This report provides an overview of the context within which community-oriented policing in Kenya currently operates. It focuses on the findings of our researchers in and around the capital city of Nairobi.
For most Kenyan residents and police officers, especially those living or working in Nairobi’s extensive slums and poor areas, police-community relations are characterised by mutual distrust. The regime is widely regarded as corrupt while the Kenyan Police Service (KPS) is seen as politicised, demoralised, under-resourced, corrupt and brutal. Distrust is further exacerbated by tribal conflict and terrorism, all of which are significant political issues throughout the country. Meanwhile, urban areas are plagued by crimes ranging from violent robbery, house invasions and car-jackings to rape, muggings and opportunistic theft. Despite crime levels and police brutality, it is against this background that COP is promoted by the Kenyan government and its international supporters, and such projects aimed at enhancing police-public relationships and trust, are at the core of Kenya’s police development.
COP’s functions and objectives are grounded in documents such as the National Police Service Act and the National Police Service Standing Orders, but they are also affected by political contingencies such as election-related violence and terrorism. Thus, the nature and purpose of COP may have shifted in the light of terrorist acts such as January 2019’s attack on a luxury hotel and office complex in Nairobi. Significantly, April 2019 saw the replacement of the inspector general of police responsible for people-centred policing by an officer from the Directorate of Security Intelligence.
Issues affecting everyday insecurity in urban areas
The challenges of implementing COP in Nairobi are best seen in the city’s informal settlements such as Mathare, where petty crime is common, though robbery, GBV, rape, land-grabbing, murder and extra judicial killings also play a part. Mathare’s residents believe that insecurity has increased over the last ten years and the area’s youths are considered responsible for much of this. Youths are treated accordingly; the existence of extra-judicial killing is acknowledged but some community members view such killings as a sign of good policing because it targets criminals. More generally, the police are considered to be a source of insecurity, and there is a widespread belief that the police’s brutality and corruption combines with its power to make the community vulnerable and weak.
Ethnic division is also an issue, especially during election years such as in 2018. Political leaders use ethnicity as a tool to safeguard their constituency votes and scare off rivals, sometimes assigning vigilante/youth groups to specific areas. Politicians also use police to bully their opponents. Several community-based organisations (CBOs) in Mathare told us that the police who took part in stopping a riot during the elections were from one ethnic group.
Domestic violence is another perennial problem, but our respondents emphasised the role of youths in exacerbating insecurity. They also stressed that youths in settlements such as Mathare are particularly vulnerable to police brutality. In turn, youths’ claim that the police assume them all to be criminals, especially if they have dreadlocks, wear fashionable street-clothing or display characteristics that the police associate with criminals and gangs. One result is that boys’ mothers seriously consider moving home:
‘We are wondering where we will take our children, because when they do good they are harassed, when they steal they are being shot. If a child reached 15 years, parents get worried. I have a 15 year-old boy whom I have taken to his grandparents and I decided he will not come to Mathare yet I was born and bred here.’
Another challenge for COP is that most Kenyans believe that the police protect the government and politicians, rather than provide security to citizens; most argue that citizens must therefore provide their own security. This reflects a lack of trust in the police’s limited response and the unreliable nature of the justice/legal system. It also reflects the fact that levels of trust between residents in poor urban areas are minimal. This also holds for richer areas where private security companies are commonly used by both businesses and private residencies.
In some poor areas, however, informal groups such as youth groups/gangs provide security though many are deemed unreliable. Even so, some of these groups play a significant role, providing not only security, but also basic needs such as water, sanitation and garbage removal. In this way, the groups take key positions in the communities concerned and local residents depend on them. The groups charge every household for the resultant security provision and community services. Some groups also claim to mentor youths involved in petty crime. They talk to them or involve them in activities such as football or garbage collection. If, however, the youth concerned fails to change his behaviour, he is handed over to the police.
Police are avoided
Most citizens avoid contact with the police. Residents look to youth groups, elders and local chiefs to solve the many minor conflicts found in informal settlements. Traditional conflict resolution mechanisms still exist, and chiefs are used in cases of, for example, domestic violence or land grabs. Although more serious crime such as robbery, defilement, rape and murder are often reported to the police, mob justice also takes place in areas where trust in the police is low. As a community representative from Mathare explained, ‘the community rarely report a case to the police, they prefer to solve it themselves because the police give justice to those who have money.’ This assessment was supported by a youth group which said that ‘The police told us, if you do not have money, you cannot negotiate. Therefore, the group only report to the police when they are forced to.’ In other words, residents first try to solve crimes themselves. If they have evidence and the case is serious they then go to the police; they do not go to the police if they do not have evidence because the police would not do anything.
In Nairobi’s poor communities, CBOs often act as arbitrators. The more established and connected CBOs help their members to seek justice/solve conflict though their connections and volunteer members.
Poor relations between the government and the community
Many Kenyans consider the government to be closely connected to ethnic groups, with relations between the government and specific communities depending on the ethnicity of the citizens/community concerned. This has an effect on COP implementation. Additionally, residents have varied access to public services. For example, those living in Nairobi’s informal settlements have comparatively limited access to state law enforcement and justice when compared to other segments of the population. Consequently, people feel safer when they live among their own ethnic group. This further complicates easy assessments of COP because Mathare, for example, is divided into different ethnic groups, each of which dominates different areas. For example, Mathare 4A is highly dominated by minority party supporters led by the Luo community, while Mlango Kubwa and the Bondeni area are dominated by the Kikuyu community.
The nature of police-community relations
According to the Kenyan Police act, the police service does assist the public when people are in need, but in practice this is seldom the case. Relations between the community and police are weak and turbulent, with the police’s unprofessionalism, unreliability, corruption and brutality leading to high levels of distrust. At the same time, the police complain about the lack of support that they receive. One local government representative in Mathare said: ‘I work with the police cautiously. I work with the police, but not close because one cannot trust the police.’ A youth group member agreed: ‘you can’t really trust the police. Their mind can change by money’, while another said: ‘We don’t really trust them, but we have to cooperate with the police. We have properties, so we have to cooperate with the police’.
The relationship is not straightforward, and in Mathare we discovered considerable variation in community-police relations, much of which is attributable to factors such as age and economic resources — and demographically Kenya is a very young society. Some groups, especially economically established youth groups led by older youths, forge relationships with the local police stations and co-operate with the police and local chiefs; they have an interest in safeguarding their properties and increasing security in their neighbourhood. However, most groups consisting of youths under the age of 25 do not have contact with the police. They complain that they are not invited to community policing forums, and that the police regard them as criminals, and treat them accordingly.
Overview of COP in Kenya
Today there are two state-led COP models implemented in Kenya: Nyumba Kumi (NK) which is led by the President’s Office, and the National Police Service’s Community Policing Committees (CPC) structure. Inevitably, the existence of two different state-led COP initiatives implemented by different actors creates confusion and political tension at the local level, and conflict between the two models is not unusual. Efforts are currently being made to merge the two concepts and place NK clusters under sub-locations in order to ground COP at the household level. In NPS policies, NK is now included in the CPC structure, but in practice this is not yet the case
The NPS’ CPC model is based on county-level organisations under the County Policing Authority (CPA) that builds on a series of local-level structures. According to NPS guidelines, the structure includes multiple committees that consist of civilians and police who meet and report up to the next level/committee in the chain. The chairperson of the CPCs is a civilian and the vice chair is police. The idea behind the committees is that individuals representing different segments of the community (such as youth/adults, women/men, schools, business community, religious groups etc.) and the police meet on a regular basis to identify and solve problems at the community level, and to co-ordinate the activities, programmes and trainings required to promote security. Thus, the main pillars of the NPS’ COP are problem solving, partnership and police transformation. According to the NPS, problem solving entails a ‘joint process of addressing recurring security problems within a community’ while partnership is defined as a collaborative effort with the primary objective of determining security needs and policing priorities. Transformation is understood as referring to ‘a fundamental shift from police- centric to people-centric policing’.
In contrast, NK is understood as a neighbourhood watch scheme based on units of households in which residents take the lead. The NK model was imported from Tanzania and introduced by the president as a strategy to fight terrorism and insecurity by increasing communication and co-operation between communities and the police. NK aims to ensure that residents in the various communities get to know each other better, and that they develop a communications structure between themselves as well as with the local police. Local community chiefs lead the household clusters at the heart of NK, and report matters of community security to the police (the police is not formally part of the clusters). In other words, NK provides a framework anchoring COP to the household/basic level. It is aimed at bringing Kenyans together in clusters defined by physical location, needs, and the pursuit of a common ideal of a safe, sustainable and prosperous neighbourhood. More formally, the government, NPS and donors claim to understand COP as a strategy and philosophy in which police co-operate with communities, albeit with the police taking the lead. This is reflected in the official definition provided by the National Police Service’s 2018 ‘Community policing information booklet’.
Community policing is founded on the development of partnerships between the police and the communities they serve, to address issues of security and social disorder. The partnerships are focused on delivery of police services that combine aspects of traditional law enforcement, crime prevention, and problem solving. The practice of community policing in Kenya seeks to expand the partnership to all other government agencies, the private sector, NGOs and the civil society. The overall goal is to improve public safety and the quality of life for all persons within the country.
Challenges in operationalising COP
Operationalising this approach is challenging, though the ICT4COP policy brief, ‘Pride of Place: Building Kenyan Policing From the Bottom Up’, which identifies examples of good practice in three Nairobi police stations, suggests what can be achieved. In each of the stations concerned, individual station commanders had deliberately sought to improve relations between officers and the local community (or some sectors of it). This, they insisted, lies at the heart of community policing Nevertheless, despite voicing for greater inclusion of local communities in security strategies and improved cooperation between police and communities, many Kenyans are skeptical of both NK and the CPCs.
Implementing the two models has proved challenging. One factor is that the two COP models have not been grounded in the communities. There has been little training, sensitization or follow up by the communities, their leaders or the police on the aim, function, objective and structure of either CPCs or NK. Further, local stakeholders, communities and citizens have had little influence on the development of the COP structures. COP is therefore considered by many as a top down model imposed on them by a state apparatus they do not necessarily trust. A second factor is that the local understanding and practice of COP emphasises the influence of vigilantism, coercion or extortion on its activities. It is seen as a replacement for village elders, a spy ring, a parallel security system, a political forum, or an informal employment opportunity, none of which are regulated by the law.
A common view, especially when it comes to NK, is that COP is first and foremost a surveillance and intelligence gathering method for the state and the police; community members consider members of the two COP models to be police informants. Surveillance and intelligence gathering has been the main focus in the implementation of COP in both urban and rural communities, while the core pillars of partnership, problem solving, and people-centred policing has not been given much emphasis.
Another problem results from the fact that different youth groups define COP differently. The most economically established groups in Mathare view COP as an instrument for building relationships with the security actors whereas younger and less well-established groups view COP initiatives as an instrument for surveillance or spying on the community. Meanwhile CBOs in Mathare view COP in the light of their relationship with the police. For example, CBOs whose aim is to defend human rights see COP as a government strategy for gaining power in the community through intelligence gathering and controlling citizens whereas CBOs that work closely with the police view COP as the foundation of security.
Taking COP seriously
In both urban and rural areas, a security threat to community members (and COP fora in particular) arose from local police officers violating the principle of confidentiality. This often involves officers revealing the identity of individuals reporting cases to the police in return for bribes, thus putting the reporting individual at risk of retaliations and reprisals from the perpetrators or from others having a stake in the case. Making complaints against the police or advocate for police accountability in COP forums often proves risky:
‘You are surrounded by people who can kill you the next minute. […] You are not allowed to say anything against the police. They are “small Gods”. So that is not an area where you can complain. If you complain they give out your details, and it becomes a risk for you’ (Former NK member).
The negative view in communities of individuals engaging in COP forums, accusing them of working as police informants and spies, added with police officers leaking information, makes the security situation challenging for some COP forum members. An NK member said that it is difficult to recruit members to the cluster, as one cannot expect volunteers to put their lives at risk. During a sensitization meeting in one of the rural villages visited in western Kenya, insecurity for the local CPC members was identified as a challenge and stronger security apparatus and measures around the CPC members were voiced for.
Even when this is not the case, COP’s objectives are not taken seriously. This is evident in two examples. First, observations of COP sensitization trainings in Siaya and Kisumu counties showed that SGBV was a common issue, but it was not taken seriously, and many cases were not followed up. Second, the political significance of radicalization and terrorism ensures that young men in Muslim dominated areas are often a target for the police, which is accused of extra judicial killings and unlawful detentions and arrests as well as disappearances.
Overall, a wealth of anecdotal, circumstantial and statistical evidence suggests that the implementation of COP is undermined by most Kenyans regarding the police as a hazard to be avoided, rather than as a protecting force. Nevertheless, the police’s role cannot provide a complete explanation for the current state of COP. As the research focus on the role of youths and politicians emphasises, the challenges confronting COP are societal as much as security-related.
Photo: Graffiti wall and youths, Mathare, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo credit: Katy Fentress (via flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)