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Comment 
Wednesday, February 25, 2004 

MICHELLE KAGARI / THE POLICE FORCE  

Culture of impunity hindering reforms 


Police Commissioner Edwin Nyaseda and his small team of reformists have a major task ahead of them, and he is not to be envied.

Fundamental transformation of institutions is never easy, especially so when it is his job to overhaul an institution like the police that has flourished for so long in an environment that fosters corruption, criminality and brutality. 

The Police Forceís own Draft Strategic Plan acknowledges that a culture of impunity exists. This exempts them from accountability when they abuse human rights and engage in criminal activities. It creates an environment where perpetrators can continue to break the law, safe in the knowledge that they will never face arrest, prosecution or punishment. 

The seeds of impunity are planted when officers act in contravention of the law and administrative regulations; and takes root when mechanisms to hold these officers to account are either too weak, or non-existent.

This culture is reinforced when the leadership protects the wrong-doers from being brought to book; and is entrenched when the police leadership demonstrates its willingness to be part of the system.

Impunity feeds on itself and eventually the bad displaces the good. This is why reforms have become imperative.

It is not surprising that impunity is endemic within the force. Complaints against the police are dealt with through internal mechanisms that are completely closed to the public. Oftentimes ,complaints made will disappear into the black hole of the establishment and never be heard of again. 

The external mechanisms, which include Parliament, the courts, commissions of inquiry and national human rights commissions, have not been very effective either. 

Previous reports of the now defunct Standing Committee on Human Rights were consistent in their indictment of the failure of police leadership to even respond to queries. 

Kenyans have seen senior police and Government officials become defensive and deny allegations of impropriety or criminality within the force.

Further, the Police Draft Strategic Plan acknowledges that at all ranks, there are officers who owe their positions "not to their qualifications or performance but rather to patronage of powerful persons". 

This behaviour by the leadership sends a clear signal that the institutional practice is to protect officers from any scrutiny. The result is that from top to bottom, no one has the moral authority or courage to point a finger. Who then will cast the first stone? Can the police change themselves?

Years of experimentation with reform based on tinkering with the system rather than addressing the fundamentals that have to do with accountability and consequences flowing from wrong-doing and impunity have failed in jurisdiction after jurisdiction. 

In contrast, reform has succeeded well where these issues have been prioritised, mechanisms put into place to ensure compliance, and most importantly, where there has been sustained political will and police leadership willing to follow through. 

Commissioner Nyaseda is able to identify good officers he knows exist, to own the reform process, and help him bring fundamental change from within. 

The reforms must be spearheaded by officers who are themselves the epitome of democratic and accountable policing, otherwise the process will be fatally undermined.

Real reform happens when the people being changed take ownership of the transformation. The process adopted is just as important as the outcome.

The approach used by the Commissioner needs to reflect the same values of transparency, accountability, integrity and professionalism that will make the force a service. 

Efforts to reinvent the force will surely face serious obstacles, not only because it must involve holding officers to account for past wrong-doing, but also because the prospect of change almost always creates fear and insecurity. 

In all this, the Commissioner must not bow to the temptation to implement the reforms through dictate.

The key to realising his vision is to make consultations with the constabulary who comprise over 70 per cent of the police force, and the communities they interact with, the heart of his approach.

The Constitutional Review process, even with all its difficulties, has created the precedent for this. It is not enough to hold two-day workshops with professional conference-goers and the elite. 

The officers who are the face of the institution will themselves need to change and the only way to help them do it is to ensure they are convinced the reform is to their benefit.

Creating space for participation confers legitimacy to the entire process, and allows good officers who have hitherto been condemned for the sins of a few, to come forward and become the champions of change. 

A process that upholds democratic values will also buy the Commissioner the publicís goodwill and patience when the reforms hit rough patches, and allow him and his team time to fine-tune their strategies as each change gradually becomes institutionalised.

Kenyans and the new constitution need the police. They are at the forefront of guarding our democratic ideals and must themselves espouse the same if these ideals are to be entrenched in society. Are the police up to this challenge? 

E-mail: michelle@humanrightsinitiative.org

Ms Kagari is the Co-ordinator EA, with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)

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