“My mother was deeply disappointed when I became a police officer. Unfortunately, she passed away before I rose through the ranks to become Inspector General.’’
Those were the words of Dr Solomon Arase, Nigeria’s former Inspector General of Police.
Speaking in Nairobi on Wednesday morning during the opening of the two-day International Conference on Police Accountability in Africa, Dr Arase was echoing the words of National Police Service spokesman Charles Owino, who earlier on, while representing Inspector General of Police Hillary Mutyambai, had asked the question, “Would any of you in this room encourage your sons and daughters to join the police service?”
Mr Owino and Dr Arase were speaking to the widely held misconceptions and stigma associated with being a police officer, alluding to the widely held belief that families only send their metaphoric “black sheep” to become custodians of law and order.
It was argued that this perception represents everything that is wrong in how the public relates with the police and vice versa, since the officers are well aware that they aren’t perceived as a caring, professional lot. In turn, they too form their own biases against members of the public, resulting in a clash of assumptions.
Fingers were pointed at the police for a myriad shortcomings, with representatives asking for support and understanding from governments and the citizenry. The developing consensus was that the first point of reforms in making policing and the police better was to appreciate the humanity of the police, and in turn to expect the police to treat the public humanely.
In a word, there was no changing things unless both the police and the public revisited their attitudes towards each other, by first dismantling the Us-versus-Them stance, which has informed policing for a long time.
As Peter Kiama of the Independent Medico Legal Unit pointed out, the police and civilians are one and the same, only that one group wears uniform and is armed – for the protection of everyone.
According to an observation by the National Police Service Reforms Directorate, two factors contribute to the police either going rogue or working within their code of conduct. The first is the nature of policing work, the other is the conditions under which the work is done.
In their admission, nothing can be done about the nature of police work, since policing will remain just that – policing. But a lot can definitely be done to improve the conditions within which policing is done, which is what the police leadership said is continuously happening.
Many wondered, how does one expect a policeman who shares a house with two, three or four other families to behave whenever they go out in the streets? This is because the environment within which someone operates – where they live with their families – plays a big role in shaping an individual’s sense of self.
Therefore, if such basics can’t be fixed, then how would anyone expect better from a demoralised lot?
These challenges notwithstanding, the Inspector General, who Mr Owino termed as affable, reaffirmed his commitment to carry on with police reforms, promising to secure the gains made so far and do whatever is required of him and his office to ensure the police serve Kenyans better going forward.
Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji warned that much as he was working with the police to effect all manner of changes, police officers, no matter their rank, needed to beware that if found breaking the law in the course of carrying out their duties, then he won’t hesitate to prosecute them.
“We’re working on a number of reforms,” he said, “but with that happening, we will still uphold the law.”
In drawing parallels between the police in East Africa, Dr Japhet Biegon of Amnesty International observed that as much as Kenya had a robust legal regime for police accountable, the overarching similarity shared by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania was that the police were guilty of serious violations against civilians.
However, possibly the most eye-opening realisation out of the gathering was the submission by United Nations Special Rapporteur, Dr Mutuma Ruteere, who posited that no matter how many technical reform programmes are implemented within the police service, we shouldn’t forget that a country’s policing culture is a direct reflection of its politics, such that a chaotic politics results in an even more disjointed police service.
The fact that the top leadership of the police accepted to openly engage the civil society, seeing that the forum was hosted by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) Kenya, inspires hope that in seeking to be understood better and in wanting to minimise the public’s scepticism, the police will adopt a more conciliatory approach from now on, putting guns away and interacting with Kenyans closely.