Why do we not trust the police?
There is no denying that the present government has taken laudable steps by fulfilling a number of long-felt demands of the mainstream police.
The cynical observer would say that the status of cops has been upgraded in the eyes of the government, but their real status in society depends on their conduct and performance vis-à-vis the members of the public. In other words, the crux of the matter is whether cops will serve the establishment's interests without venturing to check legal standings or if they will work as true public servants maintained by public money.
Answers to the above queries will not be easy to come by, as policing in this part of the world, for reasons well known, is yet to be a respectable profession. That, however, has not prevented the guardians from waxing eloquent on the virtues of an impartial professional police organisation. The reality is that while their concern is admirable, remedial actions on the ground have been less than adequate.
Those wishing to take a deeper look into the status question may find that the public do not trust the police although they have to depend on them. Even if the public do trust them, the law does not. This puts the police in a unique predicament. The mistrust between the police and the public is a historical creation. Laws which govern the police were created to raise the trust of the people in the British Empire so that the colonial occupation could continue forever.
When the police were organised, they were given a low status and a low salary but more fetters, so that they could not really serve the people but only the masters who were ruling the people. This background has to be understood clearly while studying the evolution of the police in our country. There is a consensus that the police have been misused and abused, leading to the decline in the rule of law and thereby increasing distrust in police performance. This factor is directly related to the status question.
The laws of crime, evidence and procedure dating back to the mid-19th century and designed to serve the colonial interests of an imperial power still govern the day-to-day functioning of our police force. The question is, can a colonial police meet the needs of a free society in flux? It would not be an exaggeration to say that most efforts at reform have met with increasing resistance from the entrenched privileged classes in politics and the so-called civil service. Our society looks at and treats a policeman with revulsion and contempt, little realising that there is no such thing as "scientific investigation" and "clean interrogation" under a legal system where the guardians of law are not even recognised as such.
The Criminal Procedure Code and the Evidence Act look upon police officers with distrust, which lowers their morale, reduces their efficiency and affects their character. The considered view is that the public cannot be expected to trust the police when the law of the land does not do so. This distrust of the police is not only widely known but also manifests itself every day in courts throughout the country. Thus, it is not unusual to see police officers resorting to padding of evidence and other dubious methods partly because what they do and what they say are invariably looked upon with suspicion. How can the police function if they are not trusted?
In our country, the law maintains that statements of witnesses recorded by the police need not be signed by them. Confessions made before a police officer are not admissible as evidence. Even when the recovery of a crime weapon becomes admissible, any self-incriminating statement of the accused will render it suspect before the court and a conviction can be sustained only on independent evidence of witnesses. For example, if the police officer is the only witness in a crime like murder, rape or robbery, a conviction cannot be sustained merely on his evidence.
Regarding the mistrust or distrust of police, it has to be noted that the misbehaviour and ill-treatment police officials often mete out to complainants at the police station is one of the most glaring aberrations in police behaviour. There is a tendency to discriminate between the rich and the poor, and it is the latter who become the target of the worst kind of misbehaviour from the police. Policemen often lack an expected attitude of sympathy and consideration towards those who need it the most.There is a virtual absence of a service orientation and policemen often fail to realise that the complainant at the police station is often an aggrieved person, much like a patient who goes to the doctor, and any misbehaviour with them would be construed as a gross violation of human rights. Other aberrations are verbal abuse and ill-treatment while on patrolling duty, harassment of innocent persons during arrest, ill-treatment of traffic violators, etc.
It should be the binding responsibility of supervisory police officials to make a conscious endeavour towards bringing about the much needed attitudinal changes in police forces. When policing and police are elevated to a pedestal of well-deserved priority in the government's scheme of things and the necessary training and orientation is imparted to the rank and file of police forces, these aberrations in police behaviour and the resultant mistrust can be progressively reduced.
Increasing violence, changing patterns of crime, use of more sophisticated weapons in crime and the general atmosphere of insecurity demands a review of the provisions of law to empower the police to effectively deal with lawless activities. We have to (a) free the police from the clutches of extraneous forces; (b) make the police accountable to people and law; (c) improve police credibility by reposing more trust in their depositions, at least at the assistant superintendent level; (d) raise their status to make them trustworthy in the eyes of the citizen; and (e) regulate police behaviour through internal controls and external supervision through an independent agency.
The above steps may appear unusual for transforming an organisation abruptly from being unreliable to being virtuous, but there is no other alternative left. The way characters, ethics and morals are being lowered; the manner in which educated people flout the law and the helpless way in which the state is witnessing the ordeal of the citizens compel us to do something drastic. When trust is reposed in police, there will also be a proper response, we hope, to honour the trust.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP.