• Irungu Houghton

Why the police reforms should be supported.

First published Saturday Standard, September 15, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

The courage to transform systems and practices that are not working is the true sign of leadership. Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed’s recent admission that the Ethiopian state had inflicted terror on its citizens is one of most remarkable regional examples of this. The announcement of new policing reforms this week could be another.

Our policing strategy has been in disarray for several years. The signs of this have been all around us. Kenya has no less than 100,000 police officers. In theory, this should mean one officer for every 500 citizens. In reality, 12,000 of these officers, just over a tenth are permanently assigned to protect the lives of a few thousands of Very Important People. The brutality and deaths of close to a hundred people in the aftermath of the 2017 General Elections was the clearest signal that reforms were urgent. Despite the promise of utumishi kwa wote, not all lives have mattered equally.

Most citizens cannot distinguish the roles of the various law enforcement arms mandated by the constitution to protect their freedoms, rights, property and safety. Most don’t know that the National Police Service is tasked with general policing, traffic, crime detection and prevention and that the primary role of the Administration Police is to protect Government installations and our borders and not commercial banks and hotels. In cases of murder or theft, should we report to NPS, APS, the local Chief or Directorate of Criminal Investigation?

The scattering of various units of regular police, administration police, criminal intelligence and local chiefs in different locations within the same area confuses us. It has also proven to be easy targets for criminals and terrorists. In the last four months, angry communities and terrorist cells have attacked or overrun at least five administrative police camps. The more dangerous vulnerability has been the lack of command responsibility across armed units and officers.

Administrative Police continue to hold suspects in centers with no reception officers, occurrence books or investigation and detention. Perhaps Advocate Willy Kimani, his client Josphat Mwenda and driver Joseph Muiruri might still be alive today if they had been booked in a regular police cell rather than that ungazetted container in Soykimau camp.

Corporal Ahmed Rashid made BBC Africa Eye this week. In what is probably the most daring exposure of extra-judicial killings, the television program confirms our worst fears. Faced with violent criminal gangs in Kisauni, Bombolulu, Mathare and Eastleigh, individual officers have abandoned the Criminal Procedure Act. They have become the entire criminal justice system and now act as police, prosecutor, judge and executioner. Two successive Presidents may have commuted 6,000 death penalty, but on our streets, death by punishment continues. This will be the case until they are brought to halt or the Officers themselves have an “Abiy moment”.

In fairness, Police Officers operate in working conditions few citizens would accept. Low salaries, poor housing conditions, round the clock violence and an ineffective judicial system is enough to turn most away from this profession. Remaining professional, disciplined and incorruptible as the constitution requires, is a challenge for both senior and junior officers. It is for this reason that we must all pay attention to the new policing strategy.

The new reforms seek to co-locate all agencies and place them under the command of Officer in Charge of the Station. The OCS will report to the Officer in Charge of the Police Division (OCPD) and then the County Commandants. Most AP camps can now be converted into police posts which will enable all wards to have at least one post. The concentration of services allows for pooling of intelligence, vehicles, weapons and other resources. The public can now enjoy centralized investigation, detention and criminal customer care.

Contrary to media reports, the strategy does not merge the two nor does it spell the end of the Administration Police. The remaining officers will now focus on border security, livestock theft, critical Government infrastructures and rapid response to large-scale armed violence.

It remains to be seen whether these reforms will address the endemic challenges of corruption, inefficiencies and indiscipline. Nevertheless, they deserve to be supported and closely monitored. Perhaps next, the Vigilance and Harambee teams could pilot the digitization of the Occurrence Book, place working CCTV in all police stations and increased investment in community police relations.

Police-community relations have been strained by years of excessive force, corruption and bad customer service. It is time to declare a new beginning for both the Service and the nation.

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