The police service is the enforcement unit of government. It is tasked with the noble duty of maintaining law and order – protecting lives and property, among other roles.
Policing is generally considered a respectable profession; and officers regarded as important members of society. They have the privilege of carrying arms around, to protect people.
However, long standing concerns exist over the prudence of policing world over. Cases of extra-judicial killings and police brutality have been on the rise globally. Day in day out, media reports news breaks of police officers abusing their positions to take away the very lives they swore to protect.
This has neither been adequately acknowledged by our governments, nor addressed. The police remain, ironically, a stumbling block to maintenance of law and order. Apart from physical fitness, no attention is paid to their mental and emotional suitability during police recruitment.
The recent killing of a black man in the United States of America, sparked protests globally, raising questions as to whether it was another case of racism or police brutality. George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American, died at the hands of white police officers who left him unable to breathe as one of them knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. His death has not gone unnoticed as violent Black Lives Matter protests have rippled across the United States and throughout the world, with demonstrators calling for an end to police brutality.
In Africa, police brutality is rampant with many incidents reported by the media and civil society organizations. Many African countries typically suffer police brutality during charged political seasons, when power is exercised in excess. Journalists have been arrested for reporting on police brutality in Tanzania, and the United Nations has accused security forces and the government in Burundi for perpetrating vices such as gang rapes, torture and killings of innocent citizens that went unpunished.
In Uganda, critics say that President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, has largely relied on brute force to suppress growing opposition to his rule. In August 2013, the Ugandan government passed the Public Order Management Act that granted police wide discretionary powers to permit gatherings. This Act was used during the 2016 presidential campaign as a basis to arrest opposition politicians, with opposition leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye suffering police brutality. The police severally arrested Dr Besigye and used pepper spray on him, injuring him to the point of being flown to Kenya for hospitalization.
In Kenya, the two sides charged with ensuring police accountability, the Internal Affairs Unit that receives and investigates complaints and the Independent Policing Oversight Authority appear overwhelmed and dysfunctional. Even with enactment of the Constitution in 2010, the narrative has remained unchanged. On many occasions, police officers, armed with guns, teargas canisters and batons have viciously descended on protestors during electioneering season, beating some to a pulp and leaving others maimed or dead. The media has repeatedly beamed footage of police brutalizing citizens. However, it is absurd that up until now, some of these perpetrators still walk scott-free, even with such overwhelming evidence against them.
Politicians have not been spared from the police’s excessive force. During election campaigns, opposition politicians have had a fair share of run-ins with the police using teargas and excessive force to disperse their crowds. Former Bomet County Governor Isaac Ruto had to be rushed to South Africa for urgent medical attention after a teargas canister exploded in his face. This points to the citizens’ disadvantages, as not everyone can afford advanced medical care after such encounters with police.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck East Africa like an armed robber, no country was prepared to deal with the pandemic. Kenya declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew, while Rwanda and Uganda totally locked down their countries to contain the spread of the virus. This left the police in these countries with the task of ensuring that citizens adhered to the restrictions. While ensuring that the lockdown instilled during the COVID-19 pandemic was observed, police in Uganda acted irresponsibly and allegedly maimed many.
In Kenya, police have been blamed for causing more deaths than the pandemic itself. Kenyans try to avoid catching coronavirus during the day and avoid beatings at night from the police during the curfew.
Police brutality is not only unlawful but also counterproductive in fighting the spread of COVID-19. The officers have acted ruthlessly and helped little in instilling measures such as social distancing among citizens.
Since the curfew in Kenya was instituted, the police have reportedly killed at least 15 people, the latest victim being an elderly homeless man, shot dead in Mathare after being found out during curfew hours. The Independent Policing Oversight Body (IPOA) has reported 87 complaints against police since the curfew and heightened security measures were rolled out on March 27.
The police have a lot to do to clear their name and regain long-lost respect due to them. This begs the question; who will tame the police as they execute their duties to the public? More has to be done to ensure that the officers undertake their duties according to the law, while upholding human rights.
I would suggest a change in the policing culture – during hiring and training of police recruits and in the long term. The requirements for joining the police force should attract more academically astute candidates too; and should not be left for those regarded as rejects.
It is agreed that many cases of police brutality can be linked to anger from poor pay and working conditions for officers. Governments should increase funding to the police service to improve their working conditions and remuneration. Vigilant oversight of police activities needs to be emphasized, to pile pressure on perpetrators of police brutality and increase accountability of the police to their actions while on duty.
Lastly, when citizens have better livelihoods, healthcare and efficient systems, government can invest more in public goods in their neighbourhoods, which makes them feel safe and reduces crime rates. This eventually makes the work of the police a lot easier.
Whilst citizens are encouraged to lodge a report whenever they experience police brutality, the police themselves should be accountable for their actions, even as they maintain law and order.
Christabel Gero is a Research Analyst at Acepis. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Statistics and a Master of Science degree in Population Studies from the University of Nairobi. Christabel is an innovation fellow with the University of Nairobi Innovation Fellowship 2019/2020 cohort. She is passionate about gender equality and was a recipient of the UN Women Kenya research grant under the Women Count program of 2019.Read Christabel's full bio on the 'Meet Our Team' page.