, 11 April 2015

Who is the real criminal?

Security guards are still operating illegally.

Last month we reported on a complaint that we received about the conduct of a security guard at a branch of Jet Stores in Gaborone.

She told us that she had visited the store but didn’t actually buy anything. As she left the store a security guard approached her demanding that she return to the store. The guard said that she believed the customer had stolen something and rather than undergo further embarrassment she did as she was told and went back to the store.

Once back inside the guard, another woman, insisted on taking her prisoner to a changing room and then insisted that she lift up her dress to prove that she hadn’t concealed anything under her clothing. The poor customer was then forced through the indignity of stripping to her underwear in front of this guard, finally proving that hadn’t stolen anything.

After this ordeal was over and the guard had accepted that there was no cause to detain her the victim decided to stand up for herself. She demanded to see the manager and complained about the way she had been treated. That’s when this already unpleasant situation became bizarre. The guard’s excuse to the manager for her behavior was to point to the victim and say “this is the one that stole shoes on Wednesday”. That’s when the victim got even angrier, having now twice been insulted and accused of being a criminal. Quite rightly she went straight to the nearest police station.

The police demanded to know the evidence for the guard’s claim that the victim was a previous criminal but under pressure the guard relented and apparently confessed that it wasn’t actually true, she’d made that bit up.

So we have a guard who accosts innocent people, strip searches them and then makes up lies to defame them and defend her actions. We know who the real criminal is here, don’t we?

The bad news is that this isn’t an isolated incident. I know this for two reasons. Firstly we’ve heard from a number of individuals who’ve had similar experiences and secondly we recently did a survey of the public to find out what had happened to them. We asked several hundred people to complete a simple questionnaire about their experiences with security guards.

82% of the people we questioned said that they had, on at least one occasion, been stopped by a security guard as they left a store and of them almost 90% had been asked to show their belongings to the guard to be searched. 83% of people had indeed allowed the guard to do so.

So how did people feel about this experience? Were they angry about being treated like a potential thief?

62% of the people who’d had their belongings searched said they were “offended or upset” by the experience and I can imagine why.

Then we went further. How many people had been searched themselves? Not just their packages, but their bodies?

Not surprisingly the figure was much lower than those who had their belongings searched. Only one in six people had been stopped by a security guard who then wanted to search their person. Unhappily 70% of these people had felt obliged to permit the search and nine out of ten of these people said they had been offended or upset by the experience.

It gets worse. In over half of these situations it was a male security guard searching a woman.

The law in Botswana regarding security guards is simple and this was confirmed in a case before the courts in 2013.

In May 2011 a woman visited Pick N Pay at Riverwalk with her children and their friends. As they left the store a security guard from Scorpion Security stopped her and demanded to search her handbag. Rather than asking nicely he just grabbed the bag from her in a manner she described as “violent and physical”, searched through it and, finding nothing, handed it back to her. She claims that she felt “belittled and humiliated” by his treatment of her in front of her children and their friends but being a strong character she decided not to take this lying down. She took Scorpion Security to court.

And she won.

When the case was heard in the High Court in Francistown in August 2013 the Managing Director of Scorpion Security gave evidence. He explained to the court the powers he believed his guards possessed. He told the judge “that security guards could search. That they had the authority to do similar to that of Police Officers.” In his ruling, the judge said that the MD “did not know circumstances when a legal search could be made.”

The judge went on to say that:
“the Defendants searched the Plantiff without her consent and it was unlawful. […] I accordingly grant judgment in her favour.”
It gets better. He continued:
“On the issue of damages, considering the humiliation embarrassment and impairment of her dignity as an honest member of society I have considered that P60,000 would be sufficient solatium for her dented image in society.”
So let’s make it clear, yet again. Security guards are just civilians in uniform. They do a difficult job that helps to protect us but that doesn’t mean they have special powers. All a security guard can do is detain you until the police arrive. Only a police officer can search you against your will.

There’s one final finding from our research that worries me. 72% of the people we questioned knew that security guards don’t have the legal right to search customers. However given this knowledge 68% of people have nevertheless allowed guards to search their bags and 11% have allowed them to search their bodies. Given that almost everybody felt offended by being searched there’s only one conclusion we can reach.

People allow guards to search them because they feel bullied into doing so.

Are we really going to accept this?

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