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April 29, 2021

Enforcing law, creating order

April 29, 2021

We know that the police are the most despised institution in our country, according to various polls, such as the ratings put out by Transparency International and also other groups. We also know that the perception of people that they are corrupt, dishonest, poorly trained, and guilty of many acts of violence against those they hold captive are true.

But this poorly trained force is expected to deal with problems which are beyond what it can manage. There is, of course, no excuse at all for the use of torture and extrajudicial killings by the police. But we also need to understand more about this force given that it is essential to maintaining any kind of order in a country that badly lacks it and where rule of law appears to have crumbled completely over the years.

During the TLP protest, 11 members of the police force were abducted and held at Nawan Kot near Lahore, and 40 others were injured. The confrontation which lasted several days ended without a single congratulatory word for the police effort from the government of the province or the centre. The police had been sent in to deal with the protest without arms or any protective equipment. The protesters, on the other hand, were able to produce firearms and shoot at police officials leading to the injuries and the panic amongst police as well as the kidnappings which followed.

Reportedly, in parliament while a prayer was said for the TLP protesters, there was none of that for the police officers who had attempted so hard to break up the protest, which had disrupted traffic and caused immense difficulties for the citizens of Lahore and other areas in Punjab. The police did express anger over this discrepancy, but of course few bother about the words of police officials or consider what they have to say.

The issue here is that from time to time, while the police are often extremely incompetent and come across as nothing more than a group of goons when dealing with peaceful protesters, including students, teachers, nurses, and others, there are times when they have shown a degree of heroism and extraordinary courage. This happened in the case of the protest in Lahore, and in its aftermath, with policemen left essentially to fend for themselves, and no better equipped force sent in to back them up. The message for the police then is not good, and many are deeply injured over the manner in which they have been treated.

There was also a display of heroism by the police force in Quetta, which was able to stop attackers who wished to target the Serena Hotel from going beyond its car park and, instead, detonating the explosives laden into a car outside the hotel. Had the attackers entered the premises of the hotel itself, many more lives may have been lost.

In many other cases too policemen have been killed at posts, gates, and at other places where they have been placed to prevent terrorists from acting, even though they have not been provided with the equipment and the protection they need to take on these individuals, and especially those who are willing to commit suicide in order to kill others.

The fact is that we need to rethink how we are handling our police force and how we can change its culture and its outlook. In the first place, we must do more to give them some pride in their status within society. The police deserve a bigger role in society. They are needed in communities to protect victims of violence, whether within their homes or outside them. They are needed on the streets where multiple crimes take place. They are needed at police stations so that citizens can report crime without fear and without the threat that tangling with the police will only lead to demand for bribery and other problems and they are needed in general to present a better image of the country.

How can this be achieved? The answers are not easy, and can indeed be quite difficult to find. In the first place, we need reforms and better training for the police. This has been discussed many times before and the PTI government had indeed promised police reforms which never quite came about, notably in Punjab or even in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the party has ruled now for more than seven years.

Apart from training, the police need better pays and greater status in society. To some degree, higher salaries will achieve this. But that alone is not the answer. The Motorway Police perform better in their duty, often refusing to succumb to bribery or corruption, both because they are better paid and because they believe they are performing an important role for which they are treated with respect and dignity by people from all walks of life.

We need to grant respect to other members of the police force, including the traffic wardens who walk the streets day after day, regardless of weather conditions, and regardless of the situation they are placed in, so that they can find ways to ensure that their instructions are carried out by people who frequently ignore them, or else find it easy to bribe them with a 1000-rupee note. As is the case with everything else in society this rate, too, has risen over the years.

Most of all, we need to provide our police with more expertise in performing their duties properly, and within the ambit of the law. We need to find other forces from around the world who can offer this expert training. For example, many members of our police force have very little knowledge of how to collect evidence from the scene of a crime. Anyone who has reported a robbery at home or any other offence, whether on the streets or off them, will testify to this. Without forensic evidence that can be analysed in laboratories, modern day police investigation would be virtually non-existent in many countries around the world. With this ability snatched away from them, because of the lack of skill imparted to police trainees and because of the inadequacies of the system, we cannot expect our police to function effectively or to achieve very much in terms of solving crimes and finding the culprits behind them.

The whole matter of the police force then needs to be examined and analysed and looked at through an expert lens. Of course, this has been attempted before. One government after another has promised that it will do more to empower and uplift the police, yet on the ground little happens and we still see the police essentially as hapless people in uniform who are able to achieve little in the course of their duties with one example of this coming in the decision by the prime minister to bring out members of the armed forces to back the police so that SOPs designed to stop the rampaging Covid-19 virus in its tracks can be implemented. The fact that the police have not even been able to achieve this shows the degree of helplessness they suffer.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]