In Strange Twist, Kenyans March For Police Officer Accused Of Murder

Sep 10, 2014
Originally published on September 10, 2014 6:38 pm

Kenyans rate their police force among the most corrupt institutions in the country. Even worse, police are often accused of inflicting violence on citizens. So when a Nairobi officer was arrested for murder this week, you would think most people would applaud.

But in a strange twist, residents in the officer's district rose defiantly in defense of his vigilante approach to justice.

Demonstrators in the Nairobi neighborhood blocked traffic for the second day on a five-lane superhighway before they were pushed back by tear gas and police truncheons. They vowed to keep protesting each day until their beloved constable is released.

Who is this cop?

His name is Titus Musila, though people in Kasarani district refer to him affectionately by his nickname, Katitu.

Unlike most Kenyan police, people here say, Katitu doesn't take bribes and he actually stops crime, though not by arresting the criminals. His apparent lack of faith in Kenyan courts and jails has led him to assume the role of a vigilante.

"First he warns your parents," explains bus driver David Mwangi. "He gives you seven more warnings. Then he gives you money for bus fare" and tells you to leave town.

If you continue to commit crime on his turf, and Katitu catches you in the act, then he's likely to shoot you dead, people say. Even for something like stealing a cellphone.

Safer Streets

Residents here say that since Katitu arrived on the beat a few years ago they can safely step out on the streets in the evening.

Jacqueline Yambura, a trader who sells bags of peanuts to passing motorists, is particularly grateful that she can now work during the profitable evening rush hour. With Katitu now behind bars, she says, young women don't dare leave the house after dusk.

But police investigators tell a different story.

They say that Katitu is a rogue cop who killed one man — Kenneth Mwangi — and then shot his older brother who was to testify against the officer.

Almost everybody on the street here believes that the officer actually shot both men, and they love him for it.

"Those brothers were thugs who were stealing from people," says Tamu Kamau, a physics professor at the local university who was blocked from getting home because of the tear gas. "Katitu is a good man."

Extrajudicial shootings are common in Kenya. Local activists crunching the numbers say that a Kenyan is far more likely to be killed by a policeman's bullet than a criminal's.

A 14-year-old girl was shot and killed recently in her bed by police who raided her house looking for an uncle who wasn't home. The police officers quickly buried the girl, and the evidence, before her mother could come home.

The mother is now suing the government to exhume the body and perform an autopsy on her daughter. So far, none of those officers have been arrested.

Meanwhile, Kenyan police say Katitu will remain in jail and face "the full force of the law." The people of Kasarani felt that force Wednesday as green-clad police beat and kicked ordinary passersby long after the actual demonstrators had dispersed.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now a story about an extraordinarily popular protest in Kenya. Citizens shut down a major highway and clashed with security forces to protest the arrest of a Nairobi police officer on murder charges.

Kenyan's rate their police force among the country's most corrupt institutions, but the protesters say this particular officer, with his sometime brutal tactics, brought safety to their community. NPR's Gregory Warner reports.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The thud of canisters of tear gas could be heard for a second day over the five-lane Thika highway in Nairobi. Police continued to beat and kick passers-by, even after the actual demonstrators had fled. This street clearing operation more brutal than yesterday's, when protesters blocked traffic on this highway for hours. Yet what made this scene so odd was that the police were attacking protesters who had come out to support a fellow cop, Officer Titus Musila, known affectionately here as Katitu.

How are you guys?

Bus driver David Mwangi tells me will return every day until this officer, Katitu, is released from jail.

DAVID MWANGI: Release Katitu because Katitu is our...

PATRICK MUTUKU: No peace. No peace. No peace.

WARNER: You'll keep demonstrating.

MUTUKU: No peace here.

WARNER: Interrupting him is his friend, Patrick Mutuku. They talk over each other a lot, but they both agree that Katitu was special. Unlike most cops in Kenya, they say, Katitu would not take a bribe. He never stole and actually cleared the streets of crime, though not with the power of arrest. Katitu would talk to your parents, even buy you bus fare to get you out of his district. But woe to those who did not heed his many warnings.

MUTUKU: If you are a thug, he warn you first, seven times.

DAVID MWANGI: Seven warnings.

WARNER: Seven warnings and then what happens - he shoots you?

MWANGI: Yeah.

WARNER: So he would kill you even if you just were stealing. That’s not right for a policeman to do. But you support it, you’re saying.

MWANGI: Yeah, me, I'm going to support Katitu because before, we can't even go. Even 8 o'clock, we can't go anywhere because of thieves.

WARNER: Because of thieves, the evening streets were no-go, he says, before Katitu took the beat. Jacqueline Yambura, who sells bags of peanuts, says Katitu's brand of justice allowed her to safely sell her nuts to motorists in the profitable evening rush hour.

JACQUELINE YAMBURA: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: Now she doesn't dare leave the house after dusk with Katitu in jail. Police investigators, though, tell a different story. They say he's a rogue cop who killed one man and then shot the man's older brother who was to testify about the killing. There's been no statement yet from Katitu, but many people here in Kasarani district support him either way.

TAMU KAMAU: He's a good man. I know it.

WARNER: Tamu Kamau is a university physics professor I met trying to head home in his suit and tie, but stopped by the tear gas that you can hear still firing in the background.

KAMAU: They said he killed two men - thugs who were stealing from people. They used to mug people around here.

WARNER: They would multiple right here?

KAMAU: Yeah.

WARNER: Police shootings are common. Local activists say that a Kenyan is more likely to be killed by a policeman's bullet than a criminal's. But it's rare for any of these shootings to be prosecuted. Authorities say that Katitu will face, quote, "the full force of the law." That force was out today.

As I was talking to the physics professor, a squad of green-clad Kenyan police officers came, menacing their truncheons. The professor leaps into a liquor store and barricades himself and me inside. Now you can hear the cops shouting through the door in Swahili...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Swahili).

WARNER: Don't come out from them, you hear? Don't come out, they're saying. Then they send an even clearer message that they'll take strong measures if he shows his face.

(BANGING ON DOOR)

KAMAU: (Speaking Swahili).

WARNER: We hear you, we hear you, the professor keeps calling back. We're not on the wrong side. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.