Urban policing paradox

Updated 30 Jan 2019


The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.
The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.

AS an armed force that is used internally, an effective police force is the primary tool for a state to monopolise the legitimate use of violence within its territory — a concept central to the modern nation state. In times of peace, the police enforce rights and maintain order; in doing so, especially in urban areas, policing presents unique ethical and practical paradoxes that are amplified in contexts like ours.

The idea of ethics in policing can be traced back to Plato who argued that disobedience, hunger, or “some other bad trait” must not create grounds for guardians (sheepdogs) to harm (like wolves) the general polity (sheep). Because of their job, and the authority vested in them, police officers must seek to balance contrasting ethical notions and public perceptions of rights and justice at all times. They must also deal with impulses, greed, and rent-seeking in complex situations, deciding when and whether to prioritise efficient outcomes over moral processes and vice versa. Even in a world free of corruption, police work is about identifying and enforcing the least-known evil-using methods that come closest to societal standards of morality.

Policing is problematic even in peaceful conditions. Police officers must, for example, use some form of targeted violence to discourage disorderly conduct at large; what level of police violence should suffice to stop an armed robbery? What about murder, or terrorism? Think also about rights; how can the police decide when to arrest and detain someone accused of a crime (and thus curb their freedom of movement) when the accused may well be innocent? And then, while they work amidst all sorts of criminality, how can the police manage public expectations of different people including politicians, administrators, their own bosses, and even the general public?

Police officers must seek to balance contrasting ethical notions and public perceptions of rights and justice at all times.

These problems become more pronounced in urban areas where claims are difficult to establish because of heterogeneous interests and identities. They become particularly worse in Pakistan’s context: on top of routine urban crime, we have been at war for years, against known and unknown elements that have repeatedly attacked us with extremely sophisticated and militarised weapons. Our cities are not ordinary peacetime cities but barricaded fortresses stuffed with hordes of ­government and private security agents. In this context, policing assumes new meanings with greater ethical and operational challenges than a conventional police force can overcome.

Some of these challenges are common to police departments around the world: they are overburdened, corruption and private rent-seeking are endemic, and the police do not enjoy the public trust needed to deliver. Related to these, and specifically relevant for Pakistan, is the problem of ideology: individual police personnel may be swayed by the very ideology that the state is fighting. Another challenge in Pakistan is the highly militarised nature of violence that our police must deal with; it is easy to argue that a force meant for peacetime enforcement cannot deal with militarised challenges like terrorism, and this argument is often made to support paramilitary or military deployment in aid of civil policing functions. Yet another set of challenges arises from the country’s prosecution and justice system, which is notoriously inefficient and has failed to bring even self-professed criminals and terrorists to justice.

How these challenges play out in Pakistan makes for a thought-provoking study. The police are notorious for bribery, corruption, ineffectiveness, and even for supporting criminal elements; a policeman killed Salmaan Taseer, for example, and it was a combination of bribery and ideological conviction that facilitated the escape of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi’s Usman Kurd from custody in Quetta in 2008. Heavily militarised violence has facilitated the direct and indirect encroachment on policing functions by the military; the federal capital and two of four provincial capitals deploy paramilitary forces with policing powers, while parts of each province are or were at some point policed directly by military and paramilitary forces. The failure of prosecution and the criminal justice systems has paved the way for military courts, established through a constitutional amendment by civilian legislators.

At the same time, the police across Pakistan have become increasingly militarised themselves. To respond to miscreants armed with automatic weapons, improvised explosive devices, and suicide bombers, police departments around the country have equipped themselves with armoured vehicles, bulletproof vests and AK-47s. The situation they face is incompatible with the principles of an urban police force; as if to improvise, the police have carried out countless operations and shootouts against terrorists, dacoits and other suspects, killing many of them without recording an arrest. Everyday interactions with citizens, especially in cities that have borne the brunt of terrorist violence, now include suspicion, vigilance and even arbitrary detentions of suspicious individuals. Much of this action deliberately avoids judicial or other administrative oversight, with moral targets used to justify extralegal or illegal processes.

This proactivity has come at a high cost. Some of the best — from constables to DIGs and AIGs — have lost their lives to terrorism or targeted retaliatory attacks. Amidst a war rooted in and guided by military policies, the police have become the most visible agents of the state and, therefore, the easiest targets. By adopting militarised and increasingly rough methods, the police have positioned themselves closer to the paramilitary and lost touch with common civilians who inhabit our cities. Extrajudicial killings also lead to questions about proof of guilt of those killed in police ­operations and encounters.

The worst, perhaps, is the added erosion of trust amongst the public, especially since perennial problems of corruption and personal rent-seeking behaviour have persisted; how can a force protect common citizens, after all, when it cannot protect its own officers? This is emblematic of the ethical and practical paradox of policing in Pakistan — the perception of institutional weakness spurs tougher actions, higher vigilance, increased militarisation … and the cycle goes on.

The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.
Twitter: @faizaanq

Published in Dawn, December 24th, 2018