Police reforms are necessary

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Karachi: 7 July 2024: You are men and women of violence," asserts Dave Grossman, a retired military officer, to eager police trainees in the award-winning documentary Do Not Resist. One wonders if he draws his inspiration from the policing tactics so notoriously practiced in Pakistan, where such a proclamation seems less an instruction and more a statement of fact.

While everyone in Pakistan has long been aware of the police culture prevalent in the country, the post-May 9, 2023 posturing of the police was a rude awakening for a large segment of the populace, as even the affluent were exposed to a brand of policing previously reserved for the poor and marginalized — 'militarized policing.'

According to criminal justice expert Peter Kraska, 'militarized policing' refers to a policing style that "increasingly draws from and patterns around the tenets of militarism and the military model." In Pakistan, this has translated into widespread adoption of military tactics and an organizational structure that emphasizes force and domination, particularly towards powerless and marginalized segments of society. The events of May last year ignited a national debate, bringing the long-neglected issue of police reforms to the forefront.

In response, numerous articles and opinions appeared in national dailies, with writers identifying the root causes and recommending remedies. Most of these articles, often authored by retired police officers, attributed the streak of violence by the police force following the unfortunate events of May 9, 2023, to the politicization of the force and advocated for depoliticization.

While politicization of the police is indeed a critical issue, it is only part of the problem. It is hard to overlook the fact that law enforcement personnel often display readiness to resort to violence even in the absence of political pressure. The excessive use of force highlights that the issue is inherently internal and can be addressed from within.

As a serving police officer who has witnessed the systemic challenges within the department, this article will delineate the specific internal hurdles within police departments that foster a militarized approach to law enforcement. Importantly, these challenges do not solely stem from political interference but are intrinsic problems that can be effectively tackled from within the department itself, without external intervention.

The general populace in Pakistan tends to fear rather than trust the police, and the high-handedness of law enforcement officers in dealing with the public is a common theme in media narratives. But is the issue solely attributable to politicization and political interference, as many senior police officers would argue? A serving police officer offers a different perspective, focusing on the internal rot within the system…

ORGANIZATIONAL IDENTITY

The issue is less about politicization and more about the organizational identity of the department. Organizational identity — the collective understanding of what defines an organization's central, enduring, and distinctive characteristics — significantly influences the behavior of its members. This identity not only shapes how members perceive themselves within the organization but also guides their actions and interactions with others, both inside and outside the organization.

The organizational identity of the police force in Pakistan has been shaped by a lasting colonial influence. It is a well-known fact that this force was established by the colonial rulers with the objective of subduing and controlling the local population.

In his book, "Defenders of the Establishment: Ruler-Supportive Police Forces of South Asia," K.S Dhillon, a retired officer of the Indian Police Service, states: "The Indian police was never meant to be a citizen-friendly agency. At no time in history was it expressly required to fulfill any role other than defending and safeguarding the ruling establishment." Its design, structure, attitudes, values, functional modes, and legal backdrop were all geared towards serving the government and maintaining the status quo in society. If the masses suffered in the process, so be it.

This has been the real identity of the force and its members ever since its inception, and even today, the police are unwilling to relinquish this identity. After Independence, the role and character of the force should have been redefined, but this colonial legacy was perpetuated. Many blame the political leadership for this, but the responsibility ultimately lies with the police leadership, which failed to move beyond the 'sahib bahadur' mindset and instead took pride in upholding colonial practices.

This identity imbues policemen with a sense of superiority, and when dealing with civilians, they often behave as if they are masters rather than public servants. The "Annual Report on Police Reforms in Pakistan (2020)" by the Justice Project Pakistan observes that police behavior and attitudes towards civilians reflect a governing rather than a serving attitude. The report highlights numerous instances where police actions are characterized by abuse of power and disregard for civilian rights, reinforcing the perception of the police as rulers rather than protectors of the community.

The report particularly points to widespread use of arbitrary detention and excessive force as indicators of this problematic stance. This identity manifests when a policeman stationed at a roadblock or guarding a location arbitrarily stops and frisks passersby, becoming irritated if questioned about the legality or necessity of their actions.

FLAWED STRUCTURE AND NON-ACCOUNTABILITY

The establishment of the police force in the 19th century in the Subcontinent introduced a dual classification system: senior officers (assistant superintendents of police and above) and junior officers (constables to inspectors, further divided into upper and lower subordinates).

The higher, gazetted ranks were exclusively occupied by Englishmen, while the lower, non-gazetted ranks were open to Indians. This structural discrimination was intentional, placing English officers in authoritative and privileged roles to suppress any dissent from the locally staffed lower ranks. Local officers, often underpaid and marginalized, frequently redirected their frustrations towards the public, perpetuating a cycle of oppression and resentment.

Post-Partition in 1947, Pakistan inherited this colonial legacy, which persisted with the establishment of the Police Service of Pakistan (PSP) in 1948. This new entity maintained the centralized and discriminatory framework, perpetuating the divide between senior PSP officers and junior provincial cadre officers. Distinct terms — such as 'noori' for privileged PSP officers and 'naari' for less privileged provincial cadre officers — emerged, highlighting the disparity. PSP officers, assuming leadership roles at all administrative levels — district, region, and province — wielded absolute authority over their subordinates. This authority was often enforced through authoritarian and unlawful methods.

They exercised their powers arbitrarily to keep the 'naaris' under tight control. These subordinates, whether willingly or reluctantly, dutifully carried out orders issued by their superiors in the name of discipline, often disregarding the legality of these orders. Even illegal and unjustified orders were executed to curry favor with authoritative superiors accustomed to absolute control.

If anyone dared to question unjustified orders, they risked penalties, abuse, humiliation, booking, and arrest on trumped-up charges. Thus, orders were executed without question to avoid difficulties. Such orders frequently included arresting, detaining, and torturing ordinary citizens and political party workers alike. They were regularly implemented to appease lower staff members' political overlords, who ultimately secured coveted postings or favor for acquaintances.

A 2018 study by the Institute of Social and Policy Sciences on 'Police Culture and Performance in Pakistan' reveals how this rigid hierarchy stifles junior officers' ability to voice concerns, perpetuating an environment where senior officers exercise unchecked authoritarian power under the guise of maintaining order, mirroring oppressive colonial policing models.

Dr. Hassan Abbas, an expert on South Asian police reforms, notes that these structural inequities fuel abuses of power, especially among senior officers rarely held accountable. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan's 2021 report corroborates this, noting that allegations of police misconduct involving senior officers seldom result in investigations, with less than 10 percent leading to official inquiries.

Numerous instances highlight PSP officers abusing their authority and evading legal consequences, often due to cover-ups by their superiors or a lack of rigorous accountability systems.

 

 

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