SRI LANKA: The challenge for the new IGP is to win the cooperation of his ASPs 

Basil Fernando 

AHRC-ART-038-2011.jpgThe new Inspector General of Police, N.K Illangakoon, in his first public statement has admitted that there are problems in the policing system of Sri Lanka. He mentioned that the policing system has been distanced from the people. The IGP’s statement should be an occasion to reflect on another, more disconcerting problem for the citizens, which is the distancing of the policing system from the law. The new IGP admitted the need to reinforce discipline within the police and stated that measures will be made to improve the education of the police in order to deal with this problem.

The IGP is surely aware that the problem of the police is not just a problem of the rank and file that can be resolved by better education of the newcomers. The country would have to wait for a long time to see the results of such improvements in education changing the present state of policing in Sri Lanka.

That the problem lies with the top brass of the system is no secret. An old Greek fishing proverb states that a fish rots from the head down and the former IGP’s resignation was a partial admission of what has gone wrong at the top. If the new IGP is to achieve anything he should direct his attention to addressing the problems that exist within the higher ranks of the police, from his own officer to the Officers-in-Charge of the police stations.

As these officers from the OICs to the ASPs, SPs, SSPs, DIGs and the IGP himself are not the ones who will be sitting at the training school to receive fresh instruction, there needs to be more to his strategy to deal with the problems than relying on better education to be imparted at the training school. This strategy must examine very closely as to where there is a variance of behaviour from what is expected in the police Departmental Orders in what is actually being seen. That good book has all that can be had from a book of instructions for policing. Indeed, long years of experience gained, not only from policing in Sri Lanka but also from the general nature of policing, are contained in that book.

What the IGP needs to look into is as to how, particularly the police top ranks from OIC’s upwards, have ignored the instructions that they were expected to follow as given in that book. In looking into that aspect the IGP will find, among other things that one of the fundamental reasons for the failures of the police is the loss of discipline of the Assistant Superintendents of Police. The rank of the ASP is a vital link between the police stations and the hierarchy of the police. It is the ASP who is the direct supervising officer of everything important that happens at a police station, from inquiries into serious crimes like murder down to the maintaining of all the basic books that should be diligently maintained. The Assistant Superintendent of Police is responsible for dealing with every failure of the police in one police station or another.

Strangely, the police Departmental Orders do not deal with the manner in which erring Assistant Superintendents of Police and others should be dealt with. There are disciplinary procedures for lower ranking officers but no procedure laid down for dealing with ASPs and those above them. Perhaps the IGP should look into this aspect with the help of his legal department and other legal advisors.

At the moment complaints against police officers are dealt with, if at all, by the ASPs and the higher ranking officers. For many decades this system has been criticised as being disingenuous. Instead of dealing with disciplinary matters as required within a law enforcement agency, what often takes place are cover ups and the intimidation of the complainants. As long as discipline fails in this manner, the IGP will not find it possible to achieve his aim of improving the discipline of the police.

One of the aims of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was to create the National Police Commission, which among other duties was entrusted with the task of developing a functioning complaint procedure. Despite a few attempts by the NPC to initiate this process, due to subsequent events this constitutional requirement has been ignored. In a public institution of great importance like the police, which exercises enormous powers and which are always susceptible to abuse, it is not possible to win the confidence of the public without having a viable public complaint mechanism. This again is another challenge for the IGP if he were to match his words with actions.

Sadly for the new IGP, on the very day his new appointment was announced there was the report of a group of Special Task Force officers shooting a person dead under the usual pretext of preventing him from attacking them when they took him to a location to find some weapons which he had hidden. Interestingly, the new IGP was one of the pioneering officers of the STF. Such killings, which have become a common occurrence and are always accompanied with the same story, are not just a manifestation of the absence of discipline within the police but of the apparently tacit approval of the practice of extrajudicial killings. If the IGP is to win any kind of credibility, he should be in a position to guarantee the end of such practices, which totally undermine public confidence in the police as a law enforcement agency.

The police are not expected to hunt criminals. They are expected to investigate crimes, arrest and bring the culprits before the courts. If the police are to be the judge and the executioner, as is so often happening, naturally the people will remain distanced from the police. A difficult task for the IGP will be as to how he can bring the Special Task Force and other groups, which function more like paramilitary units than police officers, under his control.

All these are difficult tasks. However, today the public are demanding that such tasks be done as a matter of priority. In addressing this problem the IGP would do well in calling for public discussion on all these matters and asking for all opinion makers in the country to assist him in making a proper assessment on what has gone wrong in the institution that is now under his charge.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-038-2011
Countries : Sri Lanka,