Enforcing “Ghost” Law: The Police Director “Noise” War


Residents of Monrovia will soon be confronted with a new aspect of policing: “Noise Enforcement,” the brainchild of the newly appointed Inspector General of Police (IGP) Gregory Coleman. If the expressed zeal of its inventor is anything to trust, this time around, the new regulation is probably going to take a great toll of energy from the already limited force of the Liberia National Police (LNP) whose presence beyond Monrovia is in staggering dearth. I assume this is already one of the dominant discourses of the town, perhaps fleeting too, like any emerging discussions in Liberia.

Here in Tennessee, I came across news of the rather weird and ambitious genre of policing via Facebook on the “Darius Dillon Center for Intellectual Exchange,” where a rapid and hot discussion was being formed Tuesday morning out of mixed comments that popped over a posted FrontPage Africa story in which the Inspector General reportedly unveiled new plans to crackdown on crimes that have engrossed Monrovia.

A key feature of the novel, ruthless waves of Police actions will be to go after noise makers in the city, including churches and mosques where instruments of worship have become “cacophonous.” The IGP supposedly prohibited the use of public address systems in churches and mosques, since the worshipers were already “attentive” and didn’t need sound amplification.

He also vowed to ensure music played at night clubs and other entertainment centers are low. And, the few good “citizen journalists,” who had initiated the Facebook discussion, injected additional value to the IG’s impending campaign by enumerating the health consequences of noise, although from a seemingly narrow desire to please selves, as they already had a list of churches in their communities that are the first culprits of this “noise crime.” 

The Police boss was right about the disturbing nature of noise, and his Facebook aides, too, exhibited great research skills on noise. Tons of research suggest that exposure to noise can be a risk factor for a wide range of health issues.  What is at fault here, however, is the IG’s approach to executing the solution, which, ostensibly, was based on “personal feelings,” and is susceptible to many questions.

His actions largely indicate a drought of two related concepts—planning and the development and adoption of systems—whose perpetual neglect, has come to define the astounding degree of poverty and underdevelopment our country is confronted with today. One can generate an expansive discussion in volumes on lack of planning and system in Africa in general, and Liberia in particular, but for the space permitted in this publication, we can pinpoint the flaws with the IG’s “noise war.” 

Noise is a universal problem that attends urbanization. It is not unique to Liberia. As cities grow, especially commercial cities like ours, they tend to experience increased rate of noise, obviously due to the conglomeration of, and rise in the level of industrial activities. As with any other social and environmental problems, the most effective way to tackle the problem of noise and pollution, as most responsible governments have done, is to first promote an understanding of the complexities of the issues and then develop integrated approach that can be executed delicately.

A key step in this process is to craft policies or enact laws that provide the basis for further actions. This is lacking in the IG’s hastily announced campaign. Not surprising, the Inspector General was found during the announcement, engaging in exactly what many Liberians are good at—employing the verbiage of clichés and slogans without giving any thoughts to their meanings. He said: “This is not a country of men but laws and the laws have to be enforced…”

But this is quite interesting. Arguably, there are no laws on the book about noise that the IG has vowed to enforce. I am aware that we are a country with proliferated laws that are often unenforced, many even hardly heard of, so I managed to launch a small degree of research on this one. While I am not a lawyer, I am inclined to reason that if there were any such laws, they would had been developed through relevant regulatory bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the respective city councils.

Our most recent environmental law, the Environmental Protection and Management Law of Liberia, adopted in November 2002, has as its focus on pollution, carbon emission and waste disposal, with no reference to “noise” in any sense as is underscored by the IG’s new campaign.

Understandably, the relatively narrow focus of the environmental law was driven by the desire to regulate the activities of corporate entities and concession companies, whose presence has become unprecedented in the scramble for the exploitation of Liberia’s mineral and oil resources that has characterized the post-war economic recovery process.

Where is the “noise law” then, that the Police Director wants to enforce? Every piece of law has characteristics that make enforcement feasible, among which are the spirit of the law and its sanctions. Expressed more plainly, every given law should have intent or purpose as well as clearly identifiable mechanism of enforcement that is applied to accomplish the intent of the law, such as fines, subsidies, and imprisonment.

Clarity and precision, therefore, are very invaluable attributes of laws. Again, how does the “noise law” the IG wants to enforce define noise? What forms or levels of noise are regarded as violation? What does it mean to be exposed to noise as designated by the law? What are the possible sanctions and which degree of violation merits which punishments? The questions are unexhaustive, but they demand answers. Enforcement cannot happen in vacuum; it is done within legal or policy frameworks.

A good example of such clear policy actions on noise exist in the United States, our most-referenced country for standards. The United States, through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), adopted the “Noise Control Act of 1972” as the first federal law to combat noise. That law establishes the recommended noise exposure limit of 55 decibels in a 24-hour period, with nighttime noise weighted more heavily because it can interfere with sleep.

The US Noise Control Act also differentiated the noise exposure levels. For instance, a quiet suburb has a decibel level of about 50; freeway traffic is closer to 70 and chain saw is set at 120 decibels. In light of these recommendations, the Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) administer regulations for safety in the working environment, setting standards for permissible noise exposure. Britain and other European countries have even stepped beyond and have developed mechanism to map out noise and understand who is exposed to noise and as well have requirements to address this.

In the absence of any clearly established legal or policy framework like the one referenced above, what we are about to experience with the Inspector General’s announcement is a form of “jungle justice.” We should expect a complete lawless situation, where, as in many instances in the past, the Police will be the law makers and law enforcers, a glaring contradiction of our governance system, which emphasizes separation of roles among the three branches of government. It is even unimaginable what the enforcement framework will be.

Courts rule on laws and with none existing on this issue, any Police indictment would be a good candidate for summary dismissal. But I am just reminded that all this I am saying is a poor wish. Sadly, With the history of brutalities and abuse of power typical of policing in Liberia, one cannot overlook the seriousness of this matter.

This might well be a unilaterally Police maneuvered process which might involve discriminatory subjugation of the business community and targeted religious groups to undue exploitation and harassment. We have witnessed this on many occasions. The “Penpen” restriction crusade, for instance, born out a presidential order, in a supposedly worthy cause of securing public safety, has seen widespread abuse overtime, and being rendered to almost a reliable source of income for corrupt Police officers.

Rampant and often unwarranted impoundment of commercial motorcycles has gone unaddressed protractedly by the Police, and most of these cases hardly got to the court house. Wheelbarrow boys in Waterside and other markets around town have also long been victims of these purported crackdowns on “crimes and violators,” with their wares often confiscated and not accounted for. These situations are recipes for chaos and should not continue to be tolerated.

The response to the illustration I made earlier regarding policy frameworks on noise management in the US and Britain, is obvious. I anticipate, as it is common in Liberia, to be countered: “Why is this man comparing poor Liberia with such advanced countries?” We have always used this as an excuse for our failures. But the question is rather why should we embark upon any project that we lack the capacity to implement?

Or why do we do things inappropriately simply because that is the farthest we can afford to do them? I wonder if the Inspector General has even had the slightest thought on what noise pollution and management entail? Noise issues are not a breakfast project; they are complicated social and environmental problems that require carefully selected multifaceted approach. Even the Unites States, with all its sophistication, has found it difficult to control noise pollution, with reports that the EPA-recommended noise exposure levels mentioned above have not been assessed since 1981.

Another laughable, if not suspicious, aspect of the Inspector’s General’s hurried plan is his list of suspects. He is targeting churches, mosques, entertainment centers, and vehicles using sirens without authorizations in Monrovia. I figure this suggests a lack of knowledge. The sources of noise are far more numerous than his Mickey Mouse list.   Noise can come from anything:  motorcycles, leaf blowers, car alarms, traffic, barking dogs, planes, welding machines, generators, television sets, etc. T

he concern over noise is not only about the pitch but also the length of exposure. For instance, while 140 decibels of noise can cause instant damage to the ears, research has also shown that prolonged exposure to noise above 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss. We have a city that is homed to junk vehicles—including even most of those used by the Police—that ply the streets with piercing noise day in and out.

Traffic in Monrovia is often congested due to lack of roads, leading to noise concentration. Our streets are open workshops with relentless hammering and welding going on everywhere. Government’s failure to provide stable, central electricity has resulted in the proliferation of private generators that “dududududu” in every corner in Monrovia.  It is wary that the Police Director has ignored all these in his plan and is determined to go after churches and entertainment centers.  

And what is this noise about churches and mosques making noise during worship? If we are truly religious as we have always claimed, didn’t the Bible instruct that loud noise be made in the house of God? Is it not the tradition of Islam for Muslims to be assembled for worship with a loud cry usually from a tower called a minaret?

When are these becoming noise to this supposedly religious society? I think the Inspector General is trying to justify his appointment, but we can no longer afford the misapplication of meager resources contributed by Liberian tax payers and those of other countries coming to our aid.

It would be a waste to invest resources in chasing noise at this time in the absence of the right policy environment and other relevant arrangements. Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” I had thought that that by this time the Inspector General had learned the lessons of hasty undertakings, given that almost all of the traffic regulations he vowed to speedily enforce upon his appointment are still largely unachieved.

If he is so desperate to leave a legacy, I have a list of priority projects that are achievable in the short term. The Police need additional training to ensure they respect human rights and have cordial relations with the communities. Corrupt elements in the Police force need to be weed out so that the LNP can gain a better image.

And finally, more recruitment and training is required to strengthen the Police force and allow deployment to many vulnerable regions of the country that are virtually left without Police presence. I will end this discussion with a popular Liberian parable for the Inspector General: “Hurry hurry burst trousers.”       

Samson Wonnah, Contributing Writer