Police service-challenges and reforms (Part-I)

In Pakistan, the words “police” and “reforms” seldom feature in the same sentence. In fact, most Pakistanis would say that they are the antithesis of each other: one tied inexorably to a known but dark past, the other, by definition, points towards a time filled with uncertainty but not without a tinge of hope. Here lies the rub: as Pakistan slowly stumbles towards social and economic reformation, the very state institutions which ought to be in the vanguard of change are, instead, holding it back by their inability to adapt quickly enough to the realities of the twenty first century.

One of the defining characteristics of the modern era is the dizzying pace of change with which countries and societies have transformed themselves. In most modern countries, social and state institutions have evolved to adapt themselves to the changing scenario and therefore maintained their relevance. In Pakistan too, changes in the social and political realm are palpable. However, for a number of reasons, our state institutions remain stuck in the past. This is perhaps as much true for the police in Pakistan as it is for any other organisation or institution in the country.

It is indeed not only possible but also absolutely necessary for our vital state institutions such as the police to shed their colonial legacy and metamorphose into a something a modern inclusive nation can live with and be proud of. If this nation can create a modern responsive organisation such as “the Motorway Police”, why can we not, with sufficient commitment and will, bring about a transformation in the mainstream police?

Policing refers to a function of governance responsible for the prevention, detection and investigation of crime; protection of persons and property; and the maintenance of public order and safety. Due to its geostrategic location, the issues of policing in Pakistan are very complex and have developed a linkage with the country’s internal and external environments.

Policing being a provincial subject, each of the federating units has its own police force. Be that as it may, all of the police forces which currently exist in the country, save the “National Highways and Motorway Police”, have been conceived and raised under the erstwhile federally promulgated Police Act of 1861. Thus, small differences notwithstanding, the various forces exhibit a commonality of structure and function that allows us, for academic purposes, to speak of them as one force – the “Pakistan police”.

The challenges Pakistan police faces today are numerous, multi-dimensional and complex bordering on intractable. Some of these are largely internal to the organization as it has evolved at this point in time, while others are largely extraneous and linked to the political economy of the country and the values and ethos of the larger society.

Despite the formal change of legal framework with the promulgation of the Police Order 2002, which imposes on it the duty to function in line with democratic traditions, law, Constitutional provisions and hopes and aspirations of the people, the police remain, set in their old ways. From the view point of the citizens, the police are steeped in, what’s derogatorily referred to as, the infamous “Thana Culture” – with a clear disconnect between the organisation and the community which it purports to protect and serve.

The second aspect of the Police-Community troubled paradigm encapsulated by the term Thana Culture is the police’s use of force and other coercive measures in an arbitrary and whimsical manner, usually in complete disregard to the actual operational needs of that particular situation. Whether this use of force occurs as part of interrogations, during raids on hideouts of criminals or other establishments, at so-called police Naakas or Check Points or when confronting public agitation, police’s use of force is arbitrary, excessive and sadistic – designed to torture or punish rather than to bring the situation under control.

The police officers are not sufficiently trained to carry out lawful searches or to preserve and process the crime scene or even record appropriate witness statements. It is no wonder then that despite the availability of some good facilities, such as the modern Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA) and Punjab Forensic Science Laboratory, the police remain unable to take considerable advantage of the same

Linked closely to the so-called Thana Culture is the view that the police lacks the ethos required of an agency mandated to assist the public at times of great stress. Given that citizens usually approach it during times of stress, the insensitivity exhibited by the police angers the citizen more than would be the case if similar equally callous behavior emanated from another less consequential agency. The perception that police is a tool in the hands of the politicians and vested interests, especially sitting government of the day, in particular, further aggravates public perception of police both in terms of community relations as well as service delivery.

The public believes that the police does not easily register a criminal case when a citizen falls victim to a crime, especially in property cases such as robbery or loss of vehicle.

The historical baggage of many decades of policing by coercion rather than policing by consent shapes the mindset and conduct of the current men and officers of the police as well as the public. In any volatile situation, the police acts as the “enforcer of the writ of the state” and therefore has to bear the brunt of the people’s ire towards the controlling authority. The police’s role becomes very difficult given that the idea of a peaceful protest is alien to Pakistani political culture.

Among many different other areas, poor professionalism in police officers is reflected in the way they fail to manage a host of what may be called their core duties. These include dealing with routine public order situations, including the use of a disproportionate amount of force or failure to apply force when required. It is not uncommon to see even minor protests, such as a gathering of a relatively small number of visually-impaired persons, dealt with in such a heavy-handed manner that police action itself becomes news, rendering the original protest secondary news.

Another area where the lack of professionalism of the police department is very obvious is in relation to the administrative systems deployed by the police. This includes poor management of records and inadequate capacity in planning and implementing budgetary, procurement and logistics cycles. This failure has implications for the police’s ability towards effective planning and implementation, sustainability and accountability. It is the same situation regarding the police’s capacity to conduct planning, designing or implementing a budget.

The word “operations” here is used in the general sense whereas the word is used in police literature to include all core policing areas including provision of security, investigation, crime prevention etc. Police Operations cover critical aspects of a police organisation including policies, institutional arrangements, business processes and resources for the performance of police officers’ main functions. The SOPs on administering arrest, performing search and seizure operations, managing public order situations, establishing checkpoints, carrying out investigations, conducting internal security operations and performing other policing duties have neither been professionally developed nor implemented in their true spirit. Consequently, there has come to exist a huge gap between what is written in criminal law and what is being practiced on the ground.

The police officers are not sufficiently trained to carry out lawful searches or to preserve and process the crime scene or even record appropriate witness statements. It is no wonder then that despite the availability of some good facilities, such as the modern Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA) and Punjab Forensic Science Laboratory, the police remain unable to take considerable advantage of the same.

There are serious issues regarding recruitment, training, placement and promotions as well. Absence of a transparent and accountable system of placement, especially of provincial police officers has seriously affected the efficiency, effectiveness and morale of police officers as recent instance has been experienced in Pakpattan DPO fiasco. Moreover, training is not geared to produce individuals who can perform complex policing jobs as per the requirements of contemporary policing. Disregard of merit results in disillusionment and a toxic work environment, with very often clear groupings amongst the police colleagues emerging along fault lines such as PSP versus provincial officers or the “well-connected” (field officers) versus the “disgruntled” (desk officers).

All of these issues must be resolved if the Pakistan Police is to modernise and become an institution capable of serving its law enforcement duties.

The writer has done MPA from Institute of Administrative Sciences (IAS) Lahore

Published in Daily Times, February 22nd 2019.

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