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De-escalation skills vital in policing assemblies before 2022 polls

OPINION
By Demas Kiprono | October 8th 2021

Ballot boxes and other election materials at Moi Secondary School in Nakuru on March 2, 2021 [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Head of the Elections Preparedness Secretariat in the National Police Service, Dominic Kisavi, has announced that police officers are going to be trained in the use of non-lethal means to manage the public ahead of next year’s elections. He further disclosed that the service has since 2020 worked to identify areas of weakness based on previous experiences.

This is a welcome move that can potentially break the cycle of violence and human rights abuses during elections as was seen during the last cycle when the abuses were mainly meted out to opposition supporters. Like the aftermath of the 2007 polls, police were accused of unlawful and excessive use of force, torture, killings and even sexual assault.

Many will remember with admiration the video footage of GSU Officer Joseph Nthenge reasoning with, and de-escalating tension with a rowdy crowd at the height of the 2007 post-election violence. Many hope that the non-lethal training, which follows the model of community policing, will encourage cooler minds to prevail. While acknowledging that certain circumstances in policing warrant the use of force, it is clear that tactical communication can diffuse situations instead of force, especially in public order circumstances.

For long, observers and experts have pointed to several factors that have prevented human rights compliant public order management. These factors include the philosophy of policing that has been cited as a hangover of its colonial predecessor that was geared towards preserving the colonial system rather than protecting the rights of the people. It has been pointed out that since independence, policing has been reconfigured to primarily serve and preserve the regime rather than the rights and welfare of the people.  

Second, training syllabi, tactics and strategies have been criticised as out of touch with the times and the constitution.

Currently, no one has open access to police training curriculum on human rights. In line with the right to information and participation of the people, experts, citizens, and civil society must be able to interrogate and comment on police training. Whereas the constitution charges the police with the mandate to protect and fulfil citizens’ right to assemble, the police have been criticised as primarily seeing themselves as protectors of property, business interests, third parties and the government - from the inconvenience and issues being expressed through protests. 

The Public Order Act, which was enacted in the 1950s and other laws give police officers wide discretion to declare a riot; disperse the riot using force; to use force and firearms which may result in deadly force. Ideally, certain thresholds should be met before a riot is declared.

The use of force should be a last resort after dialogue, negotiation and tactical communication are employed. If used, it must be necessary and proportionate to preserve life and seek to inflict the least harm. Force and firearms should only be used to save the life of the officer and others. Protection of property should never be a justification for the use of deadly force.

The choice of firearms carried during public order events should also be commensurate with the operation at hand.

In Kenya, there are many instances where bystanders and persons relaxing in balconies have been killed by stray bullets from police officers dispersing protesters using assault weapons - which have no place in urban policing settings. Nine-year-old Stephanie Moraa died this way in Mathare North in 2017.

Laws, practices, training, and attitudes must change to address abuse in the public order context ahead of next year. It is refreshing that police are strategising to break the cycle of violence. 

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