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Why we need support for police reforms

By Irungu Houghtonn | Sep 14th 2018 | 3 min read

The courage to transform systems and practices that are not working is the true sign of leadership.

Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed’s recent admission that the Ethiopian state had inflicted terror against its citizens is one of the most remarkable regional examples of this. The announcement of new policing reforms in Kenya this week could be another.

Our policing strategy has been in disarray for several years. The signs of this have been all around us. Kenya has no less than 100,000 police officers. In theory, this should mean one officer for every 500 citizens. In reality, 12,000 of these officers are permanently assigned to protect the lives of a few VIP.

The brutality and deaths of close to a hundred people in the aftermath of the 2017 general election was the clearest signal that reforms were urgent. Despite the promise of utumishi kwa wote, not all lives have mattered equally.

Most citizens cannot distinguish the roles of the various law enforcement arms. Most don’t know that the National Police Service is tasked with general policing, traffic, crime detection and prevention. That the primary role of the Administration Police is to protect government installations and our borders, not commercial banks and hotels. In cases of murder or theft, should we report to NPS, APS, local chief or DCI?

The scattering of various units of regular and Administration police, criminal intelligence and local chiefs in different locations within the same area confuses us. It has also proven to be easy targets for criminals and terrorists. The more dangerous vulnerability has been the lack of command responsibility across armed units and officers.

AP continues to hold suspects in centres with no reception officers, occurrence books or investigation and detention. Perhaps Willy Kimani, Josphat Mwenda and Joseph Muiruri could be alive if they had been booked in a regular police cell rather than that ungazetted container in Syokimau.

Corporal Ahmed Rashid made BBC Africa Eye this week. In what is probably the most daring exposure of extra-judicial killings, the programme confirmed our worst fears. Individual officers have abandoned the Criminal Procedure Act. They now act as police, prosecutor, judge and executioner. Two successive presidents may have commuted 6,000 death penalties, but on our streets death by punishment continues. This will be the case until they are brought to halt or the officers themselves have an “Abiy moment”.

In fairness, police officers operate in working conditions few citizens would accept. Low salaries, poor housing conditions, round the clock violence and an ineffective judicial system is enough to turn most away from this profession. Remaining professional, disciplined and incorruptible is a challenge for both senior and junior officers. It is for this reason that we must all pay attention to the new policing strategy.

The new reforms seek to co-locate all agencies and place them under the command of officer in charge of the station. Most AP camps can now be converted into police posts. This allows for pooling of intelligence, vehicles, weapons and other resources. 

Contrary to media reports, the strategy does not merge the two nor does it spell the end of the AP. It will now focus on border security, livestock theft, critical government infrastructure and rapid response to large-scale armed violence.

It remains to be seen whether these reforms will address the endemic challenges of corruption, inefficiencies and indiscipline. Nevertheless, they deserve to be supported and closely monitored. Perhaps next, the team at Vigilance and Harambee Houses could pilot the digitisation of the Occurrence Book, place working CCTVs in all police stations and increase investment in community police relations.

Police-community relations have been strained by years of excessive force, corruption and bad service. It is time to declare a new beginning for both the service and the nation.

-The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. He writes in his personal capacity. Twitter: @irunguhoughton


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