As the Police Week 2019 commences today, it seems like an opportune moment to compile the thoughts of citizens on what they expect from their police force. There is no denying that police's principal role of maintaining law and order has increasingly been rendered more difficult and the balance of power within our society has turned ominously against the forces of peace and order. One unfortunate predicament in this regard relates to the absence of an agreement among different segments of the society as to what is expected from the police department.
However, as far as I understand, the expectations of ordinary citizens are simple and meeting those to a satisfactory extent should not be too difficult. A few such expectations are: 1) Police must not evade the registration of a crime as that means committing a breach of law under the Penal Code. Such evasions embolden the criminal, to say the least; 2) Police must not misbehave with the citizens; 3) Police must not implicate innocent persons in criminal cases and must not fabricate evidence with a view to securing conviction; 4) Police must not resort to third-degree methods in the investigation of cases. Such practices only tend to alienate the police from the public, and are not permitted by the law either; 5) Police must not extort confessions from the accused by adopting tortuous methods of investigation; 6) Police must be apolitical in their professional capacity and impartial in their application of law; 7) Police shall not indulge in excesses like violation of the principle of the minimum use of force; and 8) Police officials must not show any proclivity to please the political bosses for their personal and professional gains.
Citizen's expectations as outlined above can be met significantly if remedial steps are taken by police department itself. There are, however, some urgent measures that will involve other agencies and require a strong political will for those to be successful. In specific terms, we need to understand that the required administrative and legal reforms in tune with the republican provisions of our constitution must be in place. This is essential to transform our largely colonial police force into a modern, forward-looking outfit befitting a democratic polity.
It needs to be borne in mind that policing in South Asia has been, by and large, a one-sided affair with communities having no or little say in the local policing plans and strategies that affect them the most. Understandably, the Police Act 1861 was silent on the issue of community consultation. Rather, it focused on the responsibility of communities to ensure order, and should anyone step out of line, the whole community would face vicarious punishment.
For a long time, unfortunately, an outmoded administrative legacy has been undermining police reform supported by national and international expert missions. For too long, the basic functioning of the police has remained unchanged. What is needed is to make improving the quality of law enforcement an integral part of the national agenda, regardless of which party is in power.
There is a growing understanding that police reform requires a concerted effort by all parties—the state, the private sector, and the civil society. Without an enduring partnership and coalition-building among the principal actors involved, there can be no hope of a significant police reform. An enlightened and determined political leadership, high levels of public support, and a motivated and well-led private sector are absolutely critical to change. Equally, or perhaps more importantly, a civil society that demands and supports higher standards of police performance is a must for the desired change.
It is worth noting that our policing system had worked reasonably well during the colonial era but started faltering after the British left in 1947. The system failed because its design was inappropriate. It has no built-in checks in place against the forces that were unleashed by the political processes in the wake of the independence struggle. The basic object of the colonial police design was to create an instrument for the ruling class to control the natives. Service to the people was not the objective of this design.
Under the circumstances, if we want to turn our police force into a symbol of trust and security, then the first order of business will be to enact a new Police Act to replace the present archaic legislation enacted in 1861. The reasons for its replacement are: 1) The Act gives the government the authority to exercise superintendence over the police, without defining the word “superintendence” or giving some guidelines to ensure that the use of power is legitimate; 2) It does not establish any institutional and other kind of arrangements to insulate the police from undesirable and illegitimate outside control, pressures and influences; 3) It does not recognise the responsibility of the government to establish an efficient and effective police force; 4) It does not make it necessary to outline objectives and performance standards for police, nor does it set-up an independent mechanism to monitor and inspect their performance; 5) The charter of duties outlined in it is antiquated, narrow and limited; 6) It does not mandate the police to function as a professional and service-oriented organisation; and 7) It is not in consonance with the requirements of democratic policing.
If our aim is to make quality policing a way of life, then the existing police setup has to be replaced with one that is more “customer-friendly”. There has to be a clear, shared sense of mission accompanied by clearly understood organisational goals. The citizens have to be a part of the police decision-making process. The police command and control structure have to fully rest with the police chiefs. The police leadership has to be empowered to effectively control their erring subordinates. There has to be credible and effective mechanisms for policing the police. And finally, the Police Act 1861 has to be replaced with new legislation that embraces all the essential elements of reinvention, based on the best models available in the world.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP.