Violent policing sabotages criminal justice

Welcomed by the poetry of Anthem Republik, over 500 men, women and children crowded into Kayole’s social hall on Thursday. What happened over the next four hours could be a tipping point in stopping unlawful police killings, forced disappearances, police brutality and excessive force against citizens.

Kayole, like Mathare, Kondele, Majengo and other urban poor settlements are often described as Kenya’s “killing fields.” The many incidents of crime, criminal gangs and police-community hostility could fill at least five television series. Two years ago, the same tensions stopped an attempt to have a community police dialogue to bring down levels of crime and lawlessness. The fact that the dialogue finally happened this week was remarkable. The fact that the dialogue was chaired by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and happened in the presence of the Director of Criminal Investigation (DCI) is more significant.

More than 50 testimonies provided an insight into the experiences of policing by low-income neighbourhoods. Statements of armed officers drunk on duty, arbitrary arrests, extortion, detention in unmarked vehicles, recycling of marijuana exhibits and home-made guns and sexual harassment at AP posts were openly shared. Widows and mothers told traumatic stories of young men being shot after surrendering to the police or in cases of mistaken identity. When one of them asked why her 14-year-old brother now lay in a city morgue, she was told by an officer, “the jails are too full, we are now killing criminals.”

Violence in Kayole is actual and structural. Poverty, hopelessness and lack of employment drives the violence. Young men join gangs, engage in petty theft and then graduate into robbery with violence and murder. Life expectancy for most that follow this path is barely five years. Most will die at the hands of another gang or the police. If the socio-economic conditions create the violence, violent policingfeeds it. As one young person put it, “has killing become a crime prevention strategy?”

The community got to see first-hand what real-time accountability looks like. After each allegation, the officer in charge of the police division or the regional commander were asked to respond by the DPP and actions were agreed in several cases. The moment was a refreshing departure from the stale denialism often heard from the Police Service. DCI George Kinoti acknowledged that lawlessness has led to officers not only killing citizens but their superiors. He warned police present that tens of officers have been convicted in the last three months.

One route to an effective criminal justice system is clear. Swift investigation and prosecution of all rogue officers, radical police reforms that strengthen command authority over officers and deeper community policing strategies with youth organisations are three critical steps. With the growing number of police convictions and the merging of the administrative and regular police, two of the steps are underway. As Joseph Boinett inches closer to retirement, the incoming Inspector General will find his or her work cut out. A listening tour of community police dialogues may just be a powerful way to start their tour of service.

The greatest danger of violent policing and unlawful executions is that it sabotages possibility of our criminaljustice working fairly for all. Twenty-two years ago, Wilson Kinyua, 18, was convicted of robbery with violence. He recently walked out of Kamiti prison, reformed and holding a law degree. He now has a vision that seeks to serve higher than himself. If the younger and hopeless man he was then had been executed, he would not have been able to attend the Kayole dialogue and tell his story.

Let those who justify violent policing stop pretending that it is stopping the vicious cycle of violence. Unlawful policing is fuelled by corruption and the abuse of laws and institutions in the hands of a few police officers. Let those that blame the police also speak out and report criminals who are not in uniforms and prey on the community. If they do, Anthem Republik’s poetic words, “We are diamonds in the dust. We just need to remove the dust and we too will be seen,” may just become prophetic.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. [email protected]