Briefly, exactly a year and two days after I was tracked and picked up by cops from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, to the chagrin of many a colleague and friend, I put myself directly in trouble buy attempting to lecture a group of people I thought were employees of a bar where some really drunk fellows had caused a ruckus. I spent the next 12 hours in a police cell and learnt a few useful lessons.
1. Police brutality is real
One of the guys suffered a cracked tooth. He had blood all over his face and blood all over the front of his shirt. Four of the buttons on the shirt had been ripped off and the vest underneath split in half at the front. The cops are supposed to subdue a suspect if they resist arrest but their options are not limited. They can punch you in the face, hit you in the teeth with the butt of a gun or kick the hell out of you. Another guy had a boot imprinted across the front of his white shirt. When he went home and was showering, he discovered a series of grazes on his shins. A week later, his body was still feeling the effects of the cracks the cops took at him.
The funny thing was; the head cops knew what had happened. When they discovered the people they had arrested were not their ordinary drunk and disorderly characters, they pointedly asked whether there was any complaint. A complaint would have opened up an opportunity for endless litigation. Why bother?
2. Police stations are in deplorable states
The celings used to be white but are now making steady progress towards black, moving through the spotted grey phase and the small circles of black radiating from the spot where the water first made contact. Some boards have given up their allegiance to the wood above and are simply falling apart. The cupboards in the offices are filled with dusty files without any evident order. The chair in the best office was once a regal red one, but that is long gone, the red now shiny and dirty at the arms and the stability and the balance gone. At Central Police Station in Nairobi, the floors in the office where abstracts are issued is potholed, the chairs the variety common in school with metal tubes bent and plywood riveted to form the seat and the back. Sometimes the back is broken and never replaced. Sometimes the plywood cracks.
The one thing that worked admiringly well was the lock to the steel door to the cells. The key is a big, shiny phenomenon, like one of those decorative Keys to the City handed out by mayors like Nobel prizes when an especially important person comes to the city. When you hear it turn in the door, your heart beats faster and there is some excitement. You want to get up. You look towards the door. You raise up your head. It is likely not your turn.
3. There’s a whole cast of characters in the cells, and the world
If you have been arrested in a group, you can get a decent cell. Be loud and be aggressive and you can kick people out of once cell and get comfortable. Settle in. You’ll see your companions well at the 6 a.m. headcount, where the officer at the desk will call out the names of the prisoners and when they shout ‘present’ might casually say what they have been arrested for. ‘Steve Kageche’. ‘Present’. ‘Wewe ni mlevi’. ‘John Kagondu’. ‘Mimi huyo’. ‘Wewe ni mwizi wa ng’ombe’.
The vilest suspect we met at the cop station was a youngish man with a loose green shawl who bore the marks of a thorough beating. His left eye was swollen shirt, the right one red from being punched and the head covered in bruises that stood out red and black on his light-skinned shaven scalp. No shoes. Not even the one shoe left at the big box at the counter with the belt. The shawl clearly grabbed from a woman in the crowd by the arresting officers. Obviously spent a few days in the cells as he sleeps on a small sack unlike the rest. His crime? He was caught mounting a cow and beaten like a snake by villagers.
4. No good comes out of a tussle with them cops
What do cops do when they realise a case might be difficult to prove? They mount a harder case. Some of the fellows involved in the affray that landed us in one of the worst places you can step in had apparently threatened to beat up his arresters (the little green bottles can make you say things) on the basis that he is a trained member of the defence forces and so well trained that the Israelis watched him undergo that capacity building. Another fellow had apparently gone to his car to collect a weapon. Well, the cops deemed it fit to say in the Occurrence Book that we were impersonating police officers, all six of us. But that was a hard case considering the arresting officers were intoxicated and that could have been brought up. Worse, they had a journalist in their hands – and thank God they don’t have Google otherwise they would have discovered the kind of journalist they had in their hands. They had also been a little more enthusiastic than they should have been in encouraging the fellows being arrested not to resist arrest and had hit one of them in the face, cracking his tooth. There was therefore a chance they would end up being hated on in the press or that the fellow with a cracked tooth and another with the imprint of a boot on his chest would have raised issues.
They felt a softer but more impactful charge would not hurt; Creating a public disturbance likely to lead to a breach of the peace. That is in Section 95 of the Penal Code and states: “Any person who—(a) uses obscene, abusive or insulting language, to his employer or to any person placed in authority over him by his employer, in such a manner as is likely to cause a breach of the peace; or (b) brawls or in any other manner creates a disturbance in such a manner as is likely to cause a breach of the peace, is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to imprisonment for six months.”
The catch there is the six months. That is a damn long time. With that hanging over our sobered heads, our options were very limited, and that is how we end up with the last thing you learn when rural cops arrest you.
5. Rural cops are idle, but very excitable
That they are idle. When they were told that reinforcement was needed, they flew out of the station, lacing their boots and checking themselves as they jumped into the Toyota Land Cruisers. “These guys spend their nights here idle, arresting drunk fellows and running after weed smokers. When they encounter cases such as these, they behave that way,” one of them would later say.
In an area beyond the peri-urban crime belt, the biggest concerns are thefts, cow munchers, domestic disputes such as the guy who was making so much noise in the plot that the wife got him arrested, the chap who kicked the ass of another and bit his head in a bar and now needs a Sh20,000 cash bail as he awaits assault charges ( and three years if he is convicted) and the weed dealers who never get caught and the occasional stolen pick-up. When you show up and you want to put up a fight, the chaps remember their days in Kiganjo and the exhortation to put the raia in its place.