Opinion: Policing the Police – challenge for the newly facelifted Police Commission

By Sanjeewa Fernando

Some say that the Police has gone to the dogs. Without being so harsh, yet being realistic, we would euphemistically admit that some dogs have got into the Police force. They are wreaking havoc, abusing power, desecrating the hallowed police uniform, wagging a tail at politicos and making people lose their trust in the very concept of law and order. Despite measures aimed at an independent, efficient and incorrupt Police force, such as the establishment of the Police Commission, with appointments by the Constitutional Council, as well as many pledges for good governance, excesses committed by Police officers continue unabetted.

The abduction, torture, and murder of two young businessmen from Rathgama is a case in point. It was not long ago that the former OIC with seven other officers attached to the Angulana Police Station was sentenced to death for the murder of two youth. So is the case against an Ex DIG of Police who had run an abduction for ransom racket, got caught red-handed and serves time pending death. The case of the murder of the Superintendent of the Noori Estate Deraniayagala was yet another saga that left a scathing indictment on the Police Officers of the area including the senior ones. Many pending cases and investigations involve members, including top rankers of the Police for complicity in abduction, torture, murder, rape etc. On a daily basis, we hear about acts of bribery, corruption, abuse of power, assault etc. committed by police officers acting ultra vires viz a viz powers conferred upon them.

Atmosphere of Impunity

As the Rathgama incidents reveal, there prevails an atmosphere for those in uniform to abduct, torture, murder and then dispose persons undetected, unchecked or unquestioned by anybody. Despite the next of kin making repeated complaints and Senior Police officers repeatedly guaranteeing action with regard to the fate that befell the unfortunate businessmen friends from Rathgama, there seemed little progress in investigations initially, until they were forced to protest twice blocking the Galle Road. It was only then, that  Officers attached to the particular Police Unit were transferred, culprits questioned and apprehended and search intensified on those evading arrest. If not for the protests, investigations would not have come this far at this speed. If not for the anonymous letter, allegedly from police officers disturbed by the injustice done to the two men,  by their fellow officers in uniform, would investigations have proceeded with this earnestness and intensity? Very unlikely.

Being one of the least popular of all state institutions and one of the most corrupt, it is common knowledge that bribery and underhand deals are rife in the Police service in their dealings with the public. In addition, the demeanour of many police officers viz a viz members of the public is simply despicable; they act rudely, contemptuously and disrespectfully to those who come seeking their assistance. Yet it is completely a different story if the person concerned is a well to do or a powerful one.

Plummeting Standards

Standards of recruitment of police officers have undeniably gone down and it is unclear as to what the criteria used in recruitment. Promotion and upward progression in the service too had been questionable until the Police Commission was established. Yet as recent incidents show when the top brass act in brazen neglect of the directives of the Commission, becoming the law unto themselves, the gravity of the problem is evident. In comparison to  Police forces in more advanced nations, our standards are a far cry.  The excuse of the inadequacy of resources for that kind of extensive and intensive training of officers does not explain as to why they can not be polite, at least, to and be aware of the rights of those who seek their services. It also does not provide an excuse as to why police officers themselves act in a manner reminiscent of criminals and delinquents.

The remunerations of the Police officers, the lower ranks, in particular, are not even nearly sufficient to lead a dignified life. The frustration thus caused as well as the desperateness to progress financially could very well lead to illegal and unethical behaviour not becoming of the police uniform. An officer thus compromised in accepting bribery or committing crimes, tarnishes the image of the entire force. While the top brass salivates for promotions at the feet of politicians the rest are left to their own devices to make a quick buck to supplement their pauper-like income.

Politicisation, the perennial problem

Politicisation of the police is hardly a new phenomenon; it is a perennial accusation aimed at the Police Service and not entirely without justification, either. The putrid socio-economic and political culture bred by the Free market economy and the Executive Presidential system remains the fountain of many ills we face today including those afflicting the police. Unfortunately, it is not the Police who suffer as a result but the common man left at their mercy. A system that relies on political favouritism for promotions and upward mobility in the service, would inevitably lead to erosion of the work ethics of the service rendered. Police OIC s in the Eighties who saluted underworld criminals surrendering their seat to do ‘duty’ is proof that this malady is not something new. Yet the most disturbing new trend among police officers to get involved in gruesome, criminal, illegal acts including abduction and murder, sometimes as a means of making big money and sometimes under a misguided notion of crime prevention needs to be checked.

As the Rathgama case indicates, the habitual resorting to torture of the most inhuman kind as means of interrogation is rampant among the police;  an indication, not only of the utter disregard for human and fundamental rights of those who come in to contact with the law but also of the lack of expertise and know-how of carrying out investigation properly and technically without resorting to illegal acts. There are a plethora of Fundamental Rights cases where the Supreme Court has denounced acts of grave human abuse of Police officers which would shed light on the brazen manner some of them violate the basic law of the land and human dignity of those who come into their custody.

Extra-Judicial executions

Having faced a brutal civil war for three decades and being ruled under emergency regulations more than under ordinary law, it would almost be acceptable that those in law enforcement and security apparatus habitually act with impunity, being a law unto themselves. For decades we have turned a blind eye to those excesses in the name of national security and patriotism when youth, both Sinhala and Tamil were rounded up, tortured and executed extrajudicially; when suspects in custody for  serious crimes including organized crimes, died ‘accidently’ in a bizarre manner, mostly trying to throw bombs while being taken to show places of crime or arms caches, very few raised little concern. Sri Lankan Police have an appalling record when it comes to custodial deaths and in the last half a decade or so dozens have died in police custody without any scrutiny being made on such incidents. It seemed that the civil society too, for their part, were of the view that quick justice was what the underworld thugs and criminals deserved. But we overlooked something; the officers who were in the habit of killing extra judicially give us no guarantee that the killing spree will be confined to habitual criminals. The impunity emboldens them to take the law into their hands.

The economic perspective

One of the main reasons that the Sri Lankan economy has not been able to raise its head and seems bogged down with slow growth is lack of Investment. It is equally known that investors specially those from Europe and the US are reluctant to tread on jurisdictions which have poor law and order records and project less than a satisfactory picture in terms of rule of law. Incidents of the nature of the  Rathgama case and many others, do not send a reassuring signal to those prospective investors and the general collapse of the integrity and reliability of law enforcing agencies such as the police, do play a part in further deterring much-needed capital flowing into the island through Direct Investment. They all have a culminating effect on investment, business, and capital flow. On that account, the landscape is bleak indeed.

The Police Commission has got a facelift with a new Chairman and 3 more members being appointed. Despite criticism, the Commission has been able to raise hopes that the Police force will be independent, unbiased and efficient, ultimately benefitting the public. It is up to the new Chairman and the Commission members as well as the IGP to ensure that such hopes are not dashed on the ground.

The IGP, in particular, should have realized by now that ‘meditation at the threat of disciplinary action’ hardly works. Policing the Police remains an urgent need that has to be addressed without delay.

(– Sanjeewa is a regular writer and columnist for the English print media. He deals in areas such as Criminal Justice, Fundamental Rights, Rule of Law, Media Freedom, Accountability issues etc. Progressive and Liberal at the same time, in political ideology, he believes in Social Democracy as the most suited way forward for our nation. He holds an Attorney at Law and a Masters in Law from the University of Colombo. He can be contacted on wsbsanjeewa@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and they do not necessarily reflect the position of any other institution or individual. –)