The unending search for ideal police uniform to 'mend' image

Evolution of police uniform. [Courtesy]

Although the exact year when the police embraced uniform is not clear, the search for the ‘ideal’ attire continues 121 years later.

Since 1902 when police was established, evidence of a force/service struggling to come up with the right uniform is littered along the way.

Initially known as British East Africa Police (BEAP) when the Kenya-Uganda railway was under construction, officers have donned different shades of uniform at different times, depending on whoever is in power.

Apart from the BEAP with a personnel of about 5,000, there existed several other units, among them home guards that were un-coordinated.

As the railway line stretched to the interior parts of the country and demand for security grew, there was need for intensive re-organisation and creation of a more effectual co-ordination of these diverse police units.

Most of the Africans who were conscripted or recruited to serve as police officers were known as Askaris and served alongside the Britons and Indians.

For many years, the Askaris never wore shoes; a preserve for British and Indian officers. They started putting on shoes as Kenya transitioned from a colony to an independent State.

The uniform was not complete without a black belt, head cap that was commonly known as Turbush and socks referred to as Putees.

“The shoes were black leather, although the first trainees at Police Depot, which was based near Mathare, were training bare-footed. My big elder brother was there (Depot) in 1948. As a constable, I wore the khaki uniform. I bet most present retirees never saw those uniforms,” says Alfred Otieno Osur, secretary general of National Association of Retired Police Officers of Kenya (NARPOK).

For the period they served, home guards wore shorts and long-sleeved shirts made from ordinary cloth material. The confusion in uniform called for immediate action. In February, 1902, C.G.D. Farquhar, the Superintendent of Railway Police, was appointed as first Inspector General of BEAP and charged with the task of reorganising the police.

He was mandated to have control over the various police units. However, the officer served only for two months before returning to his former appointment in the Punjab police.

Hulme-Henderson, an assistant collector, was appointed as acting Inspector General. Unfortunately, the man had little police experience prompting the appointment in December 1902 of Captain J. H. C. McCaskill who was serving in the Queen Victoria’s Own Corps of Guides of India.

Some of the officers from the Kenya Police Service in the new uniforms unveiled on August 29, 2023, in Nairobi. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

Captain McCaskill made Mombasa his headquarters with a small but neat hut being erected for him near Fort Jesus. His task was not easy since there was a shortage of European officers coupled with the financial stringency that confronted him.

“After his service with the Queen Victoria’s Own Corps of Guides, an elite unit of the Indian Army, Captain McCaskill must have been horrified by the poor living conditions, shabby uniforms and obsolete rifles of the police. He wastes no time in making serious efforts to improve matters,” writes W. Robert Foran in his memoirs titled The Kenya Police 1887-1960.

McCaskill obtained approval for five instructors from British Regiments who were seconded for a period of three years to BEAP as drill instructors as well as to assist him in reorganisation.

Soon there was a marked improvement in drill,  disciplined and general appearance, and in 1920, BEAP changed to a Force when Kenya became a colony.

Effectively, khaki shorts and khaki shirts were adopted as the official uniform until 1979 when the officers were allowed to wear trousers instead of shorts as the government embarked on Africanising and reforming the Force.

Few years later, the khaki uniform was phased out. Officers started wearing navy blue trousers and sky blue shirts – universally accepted colours that symbolise civility and are preferred by most police around the world.

And for many decades, the uniform remained the face of police until 2018 when it was replaced with matching persian blue for beret caps, shirts and trousers. The reasoning behind the colour was to make officers serving ‘more visible’.

Five years later, there is a fresh drive to change the uniform once again, begging the question whether police attire is a priority.

George Musamali, a former instructor at General Service Unit (GSU) Training School, thinks change of uniform without positive shift of mindset is an exercise in futility.

“It is like painting a black car white without replacing the engine and tyres. In our case, we are changing the uniforms and not the officers. Change of uniform will not salvage police badly tainted image,” said Musamali.  

Some of the officers interviewed by The Standard, while asking the government to focus on serious challenges facing them, said they are comfortable with the current uniform.

“What is the need of giving us new uniforms when we’re are living in deplorable conditions? Our salaries are barely enough and we lack tools for working,” posed one of the officers.

A complete working uniform comprises trouser, shirt, a jacket, a T-shirt, a beret, a sweater, socks, a belt, a lanyard and a raincoat. In a year an officer is given two pairs, not forgetting the ceremonial attire, which consists of trousers

, shirt, a T-shirt, a jacket, a capic, socks and a Sam Brown belt. The ceremonial uniform is issued once in a year.

According to a knowledgeable officer, the rough estimate of a working uniform when delivered by contracted supplier is about Sh20,000 while the cost of the ceremonial attire is about Sh25,000.

Police march in their new uniform during the launch at the Kenya School of Government in Nairobi on September 13, 2018. [File, Standard]

The population of the National Police Service (NPS) is slightly above 100,000 at the moment. Assuming 80,000 officers are issued with two pairs of working uniforms and ceremonial costumes each year, it costs the government about Sh5.2 billion to dress them.

When the cost of boots for junior officers is added, the expenditure rises. The boots are purchased by the government and delivered to the Force Quarter Master who distributes them. The price of a pair of police boots ranges from Sh1,800 to Sh2,500.

It remains to be seen whether the latest drive to change the uniform will translate to improved efficiency at a time when junior officers are grumbling over low pay, with those injured while in the line of duty expressing frustrations for not being paid their compensation claims.

NPS has concluded seeking views from the public and the police over the proposed change of uniform. The proposed uniform has the same colour that was phased out five years ago.

Director of Logistics Peter Ndungu, who spearheaded the collection of views, was reluctant to shed light on the next course of action saying: “We did complete the public participation exercise, I won’t comment further. You better seek information from the communications office; that is our procedure.”

The proposed uniform options are a short-sleeved shirt with ordinary buttons, another with tucked-in styling, and the third with unique buttons. For long-sleeved choices, officers will choose between ordinary and unique buttons, but both having tucked-in styling.

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