Cops or soldiers?

Published July 17, 2016
The writer is a doctoral candidate at King’s College London.
The writer is a doctoral candidate at King’s College London.

THERE is a well-known Latin expression attributed to the first- and second-century Roman poet Juvenal that can roughly be translated as ‘who will guard the guardians’, or ‘who will watch the watchdogs’. Although Juvenal was not referring to oppression by custodians of the state per se, the expression has often been applied to state violence, whether under colonial or dictatorial regimes, or by state security forces functioning under democratic governments. Hence, ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes’, has also been expanded and delivered as the following question: who will police the police?

In an environment where nobody watches the watchdogs, police use of force may be neither lawful nor justified, and neither reasonable nor proportionate, to a perceived threat. The use of force in itself cannot be eliminated from the functions of the police; the function is indeed the essence of policing, whether for defensive or offensive purposes, or as a means to discipline and control in general. It is the abuse of this function, therefore, that needs to be a matter of debate concerning police behaviour and accountability. Combined with norms and customs of policing in given social and political contexts, these matters loosely form what is understood as police culture.

The officers who died in Dallas, US, this July may not necessarily have had physical abuses recorded in their professional histories individually, but they were collectively part of a system where a militarised mindset has been actively breeding over the last few decades and shaping the culture of policing as it gets rooted deeper and deeper. It is a mindset that is encouraging cops to perceive themselves as soldiers, because of policies that have sought to divide the police from the very populace they were entrusted to protect.


####Who will watch the watchdogs?

Civilians were never meant to be viewed as the enemies of the police in democratic societies such as the United States. Indeed, the police were meant to ‘serve and protect’, not judge or punish, and never to racially discriminate. Even the practice of pointing guns at unarmed protesters has been frowned upon.

America’s ‘wars’ on poverty that progressed into the ‘war on crime’ (since the Johnson administration), on drugs (since the Nixon and Reagan administrations), on terrorism (under presidents Bush and Obama), and war rhetoric and policies in general employed by both Republicans and Democrats, have promoted a process of ‘othering’ or ‘us versus them’ between two structures in a society. These are developments taking place in the foreground of a country where there are more gun shops than McDonald’s or Starbucks. And they have led to devastating outcomes — as witnessed in Ferguson in 2014 and Dallas recently — when both sites of protests resembled contemporary urban warzones.

But in the background, this is not just ‘an American issue’; these are trends witnessed in police cultures around the world, particularly in societies prone to multiple layers of violent conflicts, such as Pakistan, where the state no longer holds monopoly over the legitimate use of violence, but the police and its various ‘specialised units’ have been assigned as the first line of defence, or ‘frontline soldiers’ in our domestic ‘war against terrorism’. This has been communicated to our police officers at passing-out parades, news conferences, and speeches during political campaigns.

These ‘wars’ on crime, drugs and terrorism have trickled down to nation states like Pakistan, infesting urban areas with the ad hoc response of militarised policing to tackle deep-seated issues — issues that must be addressed by socio-economic and political solutions to civilian grievances.

In Karachi, the presence of both cops and paramilitary soldiers creates a dual process of the militarisation of policing. Cops are urged to think, train, arm and act like soldiers; soldiers have been designated with various tasks in urban policing. This is a double whammy for a society that is, firstly, struggling to shrug off its history of colonial policing, and, secondly, planning reforms for the police that will lessen the gap between the cop and the civilian — where the latter is viewed suspiciously by the former, and the former as an untrustworthy predator.

The institutional overlap in Karachi, between the police and the military, through technology transfers and the merging of the duties and responsibilities between cops and soldiers, is the result of an informally militarised policy framework promoted by an insecure state.

Attempts at community policing, whether in Pakistan or the US, will be both incomplete and unconvincing to the populace at large if the process of militarised policing is not controlled — and eventually reversed — with professional oversight. However, such thinking needs to take root in the elite circles of policymaking and lobbying, where the advisers to those watching the watchdogs must prioritise human security over the security of the regime. Else, the latter will remain under threat from resistance within and zero-tolerance policing will continue unabated.

The writer is a doctoral candidate at King’s College London.

Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2016

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