Reformed or deformed?

So far 24 commissions have been formed to introduce police reforms in the country but the objective has not been achieved

Graphic by Naseem Ur Rehman 

Police is undoubtedly the face of the state. Ideally it should safeguard the rights of the people and protect their lives, property and honour. It has to ensure also that the laws of the land are implemented and violators, however strong and connected, are apprehended and relief provided to those wronged by them.

The presence of police is supposed to bring comfort and security to citizens. Unfortunately, the situation is otherwise in Pakistan. People prefer to keep a safe distance from them and the very thought of visiting a police station gives them goosebumps.

Why is this so? The answer given by policy makers and experts on policing is that the police force in Pakistan is still working on the model formed by the British under the Police Act of 1861, and that it has not changed much from an opposite force to a service-oriented entity. This Act was promulgated four years after the triggering of the War of Independence in 1857 or the ‘mutiny’ as the British would call it. The purpose of that police was to crush a population ruled by a colonial power so that they never again think about raising their heads. The police continue to carry forward the legacy of that era and the efforts made to reform it according to the needs of the current times have not yielded fruit.

Against this background, the agenda to reform police and make it people-friendly, accountable, independent, free from political influence, efficient, courteous and humane becomes highly relevant. Recent incidents like the killing of an innocent family in a police action in Sahiwal, and the murder of a mentally challenged man, Salahuddin, in police custody, have evoked severe criticism and led to demands to streamline the affairs of this department.

This is not the first time that such demands have surfaced. So far, 24 commissions have been formed in the country to introduce police reforms but the fate of the recent ones has not been much different from the earliest. The stated aims purpose of introducing these reforms over the years have been to introduce operational responsibility, freedom from political interference in their operational/functional decision making process in areas such as recruitments, postings and transfers, promotions and investigations, internal and external accountability, financial independence and responsibility, performance-based monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, gender-sensitive approach, induction of more women in police, measures to improve the image of the police, efforts for trust-building between the police and the masses etc. What hampered progress in this context is the question?

A serving senior police officer, who is privy to recent developments on police reforms, points out that there is a lack of political will to introduce them and at the same time there is a strong resistance from the Police Department. “Nobody wants to leave their comfort zone and forgo the powers they are enjoying.” The officer says that the Police Order 2002 introduced by General Musharraf was a good effort as it talked about operational autonomy, tenure security and external accountability mechanisms. But he says it was made toothless to a great extent through amendments made in 2004. “Even today politicians are being quoted saying as to what is the purpose of their contesting elections and winning if they cannot even get a Station House Officer (SHO) appointed or transferred.”

Under the Police Order 2002, he says, the transfers and postings of senior police officers in the province were the responsibility of the inspector general of police (IGP). But now the chief minister (CM) is performing this function. Similarly, the official adds, the politicians are not willing to lose control over police because this would go to their disadvantage and make them worthless in the ‘eyes of their voters’. He suggests the reforms agenda should be according to the socio-cultural, economic and political dynamics of the society and the system must have the absorptive capacity to embrace it – enforcing the model of a European country in one go will not help.

In this context, there is a general agreement among the proponents of police reforms nationwide that the Police Order 2002 is a good law. All four provinces and the ICT Police should be governed by the same law with minor changes as per local needs. The Police Act of 1861 (along with the Police Rules of 1934), a colonial legacy meant to suppress the people rather than serve them, was in force in Pakistan with minor modifications until 2002, before the promulgation of the Police Order 2002. The said law gives tenure protection to IGP of the province as well as the district police officers etc but these are being changed at will by the political elite without giving a show cause notice or assigning any reason.

Syed Safi Pirzada, senior manager and head of police trainings and reforms at Rozan – a civil society organisation working on and advocating police reforms, says the objective of this exercise shall be to have a police free from political influence but at the same time both internally and externally accountable for its deeds. Independence without accountability leads to inefficiency and abuse of power, he adds.

He says different provinces are working under different police laws modified over time but unfortunately, the Islamabad police is still working under the Police Act of 1861 introduced by the colonial masters. The public oversight structures like District Complaints Authority and Public Safety Commission provided for in the Police Order can be instrumental in prior identification and addressing cases of abuse of power by local police, he adds. Pirzada says this will also be helpful in establishing an independent judgment on any issue through empowerment of community members. He says police reforms are important because an efficient police gives citizens a feeling of security, serves as deterrence for wrongdoers, lays foundations of a society where justice prevails, helps build an environment where businesses flourish and investment arrives and so on.

Pirzada says there is no doubt police reforms are required at all levels but improving things at the level of police stations is imperative because these are the main points of contact between the public and the police. He says that a high profile committee comprising of serving and retired police officers and bureaucrats had compiled findings and given suggestions for police reforms in May 2016 on the directives of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Some of the findings were that the average tenure of an IGP is less than 12 months, of a district police head is nearly 6 months and of an SHO is less than 3 months; 90 per cent of the force is undereducated; average shift for constables is 12 hours; due to lack of funds, the police station tends to engage in the collection of funds through other means and each police station needs an additional amount of Rs 0.7 million per month beyond what the budget provides it to cater for fuel, utilities, maintenance and investigation costs. This amount is currently generated ‘off-the-ground’ by the police stations illegally.

Some suggestions were that provinces should introduce Police Access Service (PAS) as established in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, establish District Complaint Authorities (DCA) in every district, impose a punishment of 5 year imprisonment over a false FIR, set the minimum tenure of SHO and police station staff to 2 years, reduce working hours for constables from 12 to a maximum of 8 hours, ensure premature transfers come with written justifications, guarantee presence of sufficient women police officers and a law graduate for legal guidance at every police station.

The writer is a staff member. He can be reached at [email protected]

The state of police in Pakistan: Reformed or deformed?