Following the death of Major Sinha in circumstances indicative of collusive criminal behaviour of some apparently errant police personnel along with other delinquencies of lawmen elsewhere in the country, well-meaning citizens have expressed their apprehensions about control and accountability of our police or the lack of it. Academics refer to an expression called "Quis Custodist Custodes", meaning who will police the police?
In a modern democracy, under the separation of powers system, all three branches of the government can exercise a form of constraint over the police. The executive exercises financial control and appoints key functionaries. The legislature can define powers and restrictions on those powers and include in Police Acts or other statutes discipline codes and regulations. The judiciary, too, can exercise some control over police by setting precedent which establishes acceptable police practice.
It would appear that police are constrained rather than controlled by the legislature, judiciary and executive, and within those parameters police retain the right to carry out their task as they choose. At the extremes, the independence of police from any control and absolute government control of police are both undesirable.
The media also has considerable power to hold both individuals and groups accountable, and police are no exception. Painstaking investigative journalism can shine a light into dark, corrupt corners and keep it there until something is done about it. The media has an important role in maintaining the style of policing acceptable to the public. Public perceptions are largely determined by the media.
The courts have significant power to affect police behaviour. It may monitor police behaviour and use power to exclude evidence in order to impose sanctions on police behaviour. If courts do not accept particular practices as a fair means of obtaining evidence, then police will be forced to obtain evidence by using means which are acceptable to the court.
The death of Major Sinha has been described as an isolated incident. However, it has to be noted that for delinquency to thrive in an organisation, it is not necessary for all to be deviant, or even the majority; all that is needed is for there to be a sufficient number of individuals in key positions so that they can keep the rest in line, order the honest away, and divert those in higher authority from the fact. Diverting the authority is made easier if the fact is something that those in authority have no wish to hear. It also needs to be impressed that any government not involved in police deviance but strongly supportive of its police should strive to reduce allegations of police malpractice.
There is no clear defining point at which the malpractices that have come to notice can no longer be considered to be isolated incidents or the deviance of "a few rotten apples in the barrel", but has escalated to be indicative of a general malaise within the police organisation. In Australia, Britain and America, police organisations have all been subject to external investigation by public commissions which normally publish a report at the conclusion of the taking of evidence or submission.
An essential safeguard within policing a democratic society, which gives the public confidence in its police, is the existence of a fair and effective procedure for complaining about individual instances of alleged police misconduct, and having those complaints properly investigated and resolved. As with much of crime and policing, the public perception that the system is fair and efficient is as important as the objective fairness of the system. Investigation of complaints must not only be carried out fully and fairly but also be done and seen to be done.
Individuals in Bangladesh have a right to expect that if police behaviour toward them is sufficiently bad, avenues exist whereby complaints can be made and possibly disciplinary proceedings follow against the offending officers. Public confidence in a complaints investigation system comes from the knowledge that any complaint will be rigorously investigated. This perception is an even more important issue since there is a very real public fear that complaints against police will not be taken seriously and that serious matter will be covered up by an internal investigation.
In Bangladesh public confidence will increase when the police complaints system will provide for an external body to supervise an investigation, or to review the evidence and conclusions drawn by police investigations, especially when this body shall have the power and the will to carry out an impartial review and order a re-investigation if necessary. In Australia and Britain, statutory bodies have been established to oversee internal investigations of complaints against police. In those countries there exist a review board with non-police community representatives to make decisions on the disposition of the complaints.
The society as a whole is deeply concerned with the standard of behaviour such as police integrity, the manner in which incidents are generally handled including the amount of force it finds acceptable and unacceptable in carrying out police duties and the interpersonal skills used by police in their dealings with the public. It has a right to have its voice heard, and the requirements of society with the regard to policing method and standard must be satisfied.
The mechanism of last resort for a police organisation to be held accountable to the general public is by means of some form of judicial inquiry or commission into policing. In instances of improper and illegal detention, the Apex Court have the jurisdiction to compensate the victim by awarding suitable monetary compensation.
Any system of police accountability will ultimately require legislative force. Whatever system of external supervision of police complaint is used, all systems need legislation to establish both police and public powers and duties, rights and obligations with regard to complaints investigation. If police are to be accountable to the public by a system of consultative committees, these will work best if they are established according to parameters led down by legislation. All these initiatives would demand persuasion by government and debates in many forums including the parliament.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP.