Police performance in Bangladesh in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic has surely been laudable as evidenced in public reactions and media reports. Some observers believe that police actions in preventing the ill-effects of the disease have, to some extent, helped in brightening the image of a coercive organisation engaged in public duty of critical importance. Public expectations of further improvement in police performance have been visible. The desire, perhaps, is to see a fundamental shift in policing priorities and strategies.
The question is whether such a change is feasible without firm political commitment and concomitant policy support and strategy. A relevant query would relate to the necessary resetting of the organisational goals. Observers believe that the primacy of witnessing a change in the prevalent text would warrant a pragmatic understanding of the context.
It is now an admitted fact of history that the Imperial British had no incentive to reform the Police System. The successor rulers who followed were no more than faithful to their predecessors. Perhaps, the nature of the political transition in 1947 left them with no options. The inherited system has been expanded and strengthened and continues to perform its repressive role and surveillance functions. There is a persistent allegation that politicians do not want to professionalise the service because the control over it is central to political conflict in a polarised society.
One has to remember that the modern Bangladeshi State was the product of a violent freedom struggle. It adopted a written, liberal democratic constitution that retained the colonial administrative, police and judicial structure without recasting them to meet the changed situation. Consequently, 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.
The subcontinental police system, of which we are a part, has been examined from the perspective of crime prevention and public order management. The system was developed in the light of colonialism's need to establish a relationship of control, coercion and surveillance over a subject population. A bureaucratic ideology was built to justify the imperial civilising mission. The Colonial Irish Constabulary became the model for subcontinental police system.
A considered view is that native politicians who came to occupy positions of power, after the departure of the colonial power, were enamoured by the administrative and police system left behind by the imperialists and enjoyed exercising power and authority, oblivious of their own demand for far-reaching administrative reform. The above background needs to be appreciated if indeed we wish to transform policing into a professional imposition of a coherent moral consensus on society.
For materialising a fundamental shift in policing in tune with the aspirations of a democratic society, the government of the day has to seek to bring the police and the citizen stakeholders together, to collectively work for improving the professional, ethical and the service delivery standard of the police. Capacity building and evidence based policing should be a priority.
Delving into specifics, it needs mentioning that a disproportionate emphasis on obtaining confession from suspects, as has been the practice for quite some time, to submit charge sheet and achieve conviction, is not a desirable attitude. In fact, the investigators need to move from the evidence to the accused and definitely not the other way. They need to appreciate that only judicial confession by the accused is most often a weak piece of evidence, with the ever present possibility of retraction in court during the trial process. Therefore, if material and circumstantial evidence is collected in a scientific manner then the credibility of the investigative process stands on a firm putting. The cultivation of a scientific temperament as against instant satisfaction of departmental or political superiors is the need of the hour.
The government has to positively respond to the public demand for an efficient, accountable and people-centric police that functions impartially, respect human dignity and human rights and steadfastly upholds the rule of law in all situations. It has to believe that a robust criminal justice system supported by a professional police force should be an important pillar of the idea of a resurgent and modern Bangladesh.
On ground, the training of police should be focused on the legal requirement to inform persons who are arrested, of the reason for their arrest and their right to remain silent. The link between legal requirement and the human rights aspect is important because it tends to establish why police officers act the way they do. The code of conduct must clearly state that police officers will respect and protect human dignity and that force should be used only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.
It should be of paramount importance to foster a culture in police organisation for protecting and respecting human rights. The organisational culture has to be grounded on human rights standard as a fundamental value. Human rights components have to be an integral part of the police training, both theoretical and practical.
The importance of human rights for the police must be understood from a strategic perspective, in that demonstrating respect for human rights is strategically advantageous. The police has to understand that persistent cases of violence and corruption, and the perceived impunity of the police to commit human rights abuses, contributes to a lack of confidence in the police. This distances the population from the police, resulting in low levels of public-police collaboration.
Political will is very important because it is at the level of government that law is established, and it is essential to evaluate this aspect when considering the subject of human rights and the police. The police is mandated to act in accordance with the law that establishes the conditions in which they operate.
The police service should broadly reflect the society from which it comes. The service should be in touch with the public it polices. If the police constitute an elite, armed, hierarchical, and self-conscious entity separate from society, then they will not be able to count on that society's support when they need it.
It has to be ensured that while being subject to democratic and governmental oversight, the police shall have the freedom to discharge its duties without fear or favour and unfettered by external and extraneous influences. The police should be seen as a service, dedicated to provide honest, inclusive, transparent, fair, equitable and responsive services to the community. There should be an enabling environment to secure the willing cooperation, trust and respect of the community by demonstrating their professional competence, effectiveness and absolute impartiality in their actions.
The police should be well-equipped and well-trained to leverage the current and emerging technological innovations as a force multiplier for better operational success and should be committed to a culture of continuous pursuit of professional excellence. They should be suitably compensated and assured of decent working and living conditions as well as opportunities for their career development, keeping in view, their extremely demanding job requirements.
It is particularly important that police be answerable to society in some way for operational decisions and for the manner in which individual officers carry out their duty. The police are a force and that force should be unequivocally directed towards the service of the community. The community desires the services of police and is uncomfortable with force being used against it, yet the police powers are a necessary evil in tackling the law-breaking part of the society. A police officer's powers and all the constraints on police action come from the law. The law gives authority to police with one hand, while restraining them with the other, befitting a lawful and orderly society.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP.