Cops obey orders: Inside the mind of Kenya's riot police


Often, it is hard to tell if cops enjoy causing pain; or if they are just faithful and overzealous executioners of the so-called ‘orders from above’.

As enforcers of law and order, they also serve, unfortunately, as its unenviable face. This puts them right at the centre of things when the supposed orders are turned into actions.

We, the ordinary citizens, the policed, will many times be at the receiving end, on the extreme end of the equation. We do not usually see these faceless fellows who reside above, from whose hidden hands these orders that terrorize and vex us emerge.

We only see the men and women in deep blue swinging into action, generously dispensing teargas, bullets, whips, batons, and handcuffs.

The officers will be the ones manning the many roadblocks mounted to deter movement into and out of certain counties to keep a lid on the pandemic. They will be the ones engaging people in running battles for flouting curfew regulations. They will be the ones dispersing protests, lobbing teargas canisters, and bludgeoning people with batons.  They will be the ones ruthlessly evicting families from contested properties and consigning them to cold, wet nights without a roof over their heads. On any good day, they will be spreading pain and suffering.

It is hard not to imagine that these officers do not even have a heart, to begin with. No wonder, the world over, we are always talking about police brutality and not necessarily that of the big boys and girls of the system, on whose orders they are supposed to be acting.

When officers pick up someone for questioning and they never return, who else do we blame but them, even if they are not doing their own bidding?

In those days of torture chambers, the squads linked to executing these activities were dreaded, without thinking of who issued the commands. Even today, when officers deploy excessive force, meting out blows to women and children, where does the buck stop?

Of course, save for the (not-so-few) rotten apples in the force, it is unlikely that officers would just run roughshod on us, disregarding the same law they should be enforcing. Many times, it may just be another day in the office, them running an errand.

Those in the know claim that discipline is the middle name of cops and other forces. When orders are given by higher-ups, they are not to be questioned or discussed but executed, to the letter. That the only question that the issuer of orders could entertain, in such cases when an officer is told to jump, is how far they should do. Apparently, anything else is supposed to be insubordination. In such a system, would junior officers act on their own whims?

Sometimes, it appears like the officers are made to enforce orders even if they do not agree with them. How else would you explain the contradictory scene of police officers who set up a roadblock on a major road to enforce curfew regulations, but still had sufficient milk of human kindness to collect sticks and wood to light a bonfire to keep the inconvenienced motorists warm?

Shrewd offenders, mostly women, have discovered the little-discussed soft side of officers, and when arrested will break into tears with sob stories to tug at their heartstrings, with some measure of success.

Quite unexpected, most of the time, considering the other extreme end of the spectrum - stone-cold officers, who behave doubly worse than beasts. Like that officer, caught on camera in Kisumu, many years ago, at the height of post-election violence, after gunning down a protester, proceeded to run to where his dead body was lying to kick it. Or the other officer in Minneapolis who caught global attention for kneeling on a suspect’s neck.

This begs the question, at what point do these men and women of the uniform act on their own bidding and when are they usually discharging duty? Are they just good guys caught in a bad job that causes them to have flashes of ruthlessness?

Also, is there a way for the source of orders that trigger their actions to be revealed? Or is it just another hazard of the trade?

— @butunyi|

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