When I was young(er) one of my teachers asked everyone in my class what we wanted to be when we were older. This is a question that almost everyone if not everyone is asked at some point in their life. Doctor, nurse, neurosurgeon (because Ben Carson’s “Think Big” and “Gifted Hands” were a rite of passage at my school), lawyer, judge, journalist, architect, astronaut, footballer, and accountant are some of the answers I remember. For some reason, not a single person wanted to become a police officer. If I were to guess why I would say it was because people did not think highly of police officers. That was (arguably still is) a job left for those that either did not go to school or did go but did not do well. Many years later and little has changed. The Kenya Police struggles a lot with image and perception by the public and I dare say that will not change anytime soon.
The opinion of the police in Kenya is not a good one. Some, if not most, citizens think of them as lazy people who take bribes and that do not do their jobs and somehow expect to get paid (a session in a criminal court is likely to reveal this through the failure of investigating officers to do what is required of them) or powerful people that abuse their power and harass people they are meant to protect. A look at the other side of the coin reveals a force that has to work with very little or no resources, sometimes in very hostile conditions and for very little pay.
Kenyans ushered in the month of April in a manner unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon. All over social media were photos and videos doing rounds in which a police officer without uniform stood over a teenage boy and rained bullets on him. It is alleged that the suspect and another that was also shot dead were members of a gang and were about to commit a robbery. It is alleged that the gang had murdered a police officer and that the public execution might have been an act of revenge. The response to the video was divided; with some speaking for police officers and others against them.
Nairobi Police Commander Japheth Koome said that the video was “acted” and was meant to discourage him from making sure that people in the country were safe and, that despite the alleged intended discouragement, he was more motivated and had no regret. He went on to say he would be ruthless to criminals and that he was currently burying a police officer killed by a gangster in Meru. Police spokesman Charles Owino said that those in the video must be identified for a probe to be done. Donald B. Kipkorir, a founding and managing partner at KTK Advocates in support of the action taken by the police, said that “where one decides to be a terrorist, by joining Al Shabaab or being a cattle rustler, he operates outside of the law and cannot seek refuge in the law” and argued that necessity justified the killings.
In a law class at the Kenya School of Law, when asked by their Criminal Litigation lecturer to give their views on the killings, those supporting the police said they were right in doing so because people in gangs show no humanity to their victims, because the law should only protect those that follow it, because gangs were a menace that needed to be done away with, and because it is about time anyway. Those against argued that the government is there to protect all its citizens, that shooting teenage boys in the street is no way justifiable, that the criminal system exists for a reason, extra-judicial that the police officer would be given a trial anyway, that citizens were equal before the law, and that no way could a police officer trained for years be compared to a teenager.
Extrajudicial killings have again become the norm. What many think only happens in the movies is happening in Kenya day in day out. First, it was the killing of lawyer Willy Kimani, then came this shooting in Eastleigh Nairobi, and the most recent a shooting of a mother, her son and motorbike rider by suspected police. While the issue is not necessarily new, it was hoped that it would be a thing of the past following more efforts to promote the rule of law and protection of rights under the Bill of Rights, most importantly the right to life and the right to a fair trial. No doubt in the 197extra-judicialkillings happened left right and center, however, there was hope that things would begin to change.
The argument that criminals are let go by judges or magistrates during trial anyway holds no water as a justification of the doings of trigger-happy police officers. Kenya needs to learn from the Philippines that “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” does more harm than good. The shoot to kill orders by the President in a bid to eradicate drug dealers have led to mass killings in the name of drug dealing even where there is no evidence. A toleration of such killings is a dangerous path to tread since it will mean a total disregard of the law and a resort to survival for the fittest.
Kenya could borrow a leaf from Japan and have its officers trained to subdue criminals without the use of (extra) force. In Japan, the officers do not carry guns, are highly trained in martial arts, and their first recourse is to subdue without maiming. Kenyan officers need to be trained to rely on guns as a last resort when all else has failed and also to use guns in very exceptional situations. The issue of gangs needs to be looked at in depth and the root causes of their existence dealt with; otherwise what will be fought always is a losing battle – killing of some members and their subsequent replacement by others. Further, it must be emphasised that where the rule of law exists or is purported to exist, there can be no room for rogue acts, even by the police.
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