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Let’s talk policing

As I pen this piece, I am sure that it is your experience, dear reader, as is that of many other Kenyans, that when you see a police officer, your heart skips one beat, not because you’re in love, but because of a learned fear that comes from an encounter with the men and women in blue. Why is this the case? With the recent cases of police brutality that have gained prominence in the media and particularly on social media, many a reflective mind have asked pondered this pertinent question: Why does the average Kenyan, harbor a conditioned fear of the police, yet these are the same people meant to serve and to protect us?


The answer may lie, among other factors, in our policing techniques. By definition, policing is the maintenance of law and order by a police unit. Another definition of policing is the enforcement of regulations or an agreement. You need someone to carry out these crucial functions in a civilized society. Yes, you can hire security guards to maintain law and order in your palatial home in a leafy Nairobi suburb as you sleep soundly. However, at the end of the day, you need a well-trained and funded unit, with clear command structures, to carry out these functions at a national level while protecting you against advanced and evolving security threats. This unit, ladies and gentlemen, is the police. The police is a unit of state security agents largely mandated to keep law and order by keeping you safe from elements of anarchy and radical ideology, while also enforcing Government regulations like the ones created to curb the spread of Covid-19.


However, as we may have come to realize, these police units, while at work to carry out these functions, have often clashed with the very same people they are meant to serve and protect. Indeed, there are numerous documented cases of police brutality, not only in Kenya, but also globally.


The concept of police violence has particularly gained prominence after the pandemic struck. In fact, it is whispered that the average Kenyan youth fears the police more than the Coronavirus disease. This fear is not unfounded. A report by the Human Rights Watch reveals that in March 2020, at least six people died from police violence within the first ten days of enforcement of the curfew intended to curb the spread of Covid-19. Within the same period, no Kenyan had yet succumbed to the disease of which they were enforcing measures to curb the spread.


So where did the rain start beating us?


The original sin?


I opine that it happened from the very beginning. Our police draw their element of fear from the colonial administration. When the British colonized us, it was important that they first crush any idea of revolt. One of the most potent tools of keeping a populace in check is through violence, or the threat thereof. With this forbidden knowledge in mind, what did the British do? In 1907, the Kenya Police Force was established within the jurisdiction of the East African Protectorate. The force was mainly made up of British and Indian recruits as senior officers and Africans amongst lower ranks. The structure, composition and objectives of this force was to protect and enforce the interests of the colonial government. Later, successive governments, upon independence, ‘Africanised’ the force, but never undertook comprehensive reforms. As such the senior posts that were mainly a reserve of the British and the Indians were systematically given only to those Kenyans who proved loyal to the objectives of the administration of the day.


Corruption in recruitment


Police recruitment exercises have often been fingered for allegations of corruption, nepotism and tribalism, which often lock out deserving and arguably more qualified individuals for such an important function in society.


Police Welfare & Training


From housing needs, to social support systems for the police, there exists a persistent gap in these crucial aspects key to retaining a person’s humanity. Granted, police officers are human too, and may face the same, if not more, stress causing events in life that may go unnoticed or mitigated. Furthermore, it has been argued that police training exercises and eventual deployment into hardship areas leave officers with emotional and mental scars that often manifest in acts of brutality, alcoholism, depression and even self-harm. According to a Kenyatta University Research Study in 2012 on factors contributing to stress, suicide and murder among police officers in Kenya, the work of a police officer was cited as often exhausting, dangerous, and even traumatic. The study further revealed that Police are generally at the receiving end of all community problems. They are expected to maintain law and order in very difficult situations besides putting their lives at risk as soon as they leave home every day. Furthermore, the police are often called to work in hardship areas far removed from society and from any social support.


Police – civilian relations


While there are numerous positive and inspiring stories of police-civilian relations and interactions, there is a general and persistent negative perception of the police by the public that often gets worse during crises like enforcement of Covid-19 regulations and also enforcement of order during election contests and disputes. Police-civilian relation stories often depict horrific scenarios, ranging from of arbitrary arrests, harassment, profiling that especially targets young people, to extreme cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. It appears that the vulnerable public is often the unwitting object of misplaced police aggression and frustration.


Overall, the police force has often suffered a dented and persisting negative perception among Kenyans, despite several and well-intended efforts to institute comprehensive and sustainable reforms across the force.


Police reforms: From a police force to a police service.


According to the National Police Service Book titled ‘From Force to Service’, the demand for police reforms became inevitable following realities of an expanded Bill of Rights enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya 2010, coupled up with rapidly evolving threats to national security like terrorism and also technological advancements in the world. Far reaching and progressive reforms were subsequently instituted. These included:


Police housing reforms

Psychosocial support for police officers aptly named – ”Muamko Mpya – Healing the Uniform”

Streamlining of police command structure to eliminate unnecessary duplication in the application of resources for effective and efficient service delivery.

The establishment of an internal oversight mechanism domiciled under the Internal Affairs Unit, and an independent external oversight mechanism, domiciled under the IPOA.

The enactment of the National Police Service Act under the Constitution of Kenya to provide a legislative framework for the implementation of these reforms, and also a Directorate of Police reforms headed by a director who reports directly to the Inspector General of Police

The signing of a National Accord to provide further recommendations to sustain and deepen police reforms while harmonizing all stakeholders including – the National Police Service Commission, the IPOA, the National Crime Research Centre, the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government, the Salaries Review Commission, civil society actors and social justice groups.

Police reforms, like the pursuit of happiness, seems to be something that we can progressively work towards, but never really grasp. However, I am optimistic that we can one day reach that nirvana moment, where police and civilian shall peacefully co-exist, with a much improved perception of the police, that these uniformed men and women are not the enemy, but our protectors, and also our brothers and sisters.

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