Brief tenures of police leadership

July 15, 2014


The writer is a retired police officer.
The writer is a retired police officer.

THE transfer of the inspector general of police (IGP), Sindh and the police chief of Karachi after only five and nine months, respectively, for reasons other than inefficiency, is indeed surprising. The adverse impact of these premature transfers, on the ongoing, massive operation in Karachi against suspected terrorists and criminals, does not appear to be of much concern to the provincial government. This, however, brings us to the deeper systemic malaise of brief tenures in police and their impact on police effectiveness.

Existing system

The existing police system in Pakistan is a hotchpotch. Two of the provinces (Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) have an amended form of the Police Order 2002, as the basic police law and the other two (Sindh and Balochistan) have the antediluvian Police Act of 1861. While the Police Act of 1861 has no provisions about tenures of police officers, the Police Order 2002, realising the importance of stable tenures, particularly for police leadership, lays down a fixed tenure of three years for provincial police officers (PPO) and the capital city police officers (CCPO).

In actual practice, however, the average tenure of a provincial police chief works out to eight months in all the provinces (Sindh six months, Punjab nine months, KP nine months, Balochistan nine months). That of the in-charges of the provincial capital cities (where law and order problems are the most serious) is six months, with Karachi changing a police chief, on an average, after every four months and Lahore after every four and a half months in the last three years.

Stability of tenure is an accepted international best practice for enabling police leadership to improve police performance.

This brevity of tenure gets worse as we travel down the police hierarchy. The police station, which is supposed to be the cutting edge of police administration is headed by station house officers who have an average period of three months in Lahore and less than three months in Karachi. This begs the question whether we are justified in asking police officers to deliver within these very limited time spans of postings.

While there may be many reasons for the frequent transfers of police officers, resulting in brief tenures, the most common, as per serving police officers, is that of political interference. Politicians get the officers of their choice posted to various posts and allow them to continue as long as they do their bidding.

The moment somebody says no to their illegal demands, he is asked to be transferred out. Of course, part of the blame has to be shared by the police leaders who run after politicians to get choice postings and promise to fulfil their demands.

The impact of these short, unpredictable tenures on police performance is not difficult to judge.

First, the arbitrary system of appointing and removing police chiefs breeds a culture of serving the political masters rather than enforcing laws in the public interest. Saying no to the illegal orders/demands of the political leadership becomes the exception rather than the norm. It permeates from top to bottom. The big loser in this is the common man.

Second, it makes police leaders resort to ad hoc reactive measures instead of long-term planning to improve police performance. The police leaders are supposed to make policies and implement these. With tenures not exceeding a few unpredictable months, they cannot do that. The police leadership justifiably points to this brevity of tenure as one of the reasons for their poor performance. Also, the short tenures of police leaders at the provincial level, results in ad hocism in the entire provincial police force. Not to mention the adverse impact on accountability and supervision.

International best practices

Stability of tenure is an accepted international best practice for enabling police leadership to improve police performance. One of the internationally best acclaimed police forces in the world is the London Metropolitan Police. The Police Act 1996 of the UK lays down the tenure of the police commissioner as five years. Not only that, there is a transparent and objective procedure for removing police chiefs.

Way forward

While police reform calls for a comprehensive, long-term effort, a starting point can be in the shape of the following steps;

The role of the police leadership in shaping the police department cannot be exaggerated. The system of selecting IGPs/CCPOs needs to be streamlined so that the best are shortlisted, to be finally selected by the political leadership. Similarly, a transparent and objective system must be developed for removing police officers, particularly police chiefs of provinces and capital cities.

The posts of PPOs/CCPOs be made posts with fixed tenures of three years and the provision be implemented in letter and spirit. It needs to be realised that the much maligned thana culture cannot be changed without changing the police leadership culture. The brevity and unpredictability of the tenures of the police leadership is a big stumbling block.

Effective accountability of police chiefs/CCPOs should go hand in hand with fixed tenures, so that we are not stuck with corrupt or inefficient police leaders. It should be, however, carried out through an independent police complaints authority.

Civil society, particularly the media, need to highlight the role of a reasonable tenure for police leadership for dealing with the complex law and order problems of today. The issue of tenure stability needs to be made a part of the public discourse on police reform.

Political interference is considered the bane of policing in Pakistan. Giving fixed tenures to police commanders at the provincial/big city level coupled with effective accountability, as a first step, is not only likely to strengthen their resolve to say no to the illegal demands of politicians but also to give greater attention to the policing problems of the common man. Without this, changing the thana culture is likely to be, what it has been so far, a pipe dream.

The writer is a retired police officer.

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2014