Friday Sep 17 2021

Police reforms: What went wrong, what went right?

A file photo of Pakistani policemen cordoning of an area at a crime scene.
A file photo of Pakistani policemen cordoning of an area at a crime scene.

My mother was the unhappiest person in the family when I was offered Police Group after qualifying CSS. She reasoned that I would either be despised or get hurt. Others celebrated the fact that their sibling was a cop now. I could also feel a sense of pride on my father’s face.

Life changed as I became SP sahib – overriding other nicknames. Frankly speaking, serving the police is an honour that gives personal and professional satisfaction. Although many of my colleagues got martyred or were seriously injured in the line of duty, saving people’s lives is the ultimate action one can desire for humanity.

Customarily, the police are the subject of everyday discussion. The institution affects all of us, especially when it comes to life, property and honour. However, there are times when we listen to comments like ‘despite 74 years of independence, we haven’t come out of the colonial mindset and the police are still being used as a colonial force’ or ‘laws seem to be for children of a lesser god’. 

When I was in Africa, on a UN mission, a colleague from a developed world once said that like in South Asia, there [in Africa] too, the order of the day was ‘show me the man and I will show you the rule’.

It’s a common desire of citizens, including those who are part of the system, that there should be rapid-response systems for timely police response in case of emergencies. They also ask for reforms in the police departments across Pakistan. On the face of it, it looks quite straightforward. The working of the police force, its ailments, and how to improve its professionalism is easy to comprehend. Questions like how crimes can be controlled by addressing their roots causes, or how the democratic aspirations of the people can be met, or how citizens can be made more responsive and law-abiding again do not seem to be complex.

However, the failure of various police reforms exposes the hurdles posed by beneficiaries of the current situation. In the book ‘Why Nations Fail’, writers D Acemoglu and J A Robinson say that those nations where narrow elites feather their nest at the expense of society usually falter. Holding ‘narrow elites’ accountable and reining them in has always been a big challenge – who will ‘bell the cat’ remains a mystery till today, especially when sycophancy is the most preferred quality.

In such a scenario, not only reforms but also law enforcement becomes a gigantic task. All is not gloomy though – successive regimes should be acknowledged for whatever good one sees: efforts such as countering terrorism capabilities, safe city projects, forensic agencies, facilitation centres, foreign trainings, participation in UN peacekeeping, and provisions of tech-based gadgets, modern equipment, and logistics do add a feather to their crown.

But at the same time, one needs to think about the factors that are seemingly stopping us from making a paradigm shift from the police’s colonial mindset and getting upgraded to a modern service for citizens. International public policy literature tells us that a lack of career planning, insufficient budget, interference in police operations and investigations, and a lack of accountability of delinquent police officials is a recipe of compromised policing.

Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah took a major step in changing the colonial police by setting up the metropolitan police system for Karachi in 1948. Unfortunately, the first-ever police reforms were impeded after his death. Since then, various recommendations of 26 commissions and numerous committees have been incorporated, but the best reform effort was the Police Order 2002, enacted to ensure the public accountability of the police, reduction of political influence and specialisation of functions.

Interestingly, the 2002 order was never introduced in the federal capital, Islamabad. Balochistan and Sindh quietly reverted to the 1861 Police Act in 2011. Punjab continued to meet its ends in an uneven manner, whereas Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) amazingly evolved through the Police Act 2017. In Sindh, the civil society contested in the high court and got the judgment ruled in favour of the operational autonomy of the police and independence of operation in the police force; the apex court also upheld the same. However, Sindh enacted its own Police Act in 2019; the verdict on the challenged contempt application is still awaited.

In another development, the matter of reforming the police was taken by the Supreme Court, and a police reforms committee (PRC) comprising retired and serving IGs was constituted in May 2018. The committee suggested a model police law to address new developments and challenges in a fast-changing world impacted by information technology, in its two-volume compendium, but it seems that those suggestions have been shelved now.

Reforms are not a mere change in rules, but they lead to a change in an institution’s attitude and mindset. We should not wait for a messiah, or any reforms, any more. The police leadership should act as a crusader for police reforms. Senior officers can transform the overall operations of the police departments. They are the determining factor as they are the ‘men and women behind the gun’ and are in control of organisational straps.

The police leadership needs to ensure the optimum utilisation of physical, technological, and human resources, encourage and appreciate high-performing offers, and hold non-performers accountable. They must be tough on vagrants, but they must deal with victims in a soft manner. They can improve the working of police stations and investigation processes by picking the right people for the right job for better service delivery.

It’s time to motivate the police force and correct the wrongs. People who erode system of fairness and equity should be confronted, irrespective of their social class or status. “Teach him to sell his brawn and brain to the highest bidders but never put a price tag on his heart and soul” (Abraham Lincoln). This can be done by bringing indigenous reforms to Pakistan's police departments, catalysing the transition from the existing police force to a police service.

There should be no doubt that our legacy will be determined by the actions we take today. Let’s work with a cause to leave a proud heritage for our children. “All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope” – Winston Churchill

The writer, a security expert, holds a PhD in Politics & International Relations, and is presently serving as IGP NHMP. He can be reached on [email protected]

Originally published in The News