What lies behind police corruption
The recently published Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) survey report 2017 says that law enforcement agencies were the most corrupt among 18 departments and sectors involved in providing services to households. The report points out that members of law enforcement agencies got involved in corruption, misbehaved with service-seekers, threatened and implicated them in “false cases”, detained them without complaints, made delay and showed negligence in filing general diaries (GDs) and cases, resorted to extortion, and also made delay in providing passport verification reports.
The term “law enforcement agency” is generally understood to mean police, and thus one can assume that the TIB report focuses on police misconduct. Surely, the actions or inactions of corrupt police officials are not figments of our imagination. In fact, they are hard truths which would have been less ominous had they been isolated incidents on the part of the police.
Under the circumstances, it can be noted that since the image of the police as reflected by the mirror of the public opinion has an effect on the police and police culture, both the police image and police culture appear to be tarnished as a result. Quite often, an image is nothing but a true reflection of the reality. It also needs to be understood that “justice is not a cloistered virtue: she must be allowed to suffer the scrutiny and respectful, even though outspoken, comments of ordinary men.”
Therefore, the thing that may trouble a discerning mind is how a vital state organ that is statutorily mandated to protect people's life and liberties has deviated from its cherished path in such a manner. A response to such queries and apprehensions has been given by the TIB Trustee Board Chairperson, who said that the political will of those running the country is a prerequisite for reducing corruption and bribery.
This writer would not share the enthusiasm of those who will place all the blame on the politicians and remain oblivious to the serious management deficits of the public functionaries of the department. This view, of course, does not mean to minimise the significance of the critical element of political will. In fact, on the issue of political will, it is advisable to look at the matter from a historical perspective.
There is no denying that the modern state of Bangladesh was the product of a long and violent struggle for freedom. The irony is that while the country adopted a liberal, democratic constitution, it retained the colonial administrative, police and judicial structures without recasting them to meet the changed situation. Consequently, the colonial repressive character of the policing structure remained when the ruling elite of a decolonised society decided to retain the inherited police organisation as it was, ignoring justified imperatives for change. In other words, we have failed to introduce administrative changes in tune with the provisions of the republican constitution of Bangladesh.
One needs to know that in the context of the South Asian countries—where the coercive power of state is at its most obvious, in the form of the police, and where policemen's living off the land was made integral to the scheme of police organisation designed in 1861—the problem of corruption would naturally be more ingrained and acute. An adversarial relationship between the police and the “natives” was necessary to ensure political control of, and obedience to, the colonial government. The objective was efficiently achieved by creating and sustaining an extortion-based relationship between the police and the “natives”.
Police corruption stems from several interconnected factors including low pay of the majority of policemen as opposed to the wide discretionary power made available to them, poor working conditions, ineffective internal accountability and weak external accountability mechanisms.
The lure of corruption becomes too overwhelming to resist if the salaries of policemen are not sufficient to take them beyond temptation. This is especially so in a working environment plagued by oppressive working conditions and non-availability of a positive work ecology.
Additionally, the opportunity cost of being corrupt is very low in our situation, to the extent of being negligible. In other words, if the cost of losing one's job is very low compared to the cost of losing corruption-related money, then the rational choice would obviously be to accept or demand bribes, howsoever distasteful that may sound.
Many observers including public servants are of the view that if political aspects replace professional considerations and the penalty attached to misconduct gets to become ineffective, due to external interference in the internal administration of the police, there is all the incentive for officials both to be inefficient and corrupt.
Corruption has to be looked down upon within the organisational structure of police and it must be stigmatised so that there is not much disincentive against corruption. In fact, a punishment-reward based system is essential for achieving the goal of minimising corruption. A strong accountability mechanism coupled with attractive compensation policies are essential elements of a corruption-fighting system.
We have to remember that policing cannot be equated with other civil responsibilities because of its legal empowerment of curtailing liberties. People hold liberty very dear and its curtailment is justifiably frowned upon. Quite naturally, therefore, the recruitment process in police, particularly in the subordinate ranks, needs to be sanitised as complaints of irregularities in this regard are no longer a secret. Both politicians and police managers have to take corrective actions.
The onus of ensuring a malpractice-free management of the police force—including recruitment, promotion, posting and transfer—squarely lies with the police hierarchy. The police leadership should not be happy only when reform efforts focus on issues like better salary package, more manpower, additional transport, etc. The core reform agenda entailing more responsibility coupled with stricter accountability must not elicit a lukewarm response from them.
We need to think of the steps that would be necessary to insulate police from partisan political control. The existing accountability mechanism being less than desirably effective needs to be replaced by statutory institutions like the Independent Police Complaints Authority in the UK or the Public Safety Commission in Japan. The core issue is not so much what police do—but why they do what they do. The process of making the police earnestly work for the people without the fetters has to commence.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP and a columnist at The Daily Star.