Brutality: Police give us far more cause to resent and fear than to respect them

Kenya has hit international headlines for the wrong reasons – again!

Police beating crowds at the Likoni ferry. Police beating a boda-boda rider to death. Police shooting dead a 13-year old boy. Within Kenya, we all know of more examples. The Police Reform Working Group says, “We continue to receive testimonies from victims, eyewitnesses and video footage showing police gleefully assaulting members of the public”.

It’s not much consolation that similar scenes have taken place in other countries: According to the Guardian, “In the Philippines, police and local officials trapped curfew violators in dog cages, while others were forced to sit in the midday sun as punishment”.

And a few weeks ago, during demonstrations against immigration laws discriminating against Muslims, police in Delhi were filmed viciously beating people using lathis (long sticks very much like the ones the Kenyan police are filmed with). But, by killing curfew violators, or totally innocent individuals, our police seem to have sunk to the greatest depths.

Nor is it a great deal of use pointing out that the Constitution envisages a police service (no longer called a “force”) that is professional, competent, disciplined, accountable, has integrity, respects human rights and has a positive relationship with the community as a whole. Indeed, to stress this puts us in the same class as the BBI Taskforce, constantly harping on what we should be doing and saying “Let’s do it”.

It is hard to imagine what is going on in the mind of a police officer who sees fit to beat a curfew violating driver. The officer could warn the driver, perhaps arrest or summon him or her. But what does the officer think is being achieved by beating him? A citizen who realises that there was good sense in the law and he ought to obey it? Or a citizen with a deep resentment against the police and authorities?

And how does the police officer feel about himself that night? That he behaved like a rational being and defended the rule of law and Kenya against a virus? Looking at video footage one is reminded of people who encounter a creature that terrifies them – a spider or a snake, perhaps – and frenziedly strikeout to destroy it, with a long stick that enables one to keep some distance. Maybe the police officer feels “I dealt with a cockroach today”.

But maybe the police themselves are also terrified of the people they feel they are expected to control. And of the virus they are expected to protect us from – and which they probably understand very little about. This, of course, offers no excuse – least of all for shooting a boy on his family balcony.

“Policing by consent” was the objective of the first police force in the UK in the 19th century. Interestingly the slogan has been revived in the last few days by a senior police officer urging mutual understanding between police and public.

Last week, various Kenyan civil society organisations issued a statement pleading particularly for more information. People need to understand more about the disease, but also more about what is being forbidden. The police, too need to understand what is expected of them. There were reports of the police teargassing traders who went to a market that was supposed to be closed. But was there really at that time a valid order to close the market? That, of course, is apart from the question of the necessity of using teargas. One fears that teargas will not be something that is in short supply.

The Kenyan newspapers constantly report people complaining that they do not know anything about the virus. Hopefully, the campaign being conducted, at least in some places, involving community health workers informing the people will help.


It is good to read on Twitter that the Directorate of Criminal Investigations is encouraging people to report harassment by the police at this time (hopefully at all times). And that the Independent Police Oversight Authority is pursuing various cases including those mentioned at the beginning here, and others as well.

Good also to hear that the President has apologised to Kenyan for the treatment they have been receiving at police hands.

Interesting also to read of police officers against whom damages were awarded, for earlier abuses of power, appealing to the Court of Appeal. It is important that the police realise they have individual responsibility for their actions. As the Chair of IPOA has said, “Following orders is no excuse for unlawful use of force”.


But the lack of respect that so often lies at the heart of the nation’s problems must be addressed. And it is not just the police’s lack of respect for the public.

The current situation places the police, along with the health service, at the frontline. And for the police, it is a frontline that they probably have very little understanding of. Though the government may perceive this is as the law-and-order frontline (and the Public Order Act is just about that) from the perspective of the police they are also the disease frontline. If they have to break up a gathering because it threatens the spread of the virus, it threatens them too. Have they been provided with adequate training and equipment?

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner (head of the London police) was able to say, “We will also continue to do everything we can to keep our staff fit and well, following the public health guidance and equipping them with protective equipment where we should and can?” A cautious statement admittedly, but can we say the same?

In the longer term, do we give the police the respect they need? Efforts are being made to improve their housing conditions. And at least they have a job (one they are unlikely to lose unlike so many of their fellow citizens at this difficult time). But those who do not feel respected themselves will not respect others.

Unfortunately, the police give us far more cause to resent and fear them than to respect them. It may be something of a hangover from the colonial era. The police were to keep the natives under control. The notion that government means controlling the people has never left the psyche of the governing class. A former President of the UK Supreme Court, who publicly criticised the police over its coronavirus over-enthusiasm (to use a mild term) said, “The tradition of policing in this country is that policemen are citizens in uniform; they are not members of a disciplined hierarchy operating just at the government’s command”. In Kenya, the latter is just what they are, and just the way the government wants it.

Many Kenyans face a bleak prospect over the next months. And this is partly because of the national failure to respect everyone. How is it possible to allow a nation to get into the situation where most people have no cushion? No savings, no reserves. And where living conditions for most are so dreadful that any idea of social distancing is a terrible joke. And in the rainy season (after a lot of rain last year) the Nairobi Water Company has to promise special provision to ensure that people in Mathare can still get water.

It’s not the vision of Kenya that the Constitution portrays. If there is one principle you could extract from that much-maligned document it is that of respect, of a sense that everyone is to be valued, that every life, if you like, is sacred. Instead of that, people are so often treated by leaders of electoral cannon fodder. And the police are the tool to keep the lid on any dissent.

Many people have been speculating as to how the coronavirus will change society. Will it produce a greater sense of community, that we are all in this together? We might ask, will our leaders partake in any such sense of community? And will the police, too, recognise that they are part of us?


The author is a director of Katiba Institute

This article was first published by the Star Newspaper on 5th April 2020


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