The disgraceful spectacle of four law enforcement officials being apprehended for committing crimes like abduction, demanding ransom and rape have shaken public confidence to its core. Coming on the heels of Police Week 2019, when citizens were informed of the gallant and meritorious services of many lawmen who received medals, the above aberrations amounting to serious crimes come as a rude shock. The question is, how can the police insist on appropriate conduct from the citizens if their own conduct is not above board? The requirement of law observance can be achieved best if the police themselves, as the country's principal law enforcing agency, follow the law before enforcing it in the public sphere. In fact, “law observance by the police is the best form of law enforcement that one can conceive of in a country under the rule of law.”
In order to ensure the continuance of public confidence in police, the police authorities must take swift action against the four police personnel who disgraced their department. Criminal cases lodged against them must be expeditiously investigated so that trial can commence within two months. To deal with such bad eggs within the agency, the authorities may also consider taking action under the stringent Police Officers Special Provisions Ordinance 1976 (as amended) in which there are arrangements to get rid of them within a time limit of 45 days.
However, sometimes we see efforts to explain away serious crimes by law enforcement officials by characterising the offenders as “a few bad apples”. This is too simplistic. A reasoned view is that the officer's personality features represent one element of the problem. Organisational culture and practices are also often responsible for police misconduct. One could say that police deviance is symptomatic of a system-wide problem.
The lawmen, being members of a coercive organisation, are legally empowered to curtail liberty only in appropriate cases. But when a lawman curtails liberty with an ulterior motive of obtaining illicit financial gains, his actions are frowned upon by all sections of the society. In the eyes of the public, he is then no different from a petty criminal. The scenario becomes darker when law enforcers stand accused of committing the most degrading offence of rape.
The criminal conduct of a section of the police has worried many in the past. What, however, is unfortunate is that we have not adequately ventured to find out the causes of such behavioural aberrations or try to understand the dynamics of a police sub-culture. Most often, we have treated the symptoms only by punishing the individual(s) responsible. At times, that has also failed on account of procedural shortfalls or evidentiary insufficiencies.
There is no denying that the public has serious doubts about the credibility of the recruitment process of lower functionaries in the police department. The level of political interference in the process is said to be shocking. Politicians seem to be under the impression that their chosen candidates, if recruited in the police force, will prove an asset for them in the future. Such appointees, however, mostly become a liability for the individual politician and the public at large. Whatever the case may be, the unfortunate reality is that often recruitments have been made on considerations other than merit and ability. In this act, some police officers also play a role to satisfy their political masters. The net result is that undesirable elements find their way into important positions of authority. Such recruits who enter the service by greasing the palm of influentials may never understand the burden of trust that society places in its police force.
Following recruitment, there is the training schedule wherein also there are allegations of subjecting the trainees to undue pressures. It is not, therefore, unusual that the appointees turn into bitter individuals. The dehumanising experience at the formative period of their policing career takes its toll on them later. The four apprehended officers could be among those bitter individuals. Whether that suspicion is well-founded or not, the unfortunate fact is, with increased criminalisation of politics, it is becoming difficult to control policemen who cultivate a close relationship with the politicians in power. Equally culpable are the lax supervisors.
We have to agree that the standards of recruitment in police have declined over the years, and many undeserving candidates have managed to secure entry through unfair means. Once in uniform, this lot lets the lure of the lucre control them and never hesitate to deviate from the expected norms of the police. The training, especially of the lower ranks, has been sadly neglected and there is a distinct lack of emphasis on desired police behaviour.
We have to acknowledge that the responsibility for failure to improve the standards of police recruitment and training must fall squarely on both the politicians and the police personnel. They have not risen to the occasion but that does not mean that the unhealthy practice should continue to the detriment of such an important profession in our life.
Recruitment standards must be improved by strictly curbing corrupt practices at the point of origin—that is, recruitment. Officers with a record of honesty and integrity should be entrusted with the responsibility of conducting the recruitment. This is important because the crux of good policing is the presence of a well-qualified, trained and motivated constable. The need is to change training programmes from isolated, closed rigidities to integrated, inter-disciplinary programmes for the preparation of proper law enforcement professionals. “Ethical awareness” training can be introduced to address corruption. The minds of the field functionaries should be constantly guided by holding training courses at the district and police station levels.
There should be a concentrated drive to make it difficult for a dishonest person to remain in a focal position. Superior officers have to set examples by maintaining their private lives above board. Since police corruption is often a result of poor service conditions, efforts are needed to improve those. At the same time, corruption should be dealt with an iron hand. All these are tall orders, and therefore, in order to reach the objective of the much-needed attitudinal change within the policemen, a proper environment has to be created so that they can perform with a sense of pride and duty.
The deviation of policemen is always deplorable as they shake the foundation of the society by eroding public faith and trust in the rule of law. This most visible symbol of authority can never escape criticism for any wrongdoing or malfunctioning. They cannot ignore public opinion. This needs to be constantly impressed upon the rank and file of the police department. It is also time to ensure that police modernisation schemes to ensure internationally recognised best practices remain a high priority.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a former IGP.