Wednesday, February 22, 2017

My case for disarming the police

For as long as I have been alive, the police have always been armed. They ordinarily bear the Heckler & Koch G3 battle rifle, the Kalshnikov Concern AK-47 assault rifle or the Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun. Few of them carry side-arms, sniper rifles, general purpose machine guns or light machine guns, except when dealing with large-scale unrest. It is inevitable, thus, that if you encounter policemen on patrol, they will inevitably be armed with assault or battle rifles.

I believe this lies at the heart of the problems with policing in Kenya. When it is founded on an armed, national police force, renaming it as a police service, will not resolve the inherent contradictions. A police service should be established for the safety of the people first, and then the safety of their property. Things like the security of the state and the stability of the government are dealt with by the security services and the defence forces.

A police service that is called upon to perform both public safety and national security functions will develop a schizophrenia from all the pressure bearing upon its usually meagre resources, particular its human resource. The National Police Service is called upon to perform both functions, even when the Kenyan intelligence community can be tasked with a great deal of the national security work. The pressures that have come to bear on the National Police have, I believe, contributed to increasing cases of insubordination, indiscipline and violence among professional colleagues.

In recent weeks policemen have turned their firearms on each other, turned their guns on their intimate partners, committed suicide or threatened or attacked their commanding officers. This too during an expansion in their material capabilities, from the purchase of more guns to the purchase of more military and paramilitary materiel.

The need to protect the country from terror attacks has been used to justify the continued presence of armed police on our streets and in our neighbourhoods. However, from the response to the attacks at the Westgate Mall, Mpeketoni in Lamu and Garissa University College, it is clear that the existence of armed police did not prevent the attacks. It however, revealed the intelligence failures at the continued menace of terrorist groups.

A reorientation in policing towards its demilitarisation and a focus on public safety might also improve the national police's disciplinary challenges. The fewer policemen that are armed, the fewer policemen that are tempted to use their firearms to settle personal or professional scores with each other or with civilians. This might also reorient the relationship of the national police service with the communities that it is charged to keep safe; fewer encounters between the police and civilians will be likely to escalate into violent confrontations if the civilian population doesn't feel like it is living under siege.

Better co-ordination by the national police and the intelligence community might identify communities that will require armed police patrols; however, this should be the exception and not the rule. A generally disarmed police service has the opportunity to forge better community relations which will help identify threats to the safety of the people or private property before they escalate into crimes that warrant a police response. Of course, each police district will still need a small contingent of armed police to respond to situations where the force of arms are necessary but, again, this should be the exception and not the rule.

One other outcome might be the redirection of scarce resources towards the improvement in the quality of life of rank and file police officers and, perhaps, a reduction in corrupt acts among them. If less money is spent buying more guns and ammunition, the savings can be directed at police housing and other social amenities for police officers and their families, reducing the psychological pressures they're under, improving discipline within the ranks and reducing the chances of police officers turning their firearms against each other, intimate partners, other civilians or their commanding officers.

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