What the Sahiwal shooting tells us about police culture

Police culture is as much a product of state policies as it is of social and cultural conditioning of police officials.

Updated Jan 22, 2019 12:57pm
Relatives of Khalil, who was killed along with his wife, daughter and driver in police firing, wail during the funeral on Sunday.—Online
Relatives of Khalil, who was killed along with his wife, daughter and driver in police firing, wail during the funeral on Sunday.—Online

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On Saturday, January 19, 2019, officials of the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) of Punjab Police shot and killed a couple and their teenage daughter in Sahiwal, reportedly acting upon intelligence that claimed the family was accompanied by a 'terrorist' — the family’s neighbour, Zeeshan.

Eye-witnesses of this incident include the three surviving children of Khalil and Nabeela. All victims were unarmed.

The video footage from this incident was widely circulated, resulting in extensive outcry on social media, as well as a lynching attempt on police officials by an angry mob in Lahore.

A joint investigation team (JIT) has been formed to probe into the incident and the prime minister, while praising the CTD generally, has assured that ‘swift action will be taken’.

The Punjab governor has claimed the victims were ‘at the wrong place, at the wrong time’; the Punjab law minister, meanwhile, has called them ‘collateral damage’.

Social media users, including journalists, have demanded the perpetrators ‘be hanged’. Others have faulted the weaknesses in our criminal justice system — an area of particular interest to our new chief justice.

Talk-show analysts have blamed ‘bad intelligence’, a connection that will be difficult to establish and unlikely to result in proceedings against those responsible for its collection and dissemination.

Most observers have lashed out at the malpractices of, and abuse by, police officials at large. This sentiment is likely to stick, no matter the outcome of the JIT report.

Editorial: A crime unpunished

The shooting in Sahiwal comes on the heels of a much-publicised police reforms event in the capital and, more importantly, barely a year after the killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud and months after the killings of Intizar Ahmed and Amal Umer in police encounters in Karachi — albeit under very different circumstances.

Additionally, recent estimates by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan suggest that approximately 3,345 people have been killed in police encounters in the country between 2014 and 2018, including 12 minors.

The Sahiwal shooting is disturbing on multiple levels and, indeed, speaks volumes about police practices and culture in Pakistan and beyond.

Such incidents cannot be justified or rationalised or explained away in any straightforward manner. They are tragic outcomes of processes and institutional cultures that, similarly, cannot be simplified nor understood in isolation of the socio-political contexts in which they evolve and develop.

In this regard, it is important to have a discussion on police culture, of which one aspect is police use of force. It is pertinent to remind the reader that the police, in fact, do much more than use force. Nevertheless, given the incident in question, it is central to this discussion.

Family members and neighbours of victims who were allegedly killed by the Counter Terrorism Department in Sahiwal block Lahore's Ferozepur Road in protest against the killings.—White Star
Family members and neighbours of victims who were allegedly killed by the Counter Terrorism Department in Sahiwal block Lahore's Ferozepur Road in protest against the killings.—White Star

A trigger-happy police force is a symptom of militarism institutionalised within state mechanisms and apparatus.

This symptom has been visible not just in Pakistan, but also in the United States where debates surrounding the militarisation of policing (a characteristic of which is trigger-happy police behaviour) have been most prominent and their manifestations often violent, resulting in direct confrontations between police and civilians.

In Pakistan, such militarisation has been exacerbated by the construction of 'terrorism' and 'terrorists' both pre- and post-9/11 that has implications for how the state directs and controls the policing of its citizens.

In other words, a state’s threat perception — particularly one constructed based on domestic security threats — has a direct correlation with how civilian police officials will interact with and view civilians.

This is, quite briefly, the political context within which policing in Pakistan may be understood.

Related: 6 stories of police torture and abuse

That said, let us not forget that police culture is also as much a product of state policies as it is of the social and cultural conditioning of police officials and the society in which these officials find themselves. It is, after all, our own society that chooses to accept certain police killings as ‘good riddance’ — like Malik Ishaq’s.

In other words, police culture is also a product of our society's depreciating levels of tolerance and our own fascination with and glorification of vigilante justice, ‘encounter cops’, capital punishment (‘hang them all’), capture and kill (‘pakro aur maaro’), all generations of warfare, boots and bombs, even hypermasculinity.

It is no surprise that, through socialisation and professional grooming, such a prevailing ethos is then imbibed by certain police officials and, by extension, absorbed into the institutional culture of our police departments.

In-depth: How not to improve law and order in Karachi

Furthermore, from a historical perspective, police culture is also a product of several decades (if not more) of poorly designed policies that have favoured zero-tolerance policing, and that have gradually eroded public trust in civilian officials and compromised the legitimacy of our police departments. This has steadily furthered the gap between the police and the policed in Pakistan.

It hasn’t helped that, over the last 70 years, police departments have remained poorly equipped, their officials too poorly paid and surviving in miserable conditions, to deal with the magnitude and multiplicity of violent conflicts that they have found themselves in, only to be raised repeatedly up to the task of ‘fighting on the front lines’.

What such political, social and historical processes have constructed, then, is a complicated relationship in which the institutions tasked with protecting civilians are as insecure of civilians as the civilians are of the police.

The Sahiwal shooting was perhaps partially a product of this relationship.

Unfortunately, given how violence is embedded not just within policing but also our aggressive reactions and calls for ‘hanging them all’, it is unreasonable to expect that a different sort of police culture can emerge without, at the very least, generational struggles.

Are you working to reform law enforcement in Pakistan? Share your insights with us at prism@dawn.com


Author Image

Zoha Waseem holds a PhD from King’s College London and is currently a Teaching Fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She tweets @zohawaseem.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (18) Closed

Jan 21, 2019 06:43pm
it tells us that we are a police state ... any questions...As for civil liberties, any one who is not vigilant may one day find himself living, if not in a police state, at least in a police city.
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Jan 21, 2019 07:49pm
I hate "police gardi" not less than anybody else but we need to understand its root cause that in my opinion are poor police training, ineffective laws to address crimes, and insufficient security for the people (including judges, witnesses, policemen) who are responsible to curb these crimes. In case of Ishaq Buchha, how many witnesses and other people people were killed by the gang for going against them? In this situation police choose any easy way that is, stages encounters. I want to save all innocent people but don't want to let gangs roam free. This all need a long term and serious police reforms and will not be solving by going examplary punishments to couple of men security personnels.
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Jan 21, 2019 09:06pm
This police culture is the product of colonial experience. When foreigners used to rule India, govt & by extension it's police was a distant, oppressive force to keep natives under control. It wasnt the police of the society. That culture continued after independence too. Govt employees in general and police in particular behaves as if they are some chosen people bestowed with position to violate & oppress people. As if they rule us. South Asian police culture in general is quite medieval in its mindset & behaviour. Then the ghastly nexus between politicians, police & high beaurocracy, keeps ordinary public as their subjects, to be looted, violated & kept down like slaves. Our police needs to be reformed, repositioned & retrained.
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Jan 21, 2019 09:33pm
CTD has saved Punjab from a big destruction. I support CTD
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Jan 22, 2019 12:12am
Policing in many countries is a tough job with regards to criminals who are well armed and at times very influencial...but as long as there's underfunding of economic development , jobs, education,health will result in people engaging in such activities to survive...
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Jan 22, 2019 02:22am
Such things happen every where in the world. 40 MQM women demonstrators were killed by the Police , on a brige in Hyderabad Sind during the Benazir era. Check it out.
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Khan velaiti
Jan 22, 2019 03:36am
Zohaib I agree with your premise and impressed by your framing of the problem. Yet I feel that you did not provide any solutions in your article. I purpose we deal with this issue by setting the salaries of police men across the country at the same level as the motorway police. I also sugges we spend 5% of our gdp on policing and judicial reform over 5 years. This could be coupled with increasing the requirement for police recruits to be at minimum the same as army officers I.e intern pass. I think it will at least be a start to fixing this mess up
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El Cid
Jan 22, 2019 05:37am
Tells us: Shoot first, ask questions later. Obfuscate, circumvent, lie a lot.
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Maria enteparia onnuchoriu
Jan 22, 2019 05:53am
The culture is the culture of impunity and no value for human life.
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Jan 22, 2019 07:22am
The solution is simple. Let the independent investigation complete. If , either the CTD officials are found guilty or blame is on faulty intelligence ( CTD is to be blamed again as it’s their intelligence), then there should be swift justice. No one of the murderers should be spared. Else, this will keep happening again and again as there will be no consequences.
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Riaz uddin
Jan 22, 2019 07:55am
Unless rule of law and principle of independent judiciary is respected in letter and spirit. Such types of incident would continue. Police has retreated from its loftiest.position and privilege i.e. extending protection.and safety of citizens. Unfortunately its primary role and function stands reduced to provide prtocol.to autocrativ rulers
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Jan 22, 2019 11:10am
It’s a rotten culture compounded with unprofessional, incompetent and inadequately trained police officers trying to implement law with very little or no knowledge of policing.
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Jan 22, 2019 11:46am
Straight up. Unless you have been a police officer or made a lifetime study of police culture you have little chance understanding police culture. --- Let me just say this. People do not like police. Police know that. The police attitude is "it's us against them." --- This is too big a subject for that question to be answered here. The public is against us. The good cops fear the bad cops, and the top cops won't protect anyone but themselves.
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Jan 22, 2019 12:23pm
@THE MORNING STAR MQM is a known party of thugs and it is also sad but a bitter truth that before 2013 their activities went unchecked, these activities included killing off their own people in the most brutal ways whilst pinning it on the opponents, so you are advised not to throw dust in people's eyes and tell us about the king of thugs . I myself have seen at-least two off their feared thugs losing their lives when they were of no use to the party or threatened the revealing of the magnitude of the crime committed by them on top tier management's orders. I still have not forgotten their demeaning and straight backed proud attitude display at fitra collection.
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Jan 22, 2019 01:23pm
Nothing will happen. ..
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Jan 22, 2019 02:25pm
This event is a product of "Political Culture" not the "Police Culture". From the history of our country, Police is a Puppet of Politicians.....
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Jan 22, 2019 07:49pm
Our police system was fit for British rulers. Unfortunately the system remains the same, no police reform has been demanded or done and interestingly our elected rulers hv nurtured the British raj mindset and now working together to achieve the same benefits .
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Jan 23, 2019 03:17am
The statement by Punjab governor, that the family was collateral damage is telling. How can one so callously announce the family and a child killed, just as a damage. Even if police in this case had intelligence, you have to see who was in the vehicle. IF there are kids and women, police has to be lot more careful. These are training and policy issues. And sue, public should demand action against the politicians as well who are so cold against a killing of an innocent family.
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