In March 2017, Ahmed Rashid, a Kenyan police officer, shot and killed two unarmed teenagers accused of theft. They had surrendered and were lying on the ground in a Nairobi neighbourhood. Rashid executed them in full view of the public. This was caught on camera.
On 23 November 2022, Kenya’s policing oversight body announced that Rashid would face murder charges over this incident. This drew mixed reactions. Some saw it as positive and long overdue; others opposed it strongly. Those who welcomed the news of Rashid’s impending prosecution find the support he received befuddling.
I have studied this phenomenon of popular support for brutal policing. I examined three-day protests held by residents of Githurai, a poor neighbourhood in Nairobi, against the arrest of constable Titus Musili, popularly known as Katitu, in September 2014. Katitu had been arrested for the murder of a young man, Kenneth Kimani. Before this arrest, he is said to have shot and killed a criminal, Oscar Muchoki, Kimani’s elder brother.
I found that the support for brutal policing has its roots in the under-protection of communities by state police and the criminal justice system. When an officer that a community has come to depend on for safety is arrested by the very state that people feel has failed to protect them, they see it as interference in local security arrangements that they consider effective and efficient.
Studies from around the world show that the urban poor are disproportionately affected by police brutality, so how could the residents of Githurai express public support for it?
My study included interviews with Githurai residents, from pastors to self-identified reformed armed robbers. Everyone I interviewed said the level of crime in the area was high. They were concerned about their safety and security. They complained that the police had failed to offer them protection. I use the term under-protection to refer to this failure of the police to provide a satisfactory level of protection to people who are or are likely to become victims of a crime.
In contexts marked by insecurity and under-protection, people find innovative ways of responding to crime. Some rely on private security and others, especially the poor, rely on community vigilantism. That is, they take security matters into their own hands.
Community vigilantism takes two main forms: mob justice, where rowdy crowds pursue and attack people accused of crimes; or vigilante groups. However, community vigilantism has its limits. People may not participate in mob justice because of a fear of possible legal repercussions. Additionally, vigilante groups can – and often are – brutally crushed by the state, as happened in the early 2000s in Kenya. Thus, people in Githurai felt that they had no effective mechanisms for dealing with crime.
Unsurprisingly, the people I spoke to directed their frustrations with insecurity towards the police. The police are the closest institution to them and they are understood to be responsible for dealing with crime.
In turn, the police blame the community for not providing them with information that would help them catch criminals, and the courts for releasing those they arrest and prosecute. Many criminal cases in Kenya fail because of police failure to provide adequate evidence in court.
The rise of ‘super cops’
Insecurity persists as people blame each other, creating spaces for various interventions. These spaces come to be occupied by police officers who are willing to short circuit the system and deliver justice in the way it’s demanded on the streets: quickly and brutally. That is, they take a violent approach to policing that goes beyond the limits of their legal power.
These police officers, like Katitu and Rashid, come to be known as “super cops”. Essentially, they are police vigilantes and become popular because they are seen as being willing to do what their colleagues and the police institution are unwilling to do to deal with crime. Additionally, since they remain a symbolic representation of the state, even when they operate outside the law, they don’t face the limitations that constrain community vigilantism.
The more such officers deploy violence against suspected criminals, the more their legitimacy grows as they are contrasted to their colleagues, the police institution and the entire criminal justice system. People come to believe that such officers are the solution to crime and insecurity.
Thus, the arrest of a police officer like Katitu triggers a moral panic, leading to expressions of support from the community.
The arrest and prosecution of “police vigilantes” is aimed at delivering the promise of police accountability. However, for people like the residents of Githurai, it is seen as an affront to their “home-grown” solution for crime and insecurity – a solution they had to find because the state failed to offer adequate legal protection.
This is not to say that residents support all forms of police brutality, or brutality by all police officers. In fact, many residents of Githurai opposed the violence deployed by police officers against protesters. Those who support officers like Katitu and Rashid may be on the streets again to protest police brutality by other officers.
Therefore, the support expressed for officers like Katitu and Rashid should not be read as a blanket endorsement of police brutality and impunity, or as a rejection of police accountability. It is a signal that, in some of these cases of police excesses, the state and human rights advocates are failing to acknowledge residents’ lived realities.
The conversation about police accountability – and police reforms more broadly – must be had at the grassroots, and take the views and perspective of community members seriously. Even as the government and human rights practitioners advocate for police accountability, they must demonstrate that they care about the safety of communities.