A citizen-friendly force?

VED MARWAH

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THE image of the Indian Police is not that of a citizen-friendly force. Public criticism varies from its alleged overzealousness and brutalization at one end of the spectrum, to ineffectiveness in controlling crime and criminals at the other - not surprising in the face of mounting evidence of violence and crime. The low image of the police, in some states like Bihar, has darkened even further. Instead of being an instrument to enforce the rule of law, it is increasingly seen as a pliable tool in the hands of unscrupulous politicians.

This is not a new development. The Indian Police has a long tradition of being a partisan instrument in the hands of the rulers since colonial times. At the heart of the problem is the fact that a section of police officers instead of fighting crime and criminals decided to join them, because doing so was more profitable and less risky. Organised crime cannot flourish without some police connivance.

 

The increasing politicisation of the police in India has seriously affected its morale and discipline. The resulting polarization in some of the states has been along religious, caste and ethnic lines, eroding its credibility. The emergence of armed senas in Bihar and U.P. was a consequence of this loss of faith in the state police to protect people's life and property. An unholy nexus has developed between corrupt police officers and unscrupulous politicians. The criminalisation of politics has affected police performance more than the performance of any other state institution.

The wholesale transfer of police officers with each change of government has become a routine matter. Officers have to undergo the humiliation and harassment of being transferred again and again, sometimes within 24 hours. How can a police force led by such demoralised officers perform in a fair and effective manner?

The police has not escaped the evil effects of communalism and casteism in Indian society. A partisan and politicised police has often been used to intimidate adversaries and reward supporters. When the police uses its discretionary powers and enforces the law in a selective manner, as happens quite blatantly in states like Bihar and U.P., it is no longer trusted by the people. The registration of cases, their investigation and prosecution has increasingly become a matter of political expediency. Even arrests and searches by the police are often made to serve partisan ends.
Nowhere in the world can a police force effectively perform its role without the cooperation of the people. It is not a coincidence that armed  have mushroomed in those parts of senas the country where the police has ceased to be a professional force to provide a sense of security to the weak and deprived. It is not that criticism against the police is a new phenomenon. Much of what is being alleged today has been said earlier too. The allegations of incompetence, corruption, brutalization, and being a violator rather than an enforcer of the rule of law, have all been voiced before. But the deteriorating law and order situation and an increasing sense of insecurity in the country have lent a new edge to these allegations.

The rule of law is the most important component of a democracy and it is the police which is entrusted with its enforcement. It is the weaker sections, which includes women, children, old people, the poor and handicapped, who need the police more than other sections of the society. Ask them what it means to be without police protection.
But who is responsible for the current state of affairs? In our political and criminal justice system there is big gap between what is required to be done under the law and what actually happens. Misconceived ideas about crime prevention and unreal expectations force the police to take recourse to short-cuts. In doing this it has the tacit and, sometimes, open support from its seniors and political rulers. A police system that constantly attempts to cover up its illegal acts will find it difficult to maintain a citizen-friendly image.

The present system of administrative and political supervision over the police suffers from many distortions. After the separation of the executive from the judiciary with the amendment of the Criminal Procedure Code in 1973, the so-called magisterial control has lost its original motivation. Complete control has now passed on to political rulers. Not surprisingly, the police tend to be the handmaiden of the political rulers of the day. There is no alternative to creating institutional mechanisms to insulate the police from arbitrary administrative and political control, and to subject it to the control of an agency like a security commission, which functions in a non-partisan manner and holds the rule of law and public interest as the sole criteria for judging police performance.

The existing mechanisms of accountability need to be refined and enlarged to ensure that the police does not resort to illegal methods. For the sake of so-called 'practical considerations', the police is expected to take recourse to extra-legal measures for crime control and the maintenance of public order. There is need for strengthening the traditional mechanisms as well as for the creation of new ones to enforce individual as well as organizational accountability in the police.

Public grievances and complaint cells outside the police department should enquire into complaints against police officers. The National Police Commission has recommended the creation of these cells to make the force more accountable and responsive. Officers must get out of the habit of only calculating the likely political consequences of their actions for advancing their careers. It has been aptly stated that, 'the rule of law has been subverted by the rule of politics.'

Specific determinants to evaluate police performance should be laid down to replace the current practice of depending on crime statistics. The members of state legislatures and Parliament should be educated about the harm this practice has done to police functioning. The over 100 year old system of maintaining police records of crime and criminals has become non-functional because of a huge increase in crime and the number of criminals. The technological revolution in information and communication technology has opened new vistas for a complete transformation of the system. Computerisation of police records cannot be postponed any longer.

The job of maintaining public order too has become much more complicated. Traffic management, crowd control, and organised crimes are examples of areas which require high levels of expertise. Specialisation in different aspects of policing, such as intelligence and investigation, should be introduced. Officers should be encouraged to opt for one stream of police administration or the other, depending on their aptitude and inclination. Only a professional body of well-trained and motivated officers can deal with difficult and complicated problems of today. Even a beat constable needs access to modern technology for communication and information about crime and criminals. To function effectively in the age of information revolution, the police requires technological upgradation and an element of specialisation and professionalism.

The problem of police brutality has been with us for a long time. It is as old as the police force. Nor is it confined to any one country. A distinction must be drawn between the legitimate use of force by the police and its illegal use. The nature of police work is such that sometimes it has to use force in the legitimate discharge of its duties. It is only when force not sanctioned by law is used that one talks of police brutality. Even in the case of legitimate use of force, the police is expected to keep it to a minimum. The use of force can be termed as illegal if, in its use, due care and caution is not exercised and it is more than the required minimum.

Why do police officers indulge in brutal and inhuman acts? One answer could be that like every large organization the police force has its quota of rotten eggs, and it is they who indulge in these illegal acts for sadistic reasons or for personal ends. But that is only a part of the answer. If these were the only factors, the solution to the problem would not be that difficult, and the tightening of disciplinary control and punishment of the delinquent police officers would achieve the desired objectives.

The problem of brutalization and the use of third-degree methods in the police is, however, more difficult and complex. A large majority of cases of police brutality take place not because of individual aberration, but because of systemic compulsions. The practice is more widespread than we would like to believe. It could not have gone unchecked since British days if there was no tacit support of senior police officers, bureaucrats, politicians and the judiciary. The fact is that the practice also enjoys the support of a large section of the public in the mistaken belief that it is necessary for effective maintenance of law and order.

A part of the problem lies in the aggressive enforcement of law and order as a quick-fix solution to the problem of rising crime, without tackling the root causes for the increase in crime. A swing from tolerance of crime to zero-tolerance could create an environment in which extra-legal police excesses enjoy considerable public support. Police officers are told that they are soldiers in the war against crime. Is it then surprising that in this crusade against crime they react strongly when their authority and sense of order is challenged? Of course, the response is more violent when the person challenging the police with physical violence, or even abusive behaviour, happens to be a member of a 'disliked' racial or religious group.
The use of third-degree methods in the interrogation of suspects is not uncommon in many countries, including India. A serious problem exists and it must be faced; wishing it away will not make it disappear. The fact is that brutal methods are often practiced by motivated and committed police officers and not always by the corrupt and ineffective ones. The police alone should not be entrusted with the task of prevention of crime. It needs to be understood that most of the factors that lead to crime are not within the purview of the police at all.

The level of social breakdown in many cities is unprecedented. The sub-human conditions in which a large part of the cities' population live in ghettos are unbelievable. There is an acute collapse of the social structure. No police force, even the most efficient one, can by itself prevent all crimes. It is this misconception about the role of the police that is the primary cause for such brutal police behaviour.

Judge, jury and executioner - that is how policemen, under severe pressure of operating in a society riddled with extra-legal influences, start viewing themselves. The worst among them, basking in the macho image of supercops bestowed on them by the media, do not appear too unhappy with playing the role of legislature, judiciary and executive simultaneously. They become the role model for the rest of the police force.

An increase in crime, or even a couple of ghastly crimes, can cause great public outrage. Frustrated at their failure to control crime and angry at the unjust criticism against the force, police officers give vent to their feelings by resorting to extra-legal measures. Illegal arrests, fake encounters and torture in police custody may bring about some visible signs of improvement and positive media attention for a brief period, but in the long run they cannot control crime.

Traditionally, third-degree methods of interrogation have been applied during investigation with some tacit social sanction. The problem, however, is that it does not take long for some officers to resort to strong-arm methods for extortion and political ends. The growing nexus between the police, politician and criminal is a logical outcome of this process.

The solution to the problem of mafia crime cannot be found without breaking the nexus between the police, politician and criminal and strengthening the criminal justice system. This will require an enormous amount of political courage. Bestowing social sanction on police brutality will only weaken the rule of law and not strengthen it, as is sometimes mistakenly believed. If the police is pressurised to take ruthless measures to prevent crime, the police responds by what David Bayley, the well-known author on the subject of police administration, calls 'authoritative intervention and symbolic justice.'

Torture, in order to extract confessions was so endemic in our land that the British colonial rulers, when enacting criminal laws for the country, decided to make all confessions to police officers inadmissible as evidence. In fact, throughout Europe torture was part of the judicial process until the Industrial Revolution; the practice of custodial violence ended in Europe only when literacy spread and economic advancement made people more politically conscious and rights-oriented. Today in Europe, and the entire advanced western world, custodial violence is taboo.

But in the developing countries with low levels of literacy and subsistence standards of living, the people, especially the haves, demand strong action because they are the victims of crime. They want the police to use third-degree methods on suspects to recover their property. This expectation of the police resorting to brutality is so ingrained in the middle class psyche that were an officer to insist on acting otherwise there would be a spate of complaints alleging weakness or collusion on his part. The knowledge that the law is in a position to help the protectors of the innocents in such situations further strengthens their resolve to act as judge and executioners as well.

The interrogation of a person, whether witness or suspect, is no easy task. It requires tremendous patience and considerable understanding of human psychology. The truth can be elicited only through a lengthy interrogation process, which includes contradicting the suspect with facts already secured by the investigating officer or by confronting him with the statements made by him or by other witnesses or accused. This is a time consuming and roundabout process.

From an initial reluctance to divulge the facts known to him, which could be due to various factors like fear of his own involvement or disinclination to involve relatives, friends or foes because of love, loyalty or fear, the suspect has to be taken through a lengthy process of intensive questioning to a point where he will disclose the facts know to him. Some police officers, under pressure of work or driven by a desire to achieve quick results, are tempted to stray from the path of patience and scientific investigation and use physical force instead. They convince themselves that the security needs of the country override the requirement of strict adherence of the legal procedures.

Protection of life and property is the primary function of the state and no government can hope to survive if it fails to perform this role. To a large extent the image of the police determines the image of the government. And it requires more than spin doctors to improve the police image. There are no short-cuts. People want an effective police, not a brutal one.

To convert the police into a citizen-friendly force, it is essential that its role be completely transformed. Instead of a willing tool in the hands of the rulers, it has to become a servant of the law charged with the responsibility of protection of life and property of citizens. And it cannot perform this role by taking recourse to short-cuts. Policemen must treat their job as a profession and not as an instrument of exercising power. Only a well-trained, well-equipped and a motivated police force will be able to perform this role.

 

The effective performance of this role will require not only structural changes in police organization, but also major reworking of the laws, procedures and police rules. India, being a plural society, cannot survive without a neutral and professional police force that can function effectively within the legal framework. The gap between public expectations and police performance has to be narrowed. Catchy slogans and public relations exercises will not achieve the desired objective.

Police reforms can no longer be delayed. On top of the reform agenda should be the transformation of the constable, who is the cutting-edge of police administration, into a more responsive and effective police functionary. Almost 80% of the police budget is related to functions performed by the constabulary, but it is the most neglected component of the organization. As recommended by the National Police Commission, a constable must be treated as a skilled worker, and his working and living conditions must be accordingly improved.

To ensure that senior police officers are more sensitive to the needs of the constabulary, officers of the Indian Police Service should serve for some time as constables before promotion to higher ranks. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London, the senior-most police officer in Britain, starts his career in the rank of a constable. The time has come for the removal of the artificial distinction between 'officers and men'. A system of accelerated promotions for the more qualified and better performers can be devised to substitute the present 'caste' system.

Police officers should be encouraged to opt for specialisation in various streams of police administration. After a few years of exposure to different police jobs, police officers should be earmarked for different branches depending on their aptitude and performance. Policing is too complicated a job to be handled efficiently only through commonsense as was the case in the past. Rapid urbanisation and the revolution in information technology and communications has changed all that. Police officers must become true professionals if they are to succeed in controlling crime and criminals. Basic reforms in recruitment methods, training and system of promotions and posting are necessary to make the force more professional and less brutal.

 

Corruption is another problem that seriously erodes the image of the police. True, the police is not alone in being afflicted with this disease. Possibly, the dubious distinction of being more corrupt rests with other government departments, but undeniably police corruption is resented more than any other form of corruption. Police corruption can take the form of wrongful search and arrest, registration of false cases and use of third-degree methods. A corrupt and unprofessional policeman mounts an assault on a citizen's dignity even more than causing physical harm. Rude and abusive behaviour is the single-most important cause of poor police-public relations.

The police cannot perform its role effectively without public cooperation, and that is not forthcoming because of police ineffectiveness and its unfriendly image. Only comprehensive police reforms will be able to break this vicious circle. The task cannot be postponed any further.

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