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The ticking time bomb that is our men and women in blue

By Judith Mukiri Mwobobia | May 4th 2021
Dr Fred Matiang'i (center) arrives at Kiganjo Police College Kiganjo in Nyeri where he presided over the official commencement of Kenya Police Service (Cadet). [Kibata Kihu, Standard]

His unsmiling face bears no sadness. He wears the countenance of a confident man in the jut of his chin and the knowing look in his eyes. But while that picture lives on in the interwebs, the young man will never again possess that resilient light in his eyes.

Because behind the confident façade was a man battling many demons. And one Saturday, while off-duty, he would lock himself in his tiny room in Nairobi’s Eastlands and turn his gun on himself. His name is just one of the many in the long list of Kenyan police officers who have lost their lives due to an invisible menace.

More recently, we have heard stories of people clobbered to death by policemen for merely being caught out past the curfew hours instituted to contain the raging Covid-19 pandemic. By end of 2020, 20 Kenyans had lost their lives in the hands of men and women who are supposed to serve and protect them.

These are obviously cases of impunity that police officers operate under. After all, most of the errant officers get away with it; with the conviction rate of police officers in the country at less than one per cent. The lack of compassion for a fellow human being could almost be described as psychopathic; cold and emotionless, and lacking in empathy. But we can safely take that out of the equation because there is a display of emotion here; anger. After all, how would one explain the compulsion to beat up someone to death for simply walking home past curfew hours? From the two examples above, there is one thing that ties the two incidents together; that of a festering mental health issue in our disciplined forces. It may be time to consider that we are failing them too.

What do you think happens to your brain when everything you deal with on the job is violence? For some of the policemen, a typical day could very well begin with handling the victims of a violent domestic crime. And the day could end with collecting bodies of innocent people killed in violent crimes. Not to forget having to see the worst of road accidents every single day.

If you have witnessed a fatal road accident, you must know how long those mental images stay with you. Now imagine what it must be like to see and deal with that every day?

Psychology studies have in fact shown that maintaining negative information in one’s long-term memory makes one vulnerable to mental illnesses, impaired social relationships and unstable emotional responses. Add on the everyday stresses of life and what you have is an army of ticking time bombs - armed men and women who are slowly losing control of their minds. A 2019 study by Ruderman Family Foundation showed that police had the highest risk of suicides out of all the careers.     

Abraham Lincoln once said that nearly all men could stand adversity. But if you want to test their character, give them power. The power is in the guns; the power to take away a life.   

So what can be done?

How about mental and physical assessments done routinely? How about ensuring mandatory regular counselling or debriefings with professionals? That would give them the support they need; a chance to deal with all the murkiness of their job so that when they are out on the job, they remember that above all else, it is their duty to serve and protect all Kenyans.  


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