Recently, a police officer attached to Langata Police station shot a colleague’s wife and girlfriend dead before turning the gun on himself. The assistant chief alluded to internal issues in the camp where the officer lived. The tragic incident is the latest case of police murder-suicides that have become rampant in the past few years. According to 2021 National Police Service (NPS) statistics, between 2016 and 2020, 65 cases of murder and 57 cases of suicide were recorded within the service.
This indicates an average of 13 murders and 11 suicides per year. Nakuru County recorded the highest number of five cases, followed by Nairobi and Mandera with four. The data suggests that these incidences are evenly spread between urban, rural and far-flung areas.
Besides murder-suicides, there has also been an increase in public displays of frustration and stress by various officers attached to different stations across the country. The incidents have sparked discussions about the underlying reasons for them.
Last year, the Independent Policing Oversight Authority released a report on police murders and suicides. Contributing factors include psychological stress leading to poor mental health, easy access to firearms and the nature of recruitment and training. Other factors include discrimination and unfair treatment by superiors, involvement in crime and culture and attitude towards psychological illnesses.
Poor police welfare regarding working conditions, such as long hours and discrimination in promotions and postings, exacerbate these occurrences and mental health challenges. People posted in safer suburban areas or the lucrative traffic unit are usually well connected or paid to be there. As a result, the sons of lesser gods wind up in far-flung, violent areas such as poor urban areas and terrorist or bandit-infested areas.
Police are often first responders to many societal problems and are usually in the middle of domestic situations. They encounter crime scenes, bodies, and injuries and take statements from victims. They conduct investigations, prepare reports and testify concerning criminal acts such as rape, defilement, murder, assaults, et cetera. They absorb stress, which affects their mental health and coping ability, leading to burnout. As a result, some officers become depressed. Additionally, they suffer from mental health problems because of a lack of support and debriefing sessions. These factors make them aggressive, dismissive, arrogant, hostile, and bullying toward civilians.
A “burnt-out” officer is not only a non-productive member of the department but also a human being in pain. Additionally, the officer is a father, husband, mother, and wife who may not be able to fulfill their roles effectively.
The government is ultimately responsible for providing police with adequate and humane living conditions for them and their families. Working hours should be regular and conditions improved, including overtime allowances, food on duty, and transportation.
Moreover, commanding officers should periodically monitor and audit stress levels and job satisfaction to support officers’ emotional needs. Assessing how to assist the health of police officers may include alternate tasks between routine work and operational duties. They should also use informed judgment when issuing firearms to officers suspected of suffering from mental disorders. As they continue with counselling and other therapies, such officers should be assigned duties that do not necessarily require guns.
The National Police Service Psychological Counseling Policy, especially on the posting of mental health experts to police posts, stations, and divisions, must be implemented. Officers’ medical insurance should also cover mental health-related illnesses and rehabilitation costs.
First published in The Standard on 17th March 2023. Kindly reproduced here with permission from The Standard.
Demas Kiprono is a human rights lawyer and a Campaign Manager at Amnesty International Kenya. He writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]