On November 20, the editor of The Daily Star Mahfuz Anam, in a column in this daily, urged for the transformation of the Bangladesh Police into a pro-people outfit. He wrote—"The police, as they are presently used, are not enforcers of law but rather implementers of the politics of the day, including and especially its vengeful aspects… Are we never going to have a neutral and professional force fully committed to the people, whose taxes pay for their service?"
The above observations are indeed strong words that should demand the attention of all stakeholders committed to ensuring good governance which, we have been told time and again, is the cornerstone of balanced development. Experts opine that pro-people policing or professional policing has a pivotal role in ensuring the rule of law, which in turn makes development durable. Simple common sense and everyday experience tells us what does not constitute pro-people policing. Howsoever strongly we may revile the police outfit for its failings, we cannot live in a police-free society. It is, therefore, necessary to gain an understanding of the essentials of pro-people policing and the related best practices befitting a democratic polity.
In our parlance, references are too often made to the English police, which to many is the epitome of people-friendly modern policing. Therefore, it is relevant to understand the philosophy of English policing, notwithstanding the dissimilarities of the two cultures.
The norms of English policing are, broadly speaking, that the police force should be a body of citizens in uniform, exercising their right to make arrests but so far as possible non-military in appearance, local in their origins, and accountable for their actions. The assumption is that the majority of citizens would obey the majority of laws for the majority of the time, and that the police would be operating as far as possible by consent and not by force.
The above mentioned consent was bestowed on the English police by the formal democratic process that led to their creation, and more importantly, by the renewable and continual consent that they gain by performing their duties. The philosophy of English policing was clearly formulated in the following comment of Sir Robert Mark, Commissioner of London Metropolitan Police in 1970: "The police are not servants of a government at any level. We do not act at the behest of a Minister or any political party, not even the party in government. We act on behalf of the people as a whole".
Coming to the policing styles of the subcontinent of which we are a part, it would be worthwhile to read the comments of KS Subramanian, a former officer of the Indian police service, a Senior Fellow at the Schumacher Centre for Development, New Delhi and author of the book Political Violence and Police in India. He says, "The modern Indian State was the product of a freedom struggle. It adopted a written, liberal democratic constitution but retained the colonial administrative police and judicial structures without recasting them to meet the changed situation... The "colonial-repressive" character emerged when the governing elite of a decolonised society decided to retain the inherited police organisation, ignoring justified demands for change".
Subramanian is also of the opinion that "The blanket power of superintendence vested in the government, by the Police Act 1861, is not appropriate in a democracy. Further, the role of intelligence agencies was not redefined to protect the fundamental right to freedoms of association, expression and movement. The police in India still keep a watch on all political activities without discrimination and exclude only the ruling party of the day, which gives them authoritarian powers antithetical to the democratic spirit". The Bangladesh Police also operates under the same 1861 law.
The historical, legislative and administrative realities characterising the policing styles of the two different countries perhaps highlight the complex task in establishing a pro-people policing outfit. It would indeed be a long wait before we can achieve the desired goal but that cannot be a damper, for obvious reasons, of our democratic aspirations.
What is necessary to make the police public-friendly is the central issue of any police reform effort. Thus, police reform should be more than just a face-lift; it requires in-depth examination of the police organisation, its mandate, and its functional dynamics. It also underpins the need to put in place effective structures, both to oversee police performance and to ensure realisation of the organisational mission. The reform process has to touch all ranks and has to be all-inclusive, calling for commitment and a sense of purpose from the political executive, since what is involved is basically a redetermination of the whole governance paradigm.
As no police force can hope to perform its functions efficiently and effectively without enjoying a high degree of support for the integrity of its operations, it is crucial to bring the police under a system of accountability that enjoys public confidence. Once the police are enjoined upon to perform a just and constructive role in the community, their work ethics would start undergoing a radical change. Being subject to law, they would strive to uphold and promote the cause of public interest and a zealous safeguarding of democratic norms based on rule of law, and due process would be their motto.
The police organisation of tomorrow will have to evolve a shared vision and understanding of a common mission, which will increasingly be focused on meeting community expectations. "Putting the people first" would certainly improve the confidence of the public, and an overt commitment to enhancing the standards of both public safety and police accountability will require the police leadership to lead and manage, not simply "run" the force, to get results consistent with their mission.
Historically, policing in South Asia has been, by and large, a one sided affair; with communities having little or no say in local policing plans and strategies that affect them the most. The idea that police are people and people are police has not taken root in the region. Understandably, the Police Act 1861 was silent on the issue of community consultation. Rather, it focused on the responsibility of the community to ensure order and should any member step out of line, the whole community would face vicarious punishment. What is needed is to make improving the quality of law enforcement a permanent and integral part of the national agenda, regardless of which party is in power.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP of Bangladesh.