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Unfriendly fire: When angry cops shoot hungry cops

By HUDSON GUMBIHI | Jan 15th 2021 | 7 min read

Police officers at the scene where KFS officer shot his wife, committed suicide in Embu County. [Muriithi Mugo, Standard]

Within a span of four days inside 2021, five police officers have died in self-inflicted shooting incidents. This has set alarm bells ringing among civilians struggling to accommodate cops living within their neighbourhoods. 

 Many Kenyans have been wondering how safe they are if some police officers, who are mandated to protect them, have no respect for human life following a string of homicides and suicides involving cops.

On January 2, Lawrence Ewoi shot dead Mourine Achieng before ‘killing’ himself at the city’s Kamkunji Police Station. It is said the two officers were friends. Ewoi attached to the Quick Response Unit while in civilian clothes walked to the station and indiscriminately opened fire his colleague.

Achieng was fatally wounded while her colleague, George Gitonga, survived with injuries. Ewoi turned the gun on himself when colleagues immobilised him and were about to arrest the rogue officer.

Two days later, Kering Kipkosgei, the armourer at Mwea G.K Prison shot dead AP Boniface Mithamo Ngarariga before taking his own life. The incident was blamed on a love triangle. Kering was dating Mithamo’s estranged wife Esther Muthoni Mwangi. The woman is a Sergeant at the same prison where Kering worked while Mithamo was a driver attached to Kirinyaga East Deputy County Commissioner.

On the same day, Peter Kiprono is suspected to have committed suicide using a G3 rifle at Garissa Police Station. He had a bullet wound on the lower chin when officers found him lying unconscious in his house.

Almost a year ago, the government launched an ambitious integration programme that saw thousands of officers move out of government houses, police camps and lines finding alternative accommodation among civilian communities.

The latest shooting incidents have put a damper on the programme with apprehensive civilians feeling insecure due to the tendency of cops to turn to the gun when solving disputes.

 The incidents, which further dented police image, have poured cold water on the idea of cops living among ordinary citizens.

Archbishop Jackson ole Sapit, head of Anglican Church of Kenya, says “the incidents rekindle the love-hate relationship between the police and the public which was assured of enhanced security when officers were moved close to them. But it is turning out, we are not safe in the hands of our neglected officers.”

The cleric thinks only proper training on conflict resolution coupled with effective communication where officers are allowed to freely ventilate their issues without being vilified, would result in fewer such ugly occurrences.

“You are never safe when an armed person is hungry and angry. The only language police know is the language of the gun and they have the gun power,” notes Dr Sapit echoing the sentiments of Ngaathi Kikumu, who says he has severally witnessed cops turning violent at the slightest provocation.

“A police officer can walk into a bar and take your wife or girlfriend by force. We don’t feel safe because the guns they carry make them feel powerful. They should be trained on how to relate with civilians,” says Kikumu, a Mlolongo-based businessman.

On homicide and suicide cases within the rank and file of police, experts blame poor training, wanting leadership, unprofessionalism, and a dysfunctional command and control structure.

“Because of what we are witnessing, there is need to raise the bar for qualifications to join the police and during training, individual characteristics of officers must be identified at the early stages,” says Dr Francis Kerre, a sociologist lecturer at Kenyatta University.

When cops commit suicide or shoot workmates, their actions not only deprive the nation of a critical human resource the State labours to train but leave a shaken citizenry. In most cases, the deaths have been blamed on stress, a position Kerre disagrees with, claiming it is an excuse police use to cover for their shortcomings.

“It’s hogwash for them to say theirs is a stressing job when we know there are people engaged in more dangerous tasks or earning less than them but never contemplate killing. If they were not trained properly; they should know a gun when misused, is a dangerous weapon to them and the society,” states Kerre.

Also blamed for the self-inflicted harm is poor communication, lack of interpersonal skills and a neglected police welfare system.   When cops kill themselves over resolvable differences, civilians are left wondering whether officers are up to the task of protecting life and property.

“When officers are stressed and suffer from mental health, the danger they pose is great to us citizens. It’s regrettable since the start of the year we have already lost an undesirable number of officers,” says Joel Mwita Daniel, secretary-general, Universities and Colleges Students’ Peace Association of Kenya.

Mwita, however, says despite the setbacks, police are heroes who should be appreciated for the good job they do. “Let us give the psychosocial support so that they can cope whenever faced with challenges,” adds the student leader.

On their part, officers insist they are vulnerable due to an unfriendly work environment. They cite tight and rigorous work schedules that limit the opportunity to be family members as a contributing factor to their frustrations.

“PTDS (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is very common. I suggest the leadership allows officers to go on leave immediately, having had a difficult 2020 enforcing Covid-19 containment measures. Most of them didn’t enjoy Christmas and were away from family,” notes a senior officer.

Occupational stress has been identified as the major cause of police deaths. Financial difficulties, isolation from family for long spells, long working hours, job conflicts, relationship losses, poor coping skills and exposure to work-related trauma have been identified as some of stress and depression causing factors.

Criminologists while urging National Police Service (NPS) to prioritise psychosocial support in its reforms agenda, say it is disheartening to lose officers when it costs a leg and arm to train a single officer.

Professional Criminologists Association of Kenya (PCAK) thinks psychosocial elements are the underlying causes of the self-inflicting behaviours.

“While PCAK sees the practice as that of diminished professional conscience, loss of lives and officers upon whom the State has invested a lot in terms of training for service to the community; it is a loss to be suffered not only by families but the country as well,” says the association’s founding chair, Munene Mugambi.

Cognizant of life-threatening challenges accompanying police work, recruits are drilled on mental and physical endurance. This is meant to boost their confidence, courage, conscience and stamina. Psychology lecturer Rev James Mbugua attributes the problem to apathy in understanding and dealing with mental problems which for the longest time have been treated as acts of indiscipline.

“There is insufficient training on mental health, which many people fail to understand is a cognitive disorder requiring treatment. Instead, when individuals exhibit signs of struggling with mental health, they are dismissed as being unruly. At entry-level, recruits need to be assessed to gauge their cognitive abilities,” explains Mbugua blaming police commanders’ dismissive attitude towards juniors.

He appeals for public tolerance, saying policing is among the toughest jobs that need to be appreciated.  

“When an officer turns on the gun, he or she could be sick suffering from mental problems, we should therefore not be quick to pass judgment. Look at the Covid-19 situation; with inadequate protection, they are out everywhere enforcing social order and barely have time to rest,” notes Mbugua.

Dr Kerre is heaping blame on the police leadership for failing to train recruits on aspects of socialisation.

The 2009 Ransley Report on police reforms found out officers are stressed because of the strenuous work, and that they are underpaid, work long hours, stagnate in rank, lack equipment and live in deplorable conditions. “They experience severe demands and are continually stressed out occasioning various kinds of destructive behaviour such as drug and alcohol abuse, reckless sexual behaviour, irritability and vulnerability to suicide,” stated the report.

According to Peter Kiama, executive director, Independent Medico-Legal Unit (IMLU), the problem is self-inflicting since cops, for the longest time, have institutionalised violence in their operations.

“These are not ad hoc incidences as CS Dr Fred Matiangi and the IG (Hillary Mutyambai) would want us to believe when defending bad behaviour of police officers. It is institutionalised violence but is not confined to a single station or division but cuts across the entire country,” observes Kiama whose organisation is carrying out psychosocial support initiatives in some of the police stations.

But in spite of such mitigation programmes, officers have not been deterred. Amnesty International says cases of homicide and suicide are on a steady rise. 

“This is an indicator of underlying problems the National Police Service Commission should address by looking into the general welfare of officers,” says Demas Kiprono, Amnesty’s campaign manager in charge of Safety and Dignity.

He says police need, good pay, decent housing as well as being treated fairly when transfer and promotion opportunities arise. “They are human beings, equally weak to life challenges,” adds Kiprono.

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