Why Kenya Police Need Remedial Attention

Published on 19th July 2010

Armed plainclothes police officers disrupt a serene lunch time environment in a popular restaurant in Upper Hill area of Nairobi. 

Youthful fellows who had been having tea and were just about to drive off turned out to be dangerously armed criminals wanted for carjacking. I had gone out for lunch with a friend when this unpaid for drama unfolded. It is the comments that followed after the police had efficiently executed their arrest strategy that caught my attention. 

"I am sure the police will drive out with those fellows and shoot them elsewhere," a lady patron observed. "I think those criminals are lucky they were caught here, those policemen didn't look like they wanted to arrest them - they simply wanted to shoot them," another said. 

I was not privileged to hear the popular lawyer’s refrain of "due process of law!" The public view of policemen armed with guns is all about flying bullets. The recent surge of bombs and terror attacks in the region has put police training on the spotlight. Why do the police prefer the option of shooting? One may accuse them of being trigger happy - but it could be a pointer to a failed and inefficient justice system in the country.  

Sometime last year, I had the misfortune to interact with Kenyan police for over 3 months following a burglary to my office. The state of police equipment, working schedule, morale and the dangers they are exposed to left me more sympathetic to their woes than to my loss. I recall that a police officer investigating our case disappeared for a month; he had been a matatu-jacking victim. On realizing that he was a police officer, the car-jackers decided to break his legs, hands and left him for dead. In his one month stay in Kenyatta hospital, the poor man from Meru ceased to be a police officer to me – but a friend. I empathized with the wife and family. 

I came across another officer whose schedule would drive a normal person mad. He was charged with investigations but his specialty appeared to be murder and homicide. It was heart chilling to note that murders take place every other day - the officer was too busy to even engage in a meaningful investigation. It was clear to me that such an officer lacked sufficient time and resources to deliver water tight documentation to facilitate prosecution of criminals. The police stations do not have stationery, their filing system is wanting, the fingerprint department is understaffed – ever wondered why it is just one guy who appears in media pictures dusting crime scenes in a city of over 3.6 million people?  

Out of curiosity, I requested a lawyer friend to allow me join him in one of the court cases he was working on. I could not believe my eyes and ears. The court room was too small and crowded. The lady magistrate was muttering things to herself. I wondered how suspects get to know what she saying before they plead guilty or not. The police prosecutor's turn came. He had charged some young house help for destroying a landlord's tree. When asked to provide evidence of the tree, the police prosecutor presented two logs of what must have constituted the original tree. The learned magistrate went into a tirade - lecturing the police officer on the difference between logs and trees. 

The Kenyan police should be well equipped and retrained in matters of law. The law enforcers' choice of bullets as opposed to due process is indicative of a collapsed justice system.  

By James Shikwati.

Mr. Shikwati james@irenkenya.org is Director, Inter Region Economic Network.

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