Police and the mob

Published August 14, 2014
The writer is a police officer.
The writer is a police officer.

A challenging task for the police is crowd control where the law enforcement personnel often find themselves wandering between the law and an emotional surge of people. It is a situation that restricts adherence to perfect policing standards.

While Articles 15, 16 and 17 of the Constitution guarantee freedom of movement, assembly and association, Sections 128 and 129 of the Criminal Procedure Code empower the police to disperse an assembly of people through force, even though this affects basic human rights such as the right to life, liberty and security. Our colonial past is full of brutal examples, such as the Jalianwala Bagh incident.

Internationally, the UN basic principles state that law enforcement officials “shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force” and may use force “only if other means remain ineffective”. When force is unavoidable, law-enforcement officials must “exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence”. Further, use of force requires a “graduated response” and respect for the legal process.


In this day of mass media, crowd control has become trickier


Dealing with a spontaneous mob is easier than handling planned protests, the latter requiring more skill and patience. Ultimately, it is also a test of nerves for the police.

Riot control demands regular training. To improve emergency response in April this year, the Beijing police carried out an exercise in which apart from crowd control skills, rescue and first aid skills were also tested.

Meanwhile, clashes between protesters and police led the Ukrainian government to disband its anti-riot police unit whose members were accused of beating, torturing and shooting demonstrators. The unit had 5,000 personnel stationed across Ukraine. Clashes between the Tunisian police and protesters in 2012 injured more than 200 people and led to a debate on the crowd management capabilities of the police, many of whom were also injured.

In the same year, the Bureau of Police Research and Development in India constituted a study group with the focus on dealing with agitators with minimum force. The group was mandated to study existing procedures and to suggest amendments in existing crowd-control procedures.

At the other end, after protests by Indian workers, Singapore decided to double the size of its anti-riot force. However, an increase in manpower is not the solution. Transparency in policing is also required. Recently, the London police decided to equip the force with 500 body-worn cameras. Where excessive force is alleged, such cameras will help investigators ascertain the facts and determine responsibility. These cameras will also be instrumental in improving the conviction rate.

Coming back to Pakistan, the Police Order 2002 requires that police be organised under 18 different branches including the Frontier Reserve Police, Balochistan Constabulary, Punjab Constabulary and Sindh Reserve Police.

Such forces need a dedicated command with a clear understanding of the situation. After assessing the circumstances, the field commanders can deliberate on the use of force that is proportionate to the situation.

Sadly, police here have to learn on the job. However, the recent move by the Rawalpindi police to set up an exclusive anti-riot unit, together with the KP police’s school of public disorder management is a step in the right direction. The Pakistani police’s being engaged in anti-terrorism efforts since 9/11 has compromised other obligations.

The police have a poor image and this is often exploited by anti-police elements. Skirmishes often start when elements within a rowdy crowd start pelting stones, or when protesters and police fail to maintain a safe distance.

Such situations are often aggravated by rumours. In this day of mass media, crowd control becomes trickier.

In our strategy, negotiation is a missing link. Hence, force is often used without attempting negotiations. There is no doubt that the police must negotiate and maintain a constant dialogue with the organisers of a protest. Police officers must state that they respect the public’s right to demonstrate, but cannot allow them to harm others or to damage property.

On the other hand, the police should be educated about the principles of proportionality, legality, accountability and necessity.

In Pakistan, the National Police Bureau should assess the crowd management capabilities of the law enforcers and identify legal flaws and logistical needs. Where the use of force is concerned, the bureau should draft training modules and standard operating procedures. In such an endeavour, the assistance of researchers and psychologists is a must, as is a code of ethics, drawn up after consultation with and among political parties to instil a sense of responsibility in political workers.

Meanwhile, openness in the policing culture will strengthen a form of policing that will shield both the police force and the public from each other’s wrath.

The writer is a police officer.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2014

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