Death in uniform: Frustration blamed as police suicides and murders increase

Monday February 15 2016

Police officers guard the entrance to Safaricom Stadium during FKF Special Annual General Meeting on February 10, 2016. A police constable earns a gross income of Sh32,880, although his take home is much lower after tax and loan repayments. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Police officers guard the entrance to Safaricom Stadium during FKF Special Annual General Meeting on February 10, 2016. A police constable earns a gross income of Sh32,880, although his take home is much lower after tax and loan repayments. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The crime scene: A pub in Tana Delta Sub-County.

An Administration Police officer, in full uniform appeared before his boss, cocked his gun, put it to his own neck and pulled the trigger.

Before everyone could grasp what was going on, the officer was on the ground, blood flowing freely from his neck as he lay dying.

“He did not show any sign of being stressed. He had always been a quiet person,” one of Constable Kennedy Waweru’s colleagues said after the shocking incident.

No one really knows what happened before Waweru shot himself, except that his boss had assigned him night duties.

However, Kennedy is not alone. He is one of many police officers who have increasingly turned guns on themselves or their colleagues.

Cases such as Waweru’s have been blamed on neglect. Yet, death in the service as a result of trauma and stress is still not adequately addressed.

Studies carried out elsewhere indicate that second-hand trauma — exposure to murders, road crashes and homicides — are the leading causes of police suicides.

Although the National Police Service Commission is charged with managing, regulating and supervising police reforms, the anticipated changes have been slow and morale within the service has taken a hit.

Prof Oscar Githua, a forensic psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at the United States International University in Nairobi believes that police have been neglected, both by the society and the government.

“They are people who need to live with people like any other person but the society perceives them differently. We speak to them rudely, we do not hear them out and their pay does not measure up to the risk and danger they are exposed to,” said the lecturer.

A police constable earns a gross income of Sh32,880, although his take home is much lower after tax and loan repayments.

A corporal earns about Sh42,660 while a sergeant’s basic pay is about Sh45,540.

Studies done elsewhere have shown that police officers are significantly at higher risk for a host of long-term physical and mental ailments than the general population due to the daily stress they face at work.

“When he leaves for work, a police officer never knows whether he will see his children later. He is not sure he will return. Many a times, they see their colleagues being killed and they are the ones to clean the mess. This really takes a toll on them,” said Prof Githua.

A week after Kennedy committed suicide, death struck Bulemia Police Post in Busia County when constable Denis Kitiyo shot himself after a domestic row.

He had been warned the previous day about going to work drunk.

There is no database at the police headquarters on police suicides — meaning that such cases are dealt with routinely.

However, according to Police Spokesman George Kinoti, the trend has now become a headache to the National Police Service.

With police reforms failing to resolve the age-old structure, the force is still a prisoner of old habits.

Mr Kinoti said pent up frustrations and unpleasant circumstances under which the officers work could be a leading cause of suicides and other killings within the force.

“Many officers have serious problems to do with family and psychological trauma, but very few will discuss it,” Mr Kinoti said.

“It comes to a point where you see a police officer walking with a gun and you are not sure what he will do next.”

The various police units have no counsellors and the referral chain is a bureaucratic nightmare.

Many are left to handle their problems in their own way and are afraid to report private matters to their seniors.

Research carried out in other countries has shown that danger, high expectations and exposure to human misery and death that police officers experience can contribute to their personal misery.

Records from the police headquarters at Vigilance House show that in the last year alone, at least 28 police officers killed themselves.

Out of these, five led to the deaths of other people, among them spouses, colleagues and bosses.

At least two officers are still admitted in hospital after their suicide missions failed.

When police officers start exhibiting some extreme behaviour, such as drinking while on duty, lateness, or quarrelling, they are usually given warnings by their superiors.

When Kitiyo shot himself in Busia County, the county commissioner, Mr Mongo Chimwaga, said the officer had been warned several times about his conduct, but he had not changed.


He alleged that the officer had constantly spoken about his death and that he had been having problems at home and at work.

Studies have shown that officers working crime scenes should undergo counselling to reduce trauma and help them cope with the stress and anxiety that their jobs expose them to.

While National Police Service has no counselling unit, Mr Kinoti admitted that trauma is caused by having to handle bodies at crash scenes, murder scenes and other gruesome situations.

This is especially so for junior officers who witness a steady stream of the grim underside of life.

“They are usually the first ones at accident scenes, they have seen helpless children die, they lift bodies of people who look like their relatives,” said Mr Kinoti.

The fact that officers share accommodation also fuels feuds and can lead to suicides and homicides.

In one case, a male police officer shot dead his female colleague who had accused him of sexually molesting her nine-year-old daughter.

The officer shot himself after killing his colleague.

Mr Kinoti said that the National Police Service has constantly asked senior officers to keenly observe their juniors, with the aim of spotting if they have a problem that can be solved.

“We also encourage officers’ spouses and families to make a point of discussing with the officers’ bosses if they notice any change of character and emotions,” he said.

But in most cases, officers do not discuss their problems with the superiors — or with their spouses — or with anyone else.

According to Prof Githua, officers do not want to be regarded as emotional because the society’s expectation is that they are strong.

The scholar recommends that the government should make arrangements to have all officers undergo counselling regularly. This, he said, should be done by experts from outside or within the force.

In his view, some of the cases are fuelled by frustrations and perceived injustice within the force, especially for those with young families.

Mr Kinoti observed that most of the officers who commit suicide are men between the ages of 25 and 40 who are still struggling to balance their love and family lives with the demands of work.

“Most of the suicides happen mostly a few days or months after transfers to hardship areas and after domestic quarrels,” he said.

“Because of the nature of the job, officers are not allowed to stay in one station for long and this makes it almost impossible to nourish relationships.”

When Constable Paul Rotich was transferred from Sultan Hamud to Itabua Police Station at the Eastern regional headquarters, he served for less than two months before he shot his wife, Agnes Wakaria, and then killed himself.

While his colleagues described the deceased as hard-working, few knew of the pressure that led him to kill himself.

Several other cases of suicide and murder involving officers have been reported across the country, with some being attributed to love gone sour or stress associated with work.

The latest incident happened in Nyeri County on January, 1. An officer killed himself after he was transferred from Mukurweini Police Station to the regional headquarters on disciplinary grounds.

The officer, Martin Mwongera Ngutiri, committed suicide by hanging himself.

His body was found suspended on a pair of bed sheets in his house on New Year’s Day.

His colleagues said that Mwongera did not want to be transferred from the traffic department where he said, he had a lot of “benefits”.

For years, police officers have been complaining about poor pay, which has been blamed for corruption and indiscipline in the service.

According to Prof Githua, police feel treated unfairly.

“It is also only fair to treat police officers with dignity and respect. The government should improve their remuneration and housing and make them feel appreciated,” he said.

To clean the service of rogue officers, vetting was introduced under the 2010 Constitution. Some of the officers have described it as unfair, with a few ending their lives.

Last year, Baraza Wabomba was transferred from Nairobi’s Starehe area to become the OCPD for Turkana North. He was then summoned to Nairobi for vetting.

As he was being driven between Lodwar and Kapenguria in a police Toyota Land Cruiser, Wabomba opened the door and threw himself out of the speeding vehicle. He died on the spot.

The police spokesman says that frustrations may also be fuelled by the fact that some supervisors do not give leave and time off when officers need to be away from work.

“We have had several instances where the officers in charge of stations cancel offs for some officers and do not accord them the necessary attention when they have urgent matters. Some of them even threaten to sack them if they dare go for leave,” says Mr Kinoti.

Other superiors are caught in love triangles with their juniors.

In one case, Constable Joseph Kipngetich Cheruiyot picked up a Ceska pistol he was to use for official duties at around 11.15pm.

However, he never went for duty. Instead, he went hunting for his boss, Chief Inspector Benson Mwadime, who was having drinks at Club Tenax and Restaurant in Mutuati market with Cheruiyot’s girlfriend.

Mwadime was in charge of the Kinisa General Service Unit camp while Constable Grace Sheila Kioko was based at Mutuati Patrol Base.

Cheruiyot shot the two dead before shooting himself. The club’s owner, Mr Lazarus Ngolo, told detectives that the officer just walked in and shot the two without saying a word.