Learning to avoid the police

Learning to avoid police
It has become an art form to avoid and evade the police here in the Congo. During certain times of the year they seem to be everywhere, and will stop your vehicle for any reason, or no reason at all, in an attempt to harass and intimidate you into giving them money.
Occasionally it is legitimate. For example, recently the AP s (Assistants to the Pres.) were arrested and their vehicle impounded because they did not have a parking sticker on their car. In Lubumbashi they have a new law that in order to park ANYWHERE in the city, you must pay for and have on your windshield a parking sticker. If you don’t, they take you and your vehicle to jail. We had the stickers in the office, but had forgotten to put one of them on the car the AP s drive! They spent all day at the police station, and we had to go down and pay a heavy fine and prove to them we had the sticker, at which point both the AP s and the vehicle was released.
The Atkinson’s in Likasi have had their share of problems also. In fact, at one point it was so bad Elder Atkinson simple stopped driving and walked to the construction site he worked at just to avoid the hassle of hitting a police road block!
Most of the time there is no reason to stop you, except for the chance to try to get money from you. I have been stopped just under 10 times as I have traveled around the Congo (we travel around a lot, so run into police a lot); and over time have developed techniques to try to avoid the police, or if I can’t avoid them, to evade them.
1. First you just have to be aware of your surroundings. Most of the time they sit at intersections waiting for people to stop (they don’t have vehicles, and can’t chase you, so they have to be in a position to step in front of your car to prevent you from leaving—in fact, most of the time they have three people stationed at any one check-point, one to step in front of the car, one to step in back of the car, and one to talk to the driver). They are often at the same intersections, so you learn to avoid those places they frequent. Or, if you watch/look far enough ahead of you, and see them, sometimes you can turn before you get there and take an alternate route.
2. Use blockers. This is my favorite and most useful tool to get around the police. They very seldom want to stop ALL traffic, just you. And it is usually when they see you coming from a distance and have time to get into the street to block your way and surround your car that you get stuck. So, by always following another vehicle (especially a truck) you will always get past them:
– If they stop the car in front of you, you can just pull around the car and keep going.
– If they don’t stop the car in front of you, you can keep tight on his bumper and get past them.
3. Evade them when possible. This simply means that once they have a bead on you, and you know they intend to stop you, you find a way around them. Sometimes you just turn around and go the other way. Sometimes you can pull into a store or driveway, And then at other times you can simply drive around them (the last/most difficult scenario). As they begin to step in front of your car you have to speed up and steer around them. If there are cars coming the other way, you are stuck. But if the lane is open, you often have time to drive around them before they surround your car.
4. Out position them. The police seldom take the time or risk of stopping ALL traffic (as they know that there is no legitimate reason for them to make the stoppage), as the people will get angry at them (I have seen taxis full of people get out and begin to harass a policeman who was blocking all the traffic on a road. In fear of his own safety, he relented and let the cars go through). This being the case, if you have to pass a roadblock, you always stay towards the middle of the road, and once stopped, you never pull over to the side (they want you to pull over so they have more control over you and so you don’t block traffic). By staying in the middle, it forces them to decide whether they want to risk blocking all traffic for just one car. Most of the time this makes the stop and harassment a short one as the cars behind you begin honking their horns.
5. Be more stubborn than they are. Elder Wright is great at this. Once stopped, they will spend all kinds of time trying to find something about your vehicle that is wrong, so they can ‘fine’ you, or extort money from you. In many cases they simply are determined to hassle you until you give them something. Elder Wright’s limit is $10. If he is in a hurry, or just tire of the abuse, he offers them $10. Though they are asking for hundreds, they will finally take it and move on to their next victim. But most of the time he just out-stubborn them. His favorite trick, after the initial money request/denial/request/denial, etc., is to let them know he is not going to give them anything, and moves his seat to the recliner position like he is going to take a nap. They finally get the hint, and out of frustration (and usually some unknown, unkind words) let him go on his way!
6. Do NOT give them any documents. Their first request is to see your driving permit and/or insurance papers, or other documents. Once they have them in their possession they will not give them back without payment (I fell for this once and it cost me about $40). So we just take the documents at put them to the window so they can see them. They will throw fits about not being given the documents, but that is part of the challenge (we had one policeman take hold of the hand-hold inside the car after I rolled the window down a little to talk with him…he eventually got tired and let go).
It is a challenge, and just one of the difficulties of living in the Congo. It would be easy to say they target Americans and Europeans (they know we have money), but they in fact hassle everyone. No one escapes their intimidation. We simply learn how to avoid or evade them as best we can…but even at our most watchful, you can and will get caught (for example, you set-up a car or truck for a blocker and just before the road block the vehicle turns, leaving you the first in line, and ready to get caught!).

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