At the whims of the police

Recent incidents of police killing persons who did not stop at being signalled to do so, raises questions whether police can shoot them at sight

At the whims of the police

It was during the wee hours of February 3 that a young guy, Taimur Riaz, was gunned down by Islamabad police near a check-post in I-10/1 sector. The version of the police is that he was asked to stop but he fled, and was hence shot at by Samiullah Niazi of the Eagle Squad of Islamabad police.

Riaz, who was hit by a bullet in his head, was taken to the hospital but could not survive, while the girl sitting next to him in the car remained unscathed.

A month later, on March 2, Mardan Police shot and killed a vendor, riding a bicycle, on suspicion of him being a terrorist, and for not stopping when signalled to do that. The locals say the deceased Wolas Khan had been selling clothes on his bicycle in this area for the past 15 years, and was a father of 12 children.

There are reports as well that Khan had impaired hearing. It is quite likely that he had not heard the verbal commands of the police personnel to stop.

These recent incidents are just two of the many that have taken place in the country. Most of these deaths were caused allegedly due to the drivers’ or riders’ (in case of motorbikes) irresponsible and suspicious response.

Do the police have license to shoot anyone who does not comply with the order to stop? Can’t they chase the violators? Even if they decide to shoot, can’t they hit the tyres of a vehicle instead of aiming for the person’s head?

Sarmad Saeed, former additional IG of police, Punjab, cites a social reason for this. He says over the decades the distance between the police and the citizens has widened, and it has turned from a social service into an entity that is known for crude use of force. Today, he says, "there is a sheer trust deficit due to which police considers every citizen potential criminal and the citizens take police as oppressors. This perception makes them behave irrationally, sometimes even involuntarily, as a reflex action".

Saeed adds that there are advanced ways to handle such situations but the police have to be equipped properly. "They don’t even have vehicles to carry material required to set up pickets and supporting vehicles for chases."

Do the police have license to shoot anyone who does not comply with the order to stop? Can’t they chase the violators? Even if they decide to shoot, can’t they hit the tyres of a vehicle instead of aiming for the person’s head?

According to him, currently the police budget is primarily spent on administration, salaries, perks and privileges of officials, petrol, vehicles etc and a significant part is left for citizens’ security. Citing figures, he says, Punjab police spends $6 to $7 per head on security of its citizens in a year, Turkey $135, Singapore $250 and London police $450. "In this situation, how can we expect our police to use high-tech equipment and modern vehicles?

We know SOPs are blatantly violated. Asif Sial, a lawyer based in Lahore, says that around two years ago the IG of Punjab issued SOPs after the killings of two innocent people by police on Raiwind Road. "Under these instructions, policemen at pickets cannot open fire unless there is an imminent threat to their life; they must use security equipment like bullet proof jackets with ballistic helmets, wireless sets, barriers during picketing duties; the officers have been directed to avoid deployment of trigger-happy, physically sick and emotionally disturbed personnel at pickets."

Further, he adds, there are directions that weapons must not be issued to those who are aggressive and short-tempered, and have not been properly trained to handle weapons.

So, "announcing SOPs is one thing and getting implemented another. I hope the smart cameras being installed in Lahore will help collect evidence about their behaviour."

Commenting on the incident of vendor’s killing in Mardan, Sajjad Khan, Senior Superintendant of Police (SSP) Peshawar says, this incident has been taken very seriously, and the field staff of KP police has been given a special training. During the training, "they were shown video footages related to suicide bombings all over the country. The purpose was to give them an idea of what to expect in case there is a real threat and how to identify the innocent from the criminals. The body language of the attackers in these was discussed in detail."

Khan says that there are ways to setup pickets in a way that violators are unable to escape. For example, "pickets can be set up in two to three layers with concrete blocks placed in a zig zag arrangement at distances from each other."

Another option, he says, "is using tyre busters, that are belts placed across the road. These belts have sharp nails embedded in them that can be put in upright situation the moment there is a need to stop the fleeing vehicles. What happens is that all the tyres burst and the vehicle cannot move further?"

Zahid Hussain, a dealer in industrial chemicals, along with his cousin was looted at a picket set up by dacoits in police uniforms. Since then he is suspicious of every policeman he sees. "Sometimes past incidents stay at the back of your mind and define your immediate reaction."

A source in the Punjab police says in many cases people violating checkpoint rules have been apprehended without causing any physical harm to them.

He says there are reasons like the driver being drunk, the vehicle being smuggled and custom not paid, the driver being a court absconder or with criminal record, the number plate being fake, the person behind the wheel not having a driving license and so on.

"Even in the Islamabad shooting case there was a girl who had become friends with the deceased on facebook," the source adds.

Naeem, the spokesperson for Islamabad police, says the policeman who shot at Taimur Riaz is in prison and facing trial in court. "His department is not protecting him though people have such perceptions about them," he adds.

He agrees in this particular incident, the vehicle could have been stopped at a distance by mobilising patrolling vehicles of Islamabad police that are sufficient in number.

At the whims of the police