Police reform: The imperative for efficiency in criminal justice

N R Madhava Menon, Vice-Chancellor, National University of Judicial Sciences, Calcutta

Policing in democratic societies is governed by the rule of law and is indeed a difficult and challenging task. Given the fact that the Indian police force was trained in the past to serve the objectives of colonial rule and has not yet been granted the autonomy, resources and training for professionalisation in a democratic milieu, its performance has not been entirely disappointing. Compared with many other departments of the government, the police by and large have served the public good even in adverse circumstances. What is disconcerting today is the steady deterioration of standards of policing, the increasing lawlessness amongst the policemen themselves and the attitude of complacency and complicity amongst the leadership in police organisations. Given the prevailing attitudes and approaches in the police force, there is not much hope that the people will get better services from the police in the immediate future. Since the purity and efficiency of the criminal justice system is largely dependent on the police who feed the system, the future seems bleak for criminal justice in general.

Causes for popular dissatisfaction with the police

What are the causes for popular dissatisfaction with the police and who is responsible for it? What follows are examples of popular discontent against the police. The issue is not whether all of these are absolutely true or not but whether they exist in the public mind and whether there is any justification for them.

  1. Police are the principal violators of the law and they get away with impunity.
  2. Some sections of the police are in league with anti-social elements. Consequently they indulge in selective enforcement of the law.
  3. Police exhibit rude behaviour, abusive language and contempt towards courts and human rights; they indulge in all forms of corruption.
  4. Depending on the socio-cultural status, economic power and political influences of people who approach them, police adopt differential attitudes, violating equality and human dignity.
  5. Police are either ignorant of the precepts of human rights or they deliberately disregard them in the matters of arrest, interrogation, searching, detention and preventive policing.
  6. Given the dismal record of prevention and successful investigation of crimes, the police lack accountability in protection of life and property.
  7. While crimes are getting sophisticated, the police are becoming less professional. There is no evidence of a collective desire within the police organisation to redeem its public image.
  8. The police are insensitive towards victims of violent crimes. They sometimes behave rudely with victims, as if they are responsible for their fate.
  9. At least a section of policemen think of human rights as antithetical to effective law enforcement. They blame the law, lawyers and courts for their own inefficiency.
  10. Of late, some policemen have publicly shown leniency towards fundamentalists and terrorists, manifesting a dangerous threat to security and constitutional governance.

It is not my intention to proffer evidence or arguments to prove or disprove any of above perceptions. That said, no honest person within or outside the police could totally deny the charges. Of course, they can give alibis and explanations that may or may not be acceptable to the public. Well thinking persons should acknowledge the existence of such perceptions in a wide spectrum of the citizenry and must work out strategies to remove them progressively in the interests of public service and professionalism. Those who do not want the situation to change will continue to provide excuses and explanations accusing others in society or in the criminal justice system for the malady. The tragedy is that unlike other departments of the government, if policing tends to become lawless, the very foundations of democracy are in jeopardy, development subverted and the country’s integrity compromised. Hence the urgency to reform the police and their style of functioning.

What can be done and by whom?

The police, the government and society each have a role to play in improving the law enforcement situation and in developing human rights oriented police in the country. If the government had accepted the recommendations of the National Police Commission and set up state security commissions, the work of coordinating action among the three constituents could have been undertaken. In the absence of an independent state security commission, the initiative must come from the government as well as from the police department. The public naturally will be eager to respond adequately and give momentum to the reform process, which will be welcomed by everybody except the corrupt and criminal elements thriving on police inefficiency.

Reforms within the police

A lot can be achieved towards change in public perceptions and to improve the standards of policing if the leadership within the police organisation is fully committed to reform. After all, every profession has the primary responsibility to discipline its members and maintain a code of ethical behaviour by internal mechanisms and by peer groups. The police are intrinsically disciplined and superiors command a lot of power and control over their subordinates. If this situation is to be put to good use, the superiors should be aboveboard and transparent in their dealings. It is essential that reforms in the organisation start from above and clear signals of good behaviour are sent down to all the ranks.

Organisational behaviour is largely the outcome of training and continuing education. Police training is archaic in content and methods. The emphasis is still more on muscle than on the mind. Human rights, if at all, form an insignificant module in the training programme and there is hardly any emphasis on human rights in the training of constables, who form 85 percent of the force. A subculture inimical to democratic policing pervades the organisation and is perpetrated due to indifference or connivance of seniors. Respect for human rights is not rewarded. If the leadership itself is doubtful about the imperatives of human rights in policing, and if they disregard its importance in the training of subordinate officers, it is pointless to expect change in the behaviour of ordinary sub-inspectors and constables.

Another reform that can be brought about by the police themselves is with respect to the adoption of fair, quick and responsible methods of redress for complaints against the police. The system has to be institutionalised and integrated with police roles and responsibilities. Why not hold regular “police adalats” at every police station to receive and respond to public grievances? Transparency brings efficiency and popular support. Without public participation, no police force, however well equipped and trained, can fight crime in any society. As such, the police have to take the initiative to build bridges with all sections of society and solicit their cooperation. It is possible for an inspector general to appoint honorary police officers from amongst respectable members of the public, in different areas who can augment police efforts in crime prevention and detection.

Reforms that the government has to undertake

No government can plead paucity of funds for its inability to protect the life and property of its citizens. Therefore, the reason for governmental neglect of police reforms is not lack of funds but its desire to misuse the force for narrow partisan ends. This is the character of every government irrespective of whichever party is in power. People have begun to comprehend the misuse of the police by the politicians to perpetuate sectarian interests and conceal their illegal actions. There is decreasing reliance on the state police and increasing dependence on private police, private detective agencies and protection from mafia gangs or self-help. “Senas” [private armies] are being trained and armed to defend particular interests, legitimate or otherwise, and the state is a silent spectator in the rise of such power centres attempting to control the lives of people in different areas. The rule of law is being undermined and people’s faith in the police has been eroded.

What the government needs to do vis-?vis the police, if it wants to govern according to the Constitution, is spelt out in great detail in the National Police Commission reports and it is unnecessary to repeat them here. All that one can say is that the people have to be vigilant and demand lesser interference from their governments in the day to day functioning of the police and greater accountability on decisions concerning the police and the law and order situation in the states.

Reforms that people can initiate

According to an old adage, every society gets the police it deserves. After all, policemen come from the same society and reflect the attitudes and behaviour that are found in society. How respectful is the average citizen with regard to human rights of fellow citizens? In a society where doctors cheat their patients, lawyers exploit their clients, teachers indulge in politics instead of teaching and even the clergy is corrupt, one cannot expect any better from policemen. The evidence they collect is doubted and their status is worse than that of other comparable positions in government.

All sections of society, particularly the media, can help improve the status and efficiency of the police force. They can attempt not to disparage the police without justification. If they cooperate in law enforcement, there is bound to be a welcome response from the other side that eventually will result in greater social defense and better law and order situation. People and police ought not to maintain an adversarial relationship as it harms both of them. There are black sheep in every organisation. To isolate and cultivate the talented is the challenge that has to be faced by the community, the media and the NGOs. Such a partnership guarantees human rights protection, the security of life and property and a credible system of criminal justice in the country.

This article reproduced by courtesy of Dr P J Alexander, Editor, Policing India in the New Millennium (Allied Publishers, 2002).