Sunday, March 2, 2008

Dismantling Police Command

Published in The News January 3, 2005

Dismantling the police command structure

Destroying the command structure, coupled with the total subservience of the police to the political bosses, will have dreadful results for the country

Afzal Shigri

The state's primary function is to maintain peace and ensure rule of law, which it does through its police force that is vested with coercive powers. But while giving such powers to the police, it is imperative to set up checks that can restrict the exercise of authority within clearly defined parameters, with effective safeguards to protect the rights of the people. As society becomes more complex and crime increasingly organised and well-financed, it becomes vital to establish a strong, well-trained and well-organised police force with an effective command structure, a force that can meet the challenges of organised crime and internal security without encroaching on the rights of the people.

This need gave birth to the civil police that operates amongst the citizens but can also perform in military mode to deal with violators of laws, whether organised gangs, militant organisations or large scale disorder. Time and again, the police in Pakistan have been accused of failing to do this, and branded corrupt, inefficient and politicised. The bane of policing in Pakistan has been a fractured command with a disorganised, ill-equipped, demoralised and highly politicised police force.

The Police Order 2002 was a genuine attempt to address inter alia the problem of strengthening the internal organisation of police so that it could grow into a cohesive and effective force. The law provided necessary administrative powers to the police officers and put in place an effective command structure. It also ensured security of tenure to the officers in key field assignments. Along with these improved administrative powers, the role of police was redefined, making it more service-oriented. Stringent checks were built into the system to protect the people's rights. The police relationship with the political leadership was crafted and fine-tuned along with external checks to prevent political interference. It was hoped that with time, the law would be further improved and the Pakistan police, like their British counterparts would be able to proudly claim that to "act on behalf of the people as a whole" and not the government in power.

Unfortunately, this law was never implemented. The provincial governments created all kinds of impediments to frustrate the creation of an institution that would check their unfettered powers. They unleashed negative propaganda and created an impression that the new law gave vast powers to police that should be curtailed. No one was prepared to talk about the obvious: that police powers vis-a-vis the public flow from the Criminal Procedure Code and other penal laws, not the Police Law that is essentially a law to manage and regulate the police force.

The provinces were agitated at the idea of an independent police force that would refuse to let itself be used to intimidate and victimise political opponents, and would only function within the bounds of law; they wanted a pliant and docile police command that would carry out orders unquestioningly - whether to remove hoardings in the name of Islam, arrest and harassment of opposition politicians, to disrupt opposition parties public gatherings or to interfere in elections.Under intense pressure from the provinces, in the name of police reform, the National Reconstruction Bureau set about destroying a law drafted for the creation of a clean and neutral police force. Massive amendments have been incorporated in the Police Order 2002 that in addition to institutionalising political interference in policing, have also struck at the command structure. According to the amendments, the political executive is to record the Annual Performance Evaluation Report (PER) of the key field officer, the District Police Officer (DPO). This provision violates all basic principles of management and makes the immediate supervisory officers irrelevant.

This amendment and the apparently innocuous definition of the word 'direction' and its linkage with article 155 of Police Order, authorises almost everyone to prosecute police officers for misconducts essentially departmental in nature. A rule that was meant to maintain discipline in force now exposes the police to departmental action by authorities outside the command structure. The new ordinance has thus created a new equation in the governance in the provinces, resulting in developments that will have a far-reaching impact on the law enforcement machinery.

The reporting officer of the DPO is the Zila Nazim, a politician. He records the annual Performance Evaluation Report (PER) of the DPO relating to all police functions including management of force, investigation and prosecution of cases for which the DPO is not responsible to him under the law. Under Article 33, the Zila Nazim is not qualified to comment on the professional aspects of policing; this can be done only by someone with the requisite training, education and experience of commanding a force.

The first counter-signing officer is not the DPO's immediate supervisory officer but the Provincial Police Officer (PPO) who cannot be possibly aware of the functioning of the officer in the field since he sits in the Provincial Capital. Thus his report cannot truly reflect a correct assessment of the officer's performance. This practice also dismantles the command structure by eliminating the Regional Police Officer (RPO) as a reporting office of the DPO and creates an anomalous situation as all other officers in the district are under the command of the RPO. The new amendment has thus created an internal conflict situation within a disciplined force, seriously impairing its capacity to deal with any grave law and order situation, maintaining internal security or confronting terrorism.

The second countersigning officer is the Chief Minister who again is a politician and seems to be keen to control the DPO by personally recording his PER. There seems to be no other explanation than the temptation of directly controlling the front line officer in the field who can be useful in suppressing the voice of dissent. With a Zila Nazim and the CM from the same political party, the PPO will also lose his relevance as commander of the force. The DPO, who now can only be posted with the CM's approval, will listen to the political bosses and not his superiors; he will willingly carry out even their illegal orders confident in the knowledge that a politicised Police Complaint Authority will protect him.

The format of the DPO's PER is different from that of other officers with whom he will be considered for promotion. How will the selection board make a comparison for promotions with two different formats of report writing?

The government, instead of moving towards a progressive and modern law, has embarked on reversing the provisions that depoliticise police. Its amendments are even worse than the 1861 Police Act, harking back to the Subadari System introduced by Sher Shah Suri in the sixteenth century that was meant to protect and enhance the power of the ruler.

The destruction of command structure of a modern police force and its total subservience to the political bosses will have dreadful results for the country. There is a need for an open debate by all stakeholders before this law is presented before the National Assembly. The members of the parliament owe it to the people of this country to consider the horrible outcome of these provisions. They should not allow this Ordinance to be enacted as a law. Otherwise they may also find themselves at the receiving end of an all-powerful SHO supported by his DPO and the executive.

The writer is a former police inspector-general


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