Defund the police

Policing in postcolonial Kenya is at an impasse. What is needed is disinvestment from this system of repression and reinvestment in communities.

Photo by Kate Darmody on Unsplash

The African-American political activist and academic, Angela Davis, opens her seminal book Are Prisons Obsolete? with a discussion of how prisons have come to seem so “natural” that it is extremely hard to imagine a life without them. The same could be said of the police. We take up Davis’s question and apply it to the Kenyan police. Given the failures of Kenya’s police reform process, which we discuss in our ongoing research projects (see two examples here and here), the question being posed by many is: what comes next? Our answer is that there is a deep argument for the abolition of the Kenyan police altogether.

Postcolonial policing at an impasse

Police, we are told, are essential for providing security and are foundational parts of “modern” society, ensuring democracy and “keeping people safe.” In practice however, police across much of the African continent are often those who wield the baton (or the gun) against civil society, repressing social movements for democracy and justice, and playing a key historical role in propping up the continent’s most repressive regimes by force. In more mundane contexts, police extort populations daily through prevalent demands for bribes. In Nairobi, residents of Eastleigh, for example, complain about how the police treat the neighborhood like an ATM. Meanwhile, rampant extrajudicial killings by police remain a major concern for many residents in low-income neighborhoods.

Modern police institutions made their first appearances on the African continent as part of colonization and the expansion of European capitalist interest in the region. In Kenya, the roots of modern policing lay in what John Lonsdale called the “conquest state” phase of East African history, with the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) developing security forces to protect their expanding economic interests in the 1890s, and the Kenya-Uganda Railroad developing its own police force in 1902. Such forces were established to guard against indigenous resistance to expanding colonial interests—transforming themselves from private security forces into a state security apparatus, ultimately geared at pacifying such populations, particularly through the independence movements of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the wake of Kenya’s independence, the police and military forces were “Africanized” but retained much of their colonial character, as can be seen, most clearly in their deployment to suppress the ethnic Somali secessionist movement in the Northeast, during the so-called “Shifta War” and the sinister practices of Patrick Shaw. Later, under Daniel Arap Moi’s authoritarian regime, the police continued to play a key role in suppressing dissent and brutalizing protesters. Due precisely to these widely-known abuses, and their persistent colonial character since independence, there have been calls to reform the police for decades. Finally, in the wake of the 2007-2008 post-election, in which police were complicit in the widespread ethnic violence, the call to reform the police was taken up in earnest.

Indeed, in Kenya, police reform was taken up fervently and institutionalized within a truly massive effort to structurally transform the police—arguably the largest such effort in Africa since the overhaul of the South African police force in the 1990s in the wake of apartheid. Over the past 15 years, police reform in Kenya has been enshrined in the new Constitution, actualized in numerous acts of parliament, and supported internationally with huge sums of funding and technical expertise (from the United Nations, US, the UK, the European Union, and others), and made material through the reorganization of the police services and the establishing of civil oversight mechanisms. Notwithstanding, the Kenyan police remains arguably as corrupt, violent, and unaccountable as ever. Extrajudicial killings, extortion of bribes from motorists, and the petty dispossession of hundreds of Kenyans daily continue apace. With the rise of new counterterrorism police units (such as the much-feared and internationally funded Anti-Terrorism Police Unit) the police have become arguably more secretive and less accountable, as the so-called Global War on Terror provides a pretext for the retrenchment of civil rights in the name of security.

Ultimately, the work of the major institutions of police reform has been variously stymied, undermined, or rendered ineffective due to interference, underfunding, and neglect. A striking example is that of IPOA (the crown jewel of the police reform process in Kenya), which, by its own accounting, has received nearly 20,000 reports of police misconduct over a decade, but has only successfully managed to bring 12 cases of police violence to conviction. Reporting of police misconduct (while still ultimately only a drop in the bucket of police violence) has certainly increased dramatically. But the number of cases won by IPOA is statistically insignificant (0.0006% of reported cases result in a conviction), which means police remain functionally immune to accountability.

Some may point to the recent convictions of the police officers who were involved in the killing of lawyer Willie Kimani, Josephat Mwenda, and Joseph Muiruri and the recent disbandment of the Special Service Unit by the President as significant gains in the fight against police impunity. We too celebrate these victories, but given our broader structural analysis of how the reform process has stalled, we see these cases as exceptions that prove the rule: in the vast majority of cases police remain immune to accountability. The present “go slow” in the judicial process for known (serial) killer police officer Ahmed Rashid, and the countless other cases that have never made it to court (let alone registered in a police Occurrence Book) point to a systematic deficiency of justice in the country, and a normalized police culture of impunity.

We are, thus, left with the conclusion that despite the staggering amount of resources and energy that have gone into reform in Kenya over the past 15 years, police reform has failed. Put another way, the Kenyan police are functionally unreformable. Policing in postcolonial Kenya is at an impasse. So what comes next? There is a strong case to be made for the abolition of the Kenyan police. Let’s lay out the argument in a few concise points:

  1. Police reform has failed. At best, the Kenyan police are as violent and unaccountable as ever. At worst, their impunity has in fact increased due to the state of exception ushered in by global counterterrorism operations. Moreover, the fact that the police were able to absorb the reform agenda (and indeed use it to expand policing) without reforming their behavior means that the reform process has, in many ways, exacerbated and further entrenched the problems within the police.
  2. The police are functionally obsolete for most Kenyans. In many low-income neighborhoods, our research shows that people are often very hesitant to call the police to respond to crises or crimes (from robbery to sexual violence). For many, experience shows that the police rarely, if ever, solve their problems, indeed they often can make matters worse.
  3. The police do not work to provide real safety or security for most of the population. They often exacerbate the problem of insecurity as major purveyors of violence and corruption, depleting community resources through the widespread extortion of bribes. In order to provide for their own safety, residents increasingly self-organize through solidarity networks of friends, family and neighbors to provide for basic safety and security. For example, women in Mathare organize their own security practices in the absence of any real protection provided by the police.
  4. Even in more affluent neighborhoods, residents are often exasperated by the police and rely increasingly on private security companies to provide security infrastructures. Within such arrangements, the police come to be seen as merely one among a constellation of security services and networks to be purchased and coordinated by middle- and upper-class Kenyans (often, the police’s main function seems to be reduced to “providing the guns” that private security guards are not allowed to carry).

The main remaining function of the police, then, seems to be what Didier Fassin has called “enforcing order” and the protection of the state against society. In short, the logic of policing institutions remains deeply structured by their colonial past, as the coercive power upholding and protecting a rarefied governing class and political elite against a population living under a political-economic system in which dispossession, exploitation, and exclusion are the norm.

Therefore: the police have ceased to function as an institution providing safety and security to the majority of the population. As agents of state coercion, they fundamentally impede democracy and are the major obstacles to holding politicians and elites running the state accountable. Put simply: the police are obsolete.

The case for abolition

The answer to the current impasse around police reform is really quite clear, even though it remains “unthinkable” to many Kenyans. The police must be abolished. So what do we mean by abolition?

Abolition is a creative and constructive project. It is not a project of simply tearing things down, but rather of asking what should exist in place of outdated and violent systems that no longer serve us. It is about reconstructing the social order and building more just and equitable futures. Police abolition is the project of defunding and dismantling the repressive institutions of policing and replacing them with systems of actual safety: systems that enable society to thrive, systems that adequately address real and pressing social problems, systems that provide for the needs, desires, and dreams of city dwellers.

We contend that the alternatives to punitive security and policing are already found in the daily practices of Nairobi residents who, by and large, do not depend on the police for their safety. When confronted with the concept of “abolition” for the first time, many (middle-class) people often respond: “But who will keep us safe?” The answer in much of Nairobi is to be found in already existing social practice: “we keep each other safe.” The primary problem faced by most people in this domain is simply the lack of resources and support for such mutualism, solidarity, reciprocity, and community (and we are not talking about what are effectively top-down community policing interventions). Currently, residents keep each other safe against all odds, and under the crushing weight of systems of repression and poverty that make their safety feel like survival.

What is needed is disinvestment from such systems of repression and reinvestment in community. There are two prongs to this project of reinvestment: (1) investing in systems that allow people to thrive; (2) building alternative safety mechanisms for society. Per the first, we recall our interlocutors and interviewees over the years who, when asked about security and safety in their neighborhoods, invariably drew our attention to broader social and infrastructural questions such as the lack of schools, hunger, land, reliable water, electricity, heating, toilets, health care provision, and safe places for their kids to play. Insecurity, for them, was deeply attached to these drivers of precarity and poverty.

Per the second point, building alternative safety mechanisms means strengthening peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms, mental health services, community spaces and institutions, mediation techniques, and myriad other existing practices that can help resolve social problems and disputes without violence. When these forms of social reinvestment are taken up, the need for (even a diminished) a police service that operates primarily through its capacity to enact violence would be scarcely needed.

Further Reading