Beyond dust-storm of opinions on police reforms, we must get it right

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Incoming Inspector General Japeth Koome whipped up his first dust storm. His and other public comments may indicate possible direction policing could take next year.

Interested state officers, human rights defenders and other members of the public can look past the dust by studying Kenya’s progress captured in the Common East African Policing Standards report released this week.

Wajir County residents will tell you the loose sand and dirt kicked up by dust storms blurs vision and leaves everyone suffocating. Rather than looking to the dust storm for solutions, it is in raising the quality of collective climate change and conservation management that reduces their frequency and size.

These insights apply also to the professional management and public accountability of the National Police Service. On December 17th, the Inspector General publicly referred to oversight agencies as “busy-bodies” and promised to protect officers from their oversight. Uttered during an emotional event for 90 families of police officers tragically killed in the line of duty, his comments remain unnecessarily controversial.

The next day, Mike Sonko issued an open contract with a Sh400,000 reward for the killing of criminal gang members he thought were responsible for the brutal blinding assault of 3-year-old baby Sagini.

Within days, police had arrested not Sonko’s primary suspects, but the infants’ grandmother Rael Nyakerario, aunt Pacifica Nyakerario and cousin Alex Ochogo. An online chorus is growing that the Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) be disbanded, and the law should be violated for criminal suspects.

It is possible that this dust storm has been provoked by the High Court judgement striking down 2017 amendments to the National Police Service Act on December 16th.

The amendments unsuccessfully sought to expand the circumstances that police officers could shoot to kill from protecting the public and self-defence, to include the destruction of property. There are also cases of senior commanders currently being charged for unlawful actions by their subordinates. They include ten General Service Unit officers before court for unlawfully killing four protestors at Masimba, Kajiado County in June and the five senior officers being charged for murder, rape, and torture in the 2017 case of baby Samantha Pendo in Kisumu.

It is too early to see whether the current dust-storm of opinions will reverse two decades of police reforms or deepen police professionalism and accountability. The Eastern African Police Chiefs Cooperation Organisation released their assessment of Kenya’s progress against Common East African Policing Standards this week. The report offers a sense of what is at stake and offers some light beyond the dust in current discourse.

The region’s police chiefs assessed the Kenyan police across 4 core standards and 37 indicators that include compliance to human rights, effective public safety, quality of training and equipment, freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, corruption and use of firearms and lethal force.

The report finds Kenya has a robust legal framework informed by international human rights and policing standards. Inconsistent application of these standards is one of the factors in declining trust levels among both police and public.

Some 59 per cent of citizens choose not to report crime because they do not believe anything will happen. Another 53 per cent of police officers have personally experienced incidents of misconduct including assault, bribery, and unlawful shooting but fearing reprisals, only 10 per cent of officers have the courage to report their colleagues.  It is in this context that the Interior Ministry as the primary policymaker could cut through this dust storm. Debate on whether police can or cannot use guns on violent suspects is redundant. The Constitution and Policing Act are clear on circumstances that lethal force can be applied.

Following on the heels of the recently announced and important Judicial Commission of Enquiry into officer well-being and welfare, the ministry can do no better than also convene a multi-stakeholder national policing conference in the New Year to study the recent findings and implement a 100-day rapid results initiative on their recommendations.

First published in The Standard on 24th December 2022. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]