Police screening has failed to generate excitement

Many citizens dismissed the process after only a handful of top officers were removed on the basis of corruption.

Saturday February 6 2016

By GABRIELLE LYNCH
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In 2011, Kenyans avidly watched and discussed the televised vetting of the country’s top judges. Together with the appointment of Willy Mutunga as new Chief Justice, the process contributed to a sense of judicial reform that helped increase public confidence in this critical institution.

But it is not only judicial officers who have been subject to public vetting in the wake of the country’s post-election violence of 2007/8.

There is also the ongoing vetting of police officers, which began in December 2013, and which the National Police Service Commission (NPSC) plans to complete before the next election.

However, while the NPSC has vetted around 2,000 officers, the process has failed to motivate the same kind of excitement as the vetting of top judges.

More specifically, the process has made little difference to public confidence levels — with the police still widely denigrated as corrupt and unaccountable for human rights abuses.

In part, this is because people are all too keenly aware of the challenges involved in trying to reform the police, and of the day-to-day realities of abuse of office.

For example, one only has to drive for a few hours in Nairobi before one sees gridlocked junctions unmanned by police followed by a traffic free junction manned by several officers who are strategically placed to collect bribes from any driver who makes an illegal right turn.

However, scepticism also results from a number of other factors. First, the debate regarding police powers is complicated by popular support for heavy-handed security measures.

In short, while most Kenyans seem to agree that police should not be corrupt, many condone or even encourage human rights abuses if it is seen to target criminals or terrorists.

INSTITUTIONAL REFORM

Second, while many were optimistic about the prospects for institutional reform in the wake of the inauguration of a new constitution in 2010, Kenyans are now much more divided.

On the one hand, there are those who think reforms are less relevant given the new constitution and a relatively peaceful election in 2013. On the other hand, there are those who are increasingly sceptical about the possibility for any kind of reform under the current regime.

In addition, many vocal citizens quickly dismissed the process as useless after only a handful of top officers were removed on the basis of corruption rather than human rights abuses.

For example, in 2014, many interviewees referred to the board’s clearance of an infamous police officer who was widely rumoured to have been involved in police shootings during the post-election violence and drug trafficking — the implication being that if he could be cleared then anyone could get through.

In addition, it soon became evident that some officers who were recommended for retirement by the vetting panel somehow kept their jobs and remained in office. As a result, people understandably became sceptical of police vetting.

However, the process still provides an opportunity for individuals and organisations to bring information regarding the competence and integrity of officers before a panel, which will then determine whether they are fit for office.

So, how does the process work and what can people do if they have information about individual officers? A recent briefing by the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) provides an excellent summary, but let me summarise.

SUBMIT COMPLAINTS

The name and rank of officers to be vetted should be advertised on the NPSC website and in the newspapers. People are then invited to submit complaints.

The officer is then required to submit various documents including a wealth declaration form and bank statements for the previous two years.

The NPSC then combines these documents with any complaints received, analyses the information, and conducts interviews (usually in public). The vetting panel then makes a recommendation to the NPSC.

The process is clearly far from perfect and citizens often have good reasons to fear giving information against police officers. However, if people do have information of incompetent and abusive officers then it is worth at least investigating the vetting process as a possible route to making a small contribution to a cleaner police force.

Gabrielle Lynch, Associate Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Warwick, UK ([email protected])

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