Is the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) the new toothless bulldog in town?

KENYA: This is the big question posed by human rights advocates after the authority, which provides civilian oversight over police work, laid bare its progress card this week.

Amid revelation that the authority’s operations are facing rigid resistance from the police, IPOA chairman Macharia Njeru painted a picture of a body that is struggling to realise capacity to execute its mandate.

The numbers speak for themselves. Since its inception in June 2012, the authority has received 1,090 complaints. Of these, only 27 cases are currently under investigation.

Human rights advocates dismiss this as a poor score for such a crucial body after over one-and-a-half years in office; especially at a time when cases of general indiscipline, including involvement of police in criminal activities, have hit alarming levels.

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For the cases being probed, the chairman decried a well-calculated tendency by the police to impede investigations by ignoring summons as well as tampering with and substituting evidence.

The authority, whose operations are still centred in Nairobi, will by the end of the month have a total of 22 investigators.

Mr Samson Omondi, a Programmes Officer with the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), says IPOA has had a false start and will have to work overtime to shed the toothless bulldog tag.

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“IPOA was created because police could not investigate themselves. We needed a body that is independent, and with powers to investigate. The authority was given these powers but things remain the same,” says Omondi.

The officer says the fact that the authority has done little to make ordinary Kenyans aware of its existence and mandate exposes its soft underbelly.

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Laid-back approach

“Very few Kenyans know that IPOA exists. This has really limited the number of complaints filed. Senior police officers are equally supposed to report all cases of indiscipline within their jurisdiction to IPOA. But this is yet to materialise and there lacks a mechanism to make it happen,” states the officer.

Baseline survey findings released by IPOA last September showed that 30 per cent of Kenyans had experienced police misconduct over the previous one year.

While 71 per cent of the respondents expressed willingness to report and even be witnesses in such cases, a glaring gap was exposed by the fact that only 30 per cent of those who experienced such incidents reported to relevant authorities.

Fifty three per cent of police officers interviewed also admitted to have experienced incidents of misconduct such as bribery, assault, use of excessive force, falsification of evidence and unwarranted shooting among colleagues, with only a few reporting. With such statistics, Omondi says, it raises questions that IPOA is just investigating 27 cases today.

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“Even when complaints are not made, the authority has powers to, on its own motion, investigate and make recommendations for prosecution, compensation or other disciplinary action. Why are they not exploiting these powers?” he poses.

 “The IPOA Act equally gives the authority powers to access any records or any other information in police hands. Let them not feign powerlessness in ensuring accountability is entrenched in police work.”

He says police are basically capitalising on the authority’s laid-back approach to avoid punishment for malpractices.

“The police are obstructing justice because they are yet to fully feel IPOA’s presence,” he argues.

Jacob Apiang’, the Programmes Officer in charge of policing at Usalama Reforms Forum, says the systemic culture of impunity among the police will end if IPOA flexes its muscles and firmly deals with those obstructing justice.

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Under the IPOA Act, failure to honour summons is an offence that attracts either a fine of up to Sh500,000 or a jail term not exceeding three years, or both, a penalty he says is harsh enough to force compliance if utilised.

He concurs that the authority has not been up to the task. “IPOA’s presence is yet to be felt in the country. We are aware of so many Kenyans who have had serious complaints that were never dealt with since IPOA remains out of their reach,” says Apiang’.

Death, serious injury

He terms it baffling that IPOA is yet to decentralize its services to the county level.

Njeru admits the authority has not had the best of starts.

“Most Kenyans do not know the full mandate of the authority since we have no outreach programme. We have not been going out there to reach to the public as we did not have capacity,” he states.

With the authority currently receiving up to 20 complaints daily, he says IPOA plans to embark on a serious mission to engage the public.

“We will have regional offices from the next financial year to improve outreach. We must educate Kenyans on their rights and how they are supposed to report cases to IPOA,” says Njeru.

The chairman at the same time reveals that the authority has so far limited itself only to strong cases involving death and serious injuries, a situation he attributes to budgetary constraints and lack of capacity.

He, however, says IPOA’s investigative capacity is improving and the institution will soon be strong enough to stand the test of time. Key to this will be assistance from development partners.

On Tuesday, the US government, which has so far granted IPOA funds amounting to Sh85 million, donated state-of-the art forensic equipment to the authority.

It is at the event that plans to soon have investigators undergo periodic training by sleuths from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) were revealed.

Njeru says such ventures underline IPOA’s commitment to build its investigative capacity and subsequently hold police officers accountable for their actions.

He notes that while use of forensic equipment will help unravel sophisticated cases, superior training of investigators, who have background in forensics, the police, human rights advocacy and social science, will professionalize investigations.

Njeru says that if criminal culpability is proven, files will be forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions for action.

“Some will lead to disciplinary action by the National Police Service Commission while others might lead to the formation of a public inquest,” he notes, warning that ignorance of the law is no defense and officers must understand the consequences of their actions.

But he says IPOA is not all about proving criminal culpability on the side of the police.

“There are many good officers doing their work well. Our investigations are not just about punishing individual officers or laying blame but also to clear police when there are frivolous complaints against them,” he avers. Omondi stresses the need to put in place proper reporting mechanisms and establish strong working relationships with various organizations at the grassroots levels to ensure efficiency.

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