EVERYTHING is rotten about the state of policing in Pakistan: politicised, incompetent, corrupt, insensitive, ill-disciplined, collusion with crime mafias, etc. So, who will police the police?

The origins of abusive police behaviour are rooted in our colonial past. The police in half the country’s provinces, even in Islamabad, still operate under the 1861 law enacted after the 1857 insurrection against British rule.

The law provides for a police force that relies on fear, intimidation and officially sanctioned violence to protect the state. Missing from the act is language promoting the idea of the police protecting the people or having good relations with the community.

Beyond the archaic legal framework, police services suffer from several contemporary problems. The rank and file of the 625,000-member police departments is not recruited on merit; the policemen are poorly educated, ill-trained, badly equipped and underpaid.

Most of the nation’s police stations are in dilapidated buildings. Some posts and substations are in makeshift structures. Police are expected to work long hours seven days a week and often go months without time off.

Not surprisingly, junior police officials who are abused by the system and their supervisors treat the public in kind. With low self-esteem no one can serve the community with commitment. So, are the police villains or victims of neglect?

Past efforts to reform the police system, and which sought to change the fundamental conditions and legal framework of policing, have never gained real traction.

An attempt at comprehensive reform was made through the introduction of the 2002 Police Order. While it has remained controversial in part because it was introduced by a military government, this legislation was centred on the principles of fully devolving responsibility for policing to the provinces and strengthening the operational independence of the police.

The 2002 order sought to transform the police from an Irish Constabulary military force model to a modern, service-oriented, non-political, accountable and professional 21st-century institution.

While the order was broadly considered a sound piece of legislation, it was distorted by a number of amendments in 2004. It ultimately failed to take hold and was never properly implemented.

This has been largely attributed to the fact that it was imposed without sufficient stakeholder buy-in at the provincial and district levels. The civil services and vested political interests had strongly opposed the move, as it entailed the loss of direct management authority over the police at the local level.

The picture is now more complex. With the passing of the 18th Amendment, there is now added impetus at the provincial level to bring changes in police laws. This devolution of power has set the provincial governments to restructure relations between politicians, public and the police.

However, there is now a danger of replicating old models already proven to be ineffective in light of the limited central capacity to provide standardised approaches.

There is now an urgent requirement to engage with policymakers at all levels, including the legislature and the executive to reach agreement on the current and future priorities of police reform. Unless the difficult issues of oversight, neutrality and accountability are addressed, the experience of policing for ordinary citizens will not improve.

While Sindh, Balochistan, Islamabad, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan are still in 19th-century governance mode, Punjab and KP are in the middle of nowhere, suspended in a truncated 2002 Police Order in theory and following the 1861 Act in practice.

The new federal and provincial governments face this dilemma and need to show political will to move ahead in unison to fulfil the public expectations of politically neutral, highly accountable and professionally competent police services that uphold the rule of law.

It is reported that Punjab is set to promulgate a new police law. Both the federal government in Islamabad and the provincial government in Punjab, led by the same political party, need to exercise caution and follow a well-considered national approach.

It all starts from superintendence, direction and control of the police in the legal framework. While superintendence vests in the government i.e. the chief executive and the cabinet, it amounts to keeping the police within constitutional and legal confines and does not mean using the police as an instrument of state oppression or to settle political scores.

The domain of direction relates to policies and does not imply picking and choosing police officers at whim and interfering in the administrative and operational matters of policing.

Unfortunately, everyone wielding influence in this country wants to ‘control’ the police. The resultant fractured command has a debilitating effect on police discipline and morale, with the inspector general of police trying to juggle a plethora of formal and informal control mechanisms.

Linked with the issue of direction and control is that of oversight to ensure political neutrality and impartiality in police operations.

While parliamentary committees, the judiciary and a vibrant media act as external accountability mechanisms, there is a need for non-political oversight institutions to provide the police and the public safeguards against extraneous influences in administrative and operational matters.

Similarly, an effective criminal justice system will remain elusive if an independent judiciary is not assisted by autonomous and professional police services. This means ensuring security of tenure of two to three years for police commanders and allowing them a free hand in internal administrative and financial matters.

It is also vital to address public concerns about police corruption, high-handedness, misuse of authority, illegal detention and torture, partial and faulty investigations, etc.

Independent police complaints authorities, preferably headed by reputed retired judges, should be given high priority by the governments. They must get out of control mode and turn their attention to good governance and rule of law. Instead of having decadent, despotic or divergent police laws, the government, through the interior ministry, should coordinate with the provinces to ensure that the legal framework provides for standardisation of professional measures. It is also necessary if we wish to attain conceptual clarity and uniformity in organisational structures across the board.

The writer is a retired police officer.

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