Unravelling cause of police brutality

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Police service leadership world-wide is currently smarting from unprecedent mass outrage following the recent bizarre killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, US. Kenya too is among countries such as India and South Africa where police brutality has been evidenced, particularly while enforcing safety measures against the raging Covid-19 pandemic. The degrading treatment of Mercy Cherono, an alleged crime suspect, by police officers in Nakuru lately adds to the outrage. However, the global characteristic of the disturbing phenomenon is most telling.

The core essence of policing is law enforcement and protection of life and property. Granted, in the performance of their onerous work, police officers shall, when need arises, be justified to exercise some degree of force, or coercion purposely to keep order and enforce the law. In fact, the power to use justifiable force, and particularly firearms, is a universally lawful practice in policing, but to the best extent possible, police officers are obliged to exercise that power by use of non-violent means.

Ideally, police brutality, a contentious term, is construed as exercise of police power to use force, or coercion of any kind beyond what is justifiable in circumstance or need, as to amount to torture, or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment including disrespect for human dignity. Indeed, one of the cardinal principles of policing, as espoused by Sir Robert Peele, the renowned founder of modern Anglo- American policing is ‘to recognize that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.’ To give effect to the principle, police organizations have domesticated well defined codes and standards of ethics to guide their officers in policing democratic societies, by committing to protect Constitutional rights of all people to liberty, equality and justice and to do so without fear or favour.

Policing is a disciplined service and, therefore, police discipline, otherwise known as enforced discipline, is the bedrock of policing proper. It is simply the practice of obedience to lawful orders, laws, rules, regulations, procedures and standards of behaviour, failure to which sanctions, or punishment must ensue. In essence, police discipline ensures that police officers’ behaviour is managed and corrected through established operational relationships and obligations between junior and senior officers; clearly defines acts or omissions deemed to be offences against discipline and sets out the procedure of handling complaints against police officers in general. Consequently, police supervisors and commanders have mandatory responsibility to ensure that their charges are well disciplined, whilst deviant behavior is identified early enough and dealt with decisively, to specifically exemplify zero tolerance to indiscipline in the service.

Unfortunately, some police officers have what is described in Radley Balko’s book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, as ‘warrior’ mindset. This mentality is manifested by aggressive and abrasive law enforcement in the misplaced belief that instilling fear is the only best way to prevent, or suppress criminal behavior. Locally, for example, this mentality is perceptible during police confrontations with unarmed, rowdy and unruly mobs, or while dispersing protesting students using excessive force.

That mentality is completely against the ethics and professionalism required in people – centered policing. Indeed, it is antithetical to the honour assumed in the exercise of police powers and incongruous with philosopher Plato’s vision of a perfect society, thus ’the greatest amount of power is given to those called the Guardians (read police). Only those with the most impeccable character are chosen to bear the responsibility of protecting the democracy.’ Guardians are the many good police officers who are well disciplined and always demonstrate empathy, fairness and protection of fundamental human rights in their dealing with members of public. They represent the pride of men and women in police uniforms everywhere.

Incidentally, for a considerable while now, police strategic and tactical focus has been concentrated on novel innovations in technology, training and operational strategies and tactics in pursuit of reforms.

These initiatives are well informed towards improving the quality and relevance of policing, but they have been at the expense of consistent and decisive enforcement of discipline against errant officers. Put more bluntly, supervisors have somewhat abdicated their responsibility to monitor incidence of misconduct by their charges and make prompt interventions as need be. Reportedly, some supervisors have even insulated their officers’ notoriety from independent scrutiny. No wonder, Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd, has an alleged history of brutality, preceding the fatal incident. Similar parallels could be drawn against police officers accused of related incidents in the local scene. Consequently, there has evolved a culture of ‘rogue cop’ impunity, against which the established police oversight bodies are hard put to deal with, especially when co-operation from some supervisors is not readily forthcoming. Sad!

Going forward, there is a compelling urgency to re-focus attention on the expedience of discipline enforcement against wayward police officers. Besides, conscious of the stressful nature of police work, provision of psychological and counselling services should be enhanced, to effectively and expeditiously attend to officers susceptible to misconduct. All said, it’s time to pick up the pieces and gallantry overcome the obtaining disgrace, so as reclaim the fast waning public trust in police officers as custodians of law, good order and public peace.

Peter Mwangi is a Law Enforcement & Security Management Consultant Lead Consultant, Edge Trainers & Consultants Nairobi.

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