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Nairobi improving its crime fighting record, but few notice

Nairobi has developed a reputation for theft and robbery that has been difficult for police to combat, despite a decline in many types of crimes.

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Simiyu’s meeting at the bank this morning was to discuss preparing witnesses for court. From there, we walked up through the city center to the colonial-era courthouse, to drop files off in the chaotic office of the Registrar of Prosecutions, ahead of court hearings tomorrow.

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“For me the most rewarding part of the job is to stand up here in court,” he said. “To show the judge the work we have done on a big case, and to secure a conviction.”

The most challenging aspect of his work, he went on, a frown creasing his forehead, was “the lack of cooperation from the public and even from the victims themselves”.

“They think you can fix their problems overnight,” he said. “But it takes long. Even getting the information we need from the public is hard. I think people out there don’t think good things about policemen.”

He’s not wrong. The Kenya Police, as a whole, has an awful reputation. Polls consistently find that the public rates the police as the most corrupt public servants in the country.

Recent high-profile cases of armed officers shooting dead suspected robbers – on one occasion in full view of commuters stuck in a morning traffic jam – have prompted fresh accusations of heavy-handedness (the officers involved are under investigation).

At least one private security firm here plans to form its own "CSI" force for hire after too many prosecutions fail due to a lack of decent evidence collected by police investigators. The courts themselves are swamped, with 900,000 outstanding cases, stretching back as far as 1989.

“There are these issues, but I have to say a lot of it is media exaggeration,” said DCIO Peter Mabeya, Simuyu’s boss and the head of CID in Nairobi.

“Why all these negative stories? Where is the balance, where is the story about the crime rates falling? Nairobi’s not that bad today, it’s the same as many other cities.”

A look at annual reports of crime figures from the Kenya Police would largely support that statement, with some clear exceptions.

Between 2006 and 2010, homicide rose 3 percent, including a 10 percent jump in murders. Economic crimes, like the ones Simiyu’s investigating, shot up 39 percent.

But run your eyes down the spreadsheet comparing the latest crime rates with earlier years, and the percentage drops far outweigh the percentage rises. Violent robbery fell 36 percent nationwide in that four-year period. Home invasions were down 25 percent, rape was down 27 percent and car theft was down 32 percent.

Although it’s not easy to verify those figures, anecdotally there are positive reports, too. Two friends who learned I was researching this article told me stories, of which they had firsthand knowledge, of detectives traveling across the country investigating cases. Both led to arrests.

“I’ll be honest, I was a bit surprised that these guys were actually doing their jobs,” one of my friends told me.

The gap between the perception and the reality of his job worries Simiyu. He’s set up a fund, with money from his own pocket, to help poor kids in his village through school. Each year, he runs a football tournament for youngsters, “to help them focus and not be idle”, he said.

“Really, I want to try to change the idea that the police are not there to help, but in fact to harass, the public,” he said. “Sometimes, there are bad apples in a barrel. It seems a shame to me that we are all tarred with this same brush.”

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