In explaining social contract theory, Thomas Hobbes in 1651 notes that a person gives up part of their natural rights to the state in return for the protection of their remaining rights. In discussing the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Nicholas Dent argued that “law is an expression of the will of the community [and all] citizens have a right to concur, either personally, or by their representatives in its formation.”
Police legitimacy is based on how it is perceived by the community. When seen as legitimate, the community accepts its obligation to obey the directives of the police. When police do their jobs right, they are deemed a legitimate state entity. Doing it right entails carrying out their duty of preventing and controlling crime and demonstrating procedural justice in the way they treat people and in the quality of their decision-making.
Less legitimacy triggers less willingness by the people to comply to police orders. Therefore, police resort to more oppressive, force-induced styles of policing that subvert their assertion to be acting on behalf or in collaboration with those they police.
For there to be legitimate police authority, three things must be evident. First, legality as it regards acting according to the law. Second, shared values as regards the people and the authority. And third, consent as regards people agreeing to obey police.
Procedural justice entails police following the law as stated without resorting to arbitrary law enforcement whereby there is glaring preference in the gentleness in which some segments of society are treated by officers, and obvious and persistent bad treatment of others.
Police have discretionary powers, but discretion must be used in a way that projects fairness. When police act in a fair manner, people will respect them and consider them legitimate, and the converse is true.
When trust in the police diminishes, respect for them will also diminish, and that will lead police to use violence to extract respect from people. Trust diminishes when there is arbitrary policing, and over policing, when it is obvious that police treat some people with decency and not others.
When there is a collapse of police legitimacy, and failure to apply procedural justice, trust in police diminishes, and a result is belligerence during citizen and police encounters such as stop and frisk, searches, arrests, and such belligerence leads police to violence.
The unemployment rate in Kenya between 2019-2022 varies depending on what data one looks at. Unemployment breeds vagrancy, gang activities, crime, and low wages also bring suffering to the lower class. People in this category are more prone to depression, and less likely to put off immediate gratification, therefore more susceptible to have encounters with the police.
We cannot overlook the tediousness of the job of a police officer. Police officers’ stresses when not controlled leaves them irritable, suicidal, and when triggered by an unruly, non-compliant or recalcitrant citizen, is a recipe for police misuse of power. Police officers’ salaries are low given the expectations of their jobs.
Incentives to stay on the job are not attractive – poor housing, tight office spaces (if any at all), poor retirement benefits, old uniforms, miserable working conditions. These impinge on how officers do their jobs.
So where do we go from here?
There needs to be a decentralised police force. Each county should have its own police force, and in due time, each city. County police officers will best understand the needs of their communities, and therefore better engage in community policing. County police chief would be better suited to inform the governor about county issues, and not the National Intelligence Service or the Kenya Wildlife Services. With a decentralised police force, and a robust local budget, the needs of the police and those of the community would be better served. It would also facilitate accountability especially in the use of budget, crime surges, and police misuse of power.
At the time of recruitment, sound psychological, competency and mental health evaluation on judgment must be administered, and such tests must happen on a continuous basis. There must be frequent sensitivity training, training on implicit biases, diversity, and inclusion.
There is also the need to invest community and problem-oriented policing. This is mostly effective when the police force is localised. Police should organise frequent town hall meetings with the community whereby shared grievances, community issues are aired and efforts to resolve them are made.
There must be an improvement in the understanding of mental health disorders, increased resources for mental patients, including treatment, care, and rehabilitation.
There is obviously the need to provide attractive pay, clean working environment, bonuses, merit pay for extraordinary acts, allowances for transportation and uniform care, reasonable housing, and attractive retirement package to promote police officers’ morale and job satisfaction. There should be investment in body cameras for police especially in cities where police and citizens discord are most prevalent.
If mistakes are made by police, acknowledge that, apologise, and make the requisite compensatory damages. Use social media not only for crime fighting, but to enhance legitimacy through transparency. Police can use social media for public education and getting timely feedback from citizenry.
Finally, we must put in place positive leadership that emphasises accountability, formal procedures – procedural fairness, quality methods of interaction with and communicating with people they police.