Police — over the years

Civil society’s involvement in good policing can create a symbiotic common interest. This has not been secured

Police and policing have not changed over the years. The ways and methods of our policemen remain rough and crude; the investigation techniques tardy and archaic; and their behaviour with the public boorish and domineering. This is the public perception of the police force; it is largely true. It arouses a feeling of angst. What is wrong with this outfit? What ails it?

Next to a good constitution and a sound legal system what a society needs most is an efficient enforcement apparatus. This is where the police come in and not just, but as a vital institution of our national life, an organic and integral part of the society. But it performs an unpleasant social function. It tells the people where they have erred, it shows them where the law pinches. Man’s innate aversion to submit to laws and rules makes for bitterness. This is the context in which police operate.

Police forces are always an easy target of criticism and denunciation, hardly ever the recipients of bouquets. They are riled and rallied against, day in and day out, at every forum, every juncture, in print and electronic media, with monotonous, vitriolic regularity, no opportunity missed, no quarter given.

Given the nature of police’s job, it is inevitable to some extent. While the police perform their duties, the society looks upon them as an adversary, always tending on its toes. In this environment a normal interaction can take an ugly turn, causing acrimony and bad blood on both sides.

Governments routinely talk of changing the thana culture. A very noble objective, but realistically speaking, can it be done in a society with the same culture where the strong perennially suppress the weak, where torture and violence occur every other day. It is said that “the police are a mirror in which a society sees itself”. Look at the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the society is mostly egalitarian; the thana culture is markedly different. The police are generally more responsive, almost affable. This observation is not meant to be a defence or justification for the thana culture in other provinces, which has to change.

The police function in a particular social milieu, in a specific socio-economic and political environment. Their role is fashioned by the conditions in the society they serve. The administrative structure of which police are an integral part also determines its role and conduct. The socio-economic environment, the level of education, the extent of political awareness, all constitute the background against which the police function.

Over the years, the society has changed a lot. Starting as preponderantly rural, the country has seen rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. The role of the police continues to develop, almost always increasing their work load as the society in which they live changes.

For the purpose of policing, the typical features of an urban area are sudden and frequent law and order problems, developing inter alia due to the existence of various organised groups, greater frequency and variety of organised and traditional crime, additional regulatory measures demanded of the police and the need for an immediate response to crime, both because of exacting expectations of a society well aware of its rights and the more wide spread consequences of urban crime. This has complicated the task of law enforcement and aggravated the overall crime situation.

Apart from these changes, a new dimension of crime, hitherto unknown, has emerged in the form of momentous events in the region which transformed the geopolitical landscape on the western front. First there was a large scale influx of Afghan refugees that severely disturbed the society’s equilibrium and brought in its wake the menace of drugs and illegal arms on an unprecedented scale. Later, the scourge of terrorism, both local and external, rocked the country.

A lethal mix of religion and wanton violence, it was nothing short of a horrific eruption fraught with terrifying, unimaginable consequences. In the east, India, intensified its activities to further compound the law and order situation. Police and other law enforcement agencies were neither prepared nor trained and equipped to deal with the new phenomenon in the fight against crime.

Another significant feature that has had a bearing on law and order is the technological advances in tele-communication and mass media which have brought countries of the world closer to one another. The world has become a lot more compact.

The upper and upper-middle classes have responded to the challenge and tried to change their lifestyles accordingly. Advances in technology, especially electronics have opened new vistas for spending money. In the words of Emile Durkheim, a noted sociologist, “collective regulatory order, most commonly, breaks down upon occurrence of sudden depression, sudden prosperity or rapid technological change when men are misled into aspiring to goals which are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve”. As such this rapid technological change brought with it the strong desire and belief that money and material gains would lead to respect, social status and success in life. Hypocrisy and double standards gained more importance than traditional social values.

With such heavy odds stacked against the police, there has been little substantive effort to enable them to properly perform their functions. The administration of criminal justice has hardly undergone a change to bring it in line with the needs of a modern, developed society. The Police Act of 1861 and the district administrative structure were designed to deal with a largely rural society with an in-built system of public support. Since then things have changed drastically.

A qualitative change in police’s perspectives demands a corresponding change in the police culture and a much better effort in education and training, to develop not only greater professional competence but also a thorough understanding of the larger social issues and a keen awareness of the psycho-social environment.

Regrettably, over the years, no serious efforts have been made to overhaul the police service. The few measures taken in this regard have been peripheral and did not touch the core issues. This is basically due to the inability of the state and the police leadership to understand and mould police activity to the new realities. This could be summed up as follows:

The failure of political leadership to understand the direct relationship between improvements in the privileges of police, their education/training and the quality of policing in the society.

The failure of the police leadership to perceive the changing needs of the society and put forward a comprehensive programme for re-structuring the laws and procedures governing the administration of police.

Persistent opposition of some groups in the state, even to half-hearted attempts made by the police leadership to improve the police working. Inextricably stuck in the past, they are desperate to cling to their supremacy in administration, specially the district structure.

The irrational attitude of country’s economic planners in relegating any expenditure on improving the administration of justice to a low non-development priority.

I am reminded here of a proverb: “between the idea and the reality lies a shadow”. The profundity of these words is nowhere more evident than in the Third World countries where the needs of a developing society place colossal strain on its meagre resources. The accent on development further relegates the importance of police. The fact that the administration of criminal justice is fundamentally important for any social or economic progress, is often lost sight of under the growing pressure of public demands in the sphere of economic development.

Crime is directed against the society and not the police per se. It is not a private war between the police and the criminals; it is a war between the society and the criminals, police being in the vanguard. Civil society’s involvement in good policing can create a symbiotic common interest that has not been secured. The fault primarily lies with police for if they cannot present their case and elicit government and public support, no one else will do it for them.

The writer is a former Inspector General of Police

Pakistan's police — over the years