When criminals pose as good guys, we are all our own police

Many people are intimidated by authority figures, and some wouldn't be able to recognise criminals posing as officials with bogus identity documents.

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'We are here to serve and protect." A similar motto is espoused by most law-enforcement agencies across the world. There is little doubt that public-safety authorities are a critical line of defence in society.

To feel safe in a new community, the first thing a family should do is check on the local emergency services. Do you have a police station, a fire station or a community centre that could provide help nearby? Everyone in a family should memorise emergency telephone numbers (999 in the UAE), and children need to be taught basic safety skills.

These days, responsible parents lock the doors and windows at night and, in some neighbourhoods, install alarm systems to be safe.

It wasn't so long ago that we did not need to be so careful. But society has changed a lot in the past few years. Reading the news headlines, we are bombarded with stories of theft, assault, molestation and other types of abuse.

The "typical" criminal - someone who has been driven to crime by poverty, or is just plain sick in the head - is not the only threat these days. It used to be that we would rely on our "good guys" to catch the "bad guys". That's the way it's supposed to work, right?

Sadly, criminals have donned a "good guy" disguise. Earlier in the summer, a man was put on trial for allegedly posing as a police officer. According to witness testimony, he would stop women near a hotel in Abu Dhabi and demand that they submit to a search - the women said that he would grope them and sometimes steal their money.

In cases where criminals impersonate police officers, the assaults are compounded by the abuse of the symbols of authority. Trust in law enforcement is essential.

What is even worse are reports of actual officers caught in wrongdoing. This summer, we saw one case in which two police officers were accused of stopping a taxi and raping the woman passenger.

In that case, the woman and the taxi driver were able to memorise the plate number of the civilian car the men were driving. The woman also had a good look at their ID cards. The case is now in court.

That kind of vigilance just highlights the really damaging aspect of this abuse of authority: often it targets those who are most vulnerable. Many people are intimidated by authority figures, and some wouldn't be able to recognise bogus identity documents anyway.

This is particularly true for the most vulnerable groups in society, which include many women and children. As a society, we need to work on teaching vulnerable people to identify abuses that are committed, how to defend themselves and to ensure the abuse is reported.

The UAE is a very close-knit country with a strong track record of catching criminals. People must have the courage to speak up.

There isn't much individuals can do to stop criminals from impersonating police, but we can take precautions. Most phones today are equipped with GPS systems, or you can buy a GPS device that will allow your friends and family to track your location. Every phone has a speed-dial function that can be programmed to dial the real police.

These sort of precautions have applications in every day life. I've been stopped by a man claiming to be a plainclothes police officer who was driving a civilian car. He said he wanted to perform a check because my car fit the description of a stolen vehicle.

But something was odd - his car wasn't equipped with a computer system to check vehicle registration. What, exactly, would he accomplish by stopping me?

I refused to get out of my car, asked for his ID while my car doors were still locked and asked that we proceed to a police station. That was the end of that.

There's only so much others can do to protect you. Personal safety begins with you, and simple precautions will prevent you from becoming the next headline.

Aida Al Busaidy is a columnist and former co-host of a Dubai TV show

On Twitter: @AidaAlB