POLICE accountability is much discussed but less implemented. It constitutes holding the police responsible for what they do, organisationally or individually, and monitoring their policies and practices, addressing issues such as failing to register cases, poor investigations, custodial torture, corruption and abuse of power. The police have powers to arrest, detain and use force, and therefore must be held accountable for violations of this authority. In developing societies, however, a ‘blue wall of silence’ within police ranks facilitates the concealment of misconduct and abuse.
Globally, the police are accountable to the bureaucracy, parliament, judiciary, civil society and human rights and independent oversight bodies. Historically, however, accountability and interference have often been used interchangeably. Police services in societies like ours confront colonial structures but democratic expectations. Political interference is often justified as being in the public’s interest while in reality representing elite interests.
The Police Act, 1861, did not provide for autonomous external oversight, leaving the police accountable to internal chains of command or to the executive. Article 8(e) of the Police Order, 2002, incorporated accountability. Section 6(2) of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa PA 2017 opted for more clarity. Article 8(2) of the Sindh Repeal of PA 1861 and Revival of PO 2002 (Amendment) Act divided the police department into 17 branches but did not include an exclusive accountability branch as envisaged in PO 2002. Balochistan opted for PA 1861, maintaining silence on the question of an exclusive internal accountability unit.
Article 155 of PO 2002 explains the penalty for certain types of misconduct. Though it was intended to improve public safety standards, it has often been used against junior officers, thus undermining its purpose. In some cases, officers were wrongly implicated to ease public and media pressure. Some faced both criminal and departmental proceedings. While officers have the right to appeal, prolonged processes demoralise the innocent. An independent body is needed to review disciplinary decisions. Article 171 of PO 2002 and Section 126 of KPPA 2017 offer immunity to officers who acted in good faith while performing their duty. But innocent officers often fail to get such protection. Besides ensuring fairness, weightage must also be given to fact-finding inquiries.
To follow due process during a search, seizure and/or arrest, police must follow a code of conduct. Under Article 114 of PO 2002, the IGP must issue such a code, which should be audited to assess its effectiveness. In UN General Assembly Resolution 34/169, the CoC for law enforcement officials refers to accountability. Articles 7 and 8 require police to combat corruption. The Paris Principles define minimum standards for national human rights institutions.
A ‘blue wall of silence’ facilitates misconduct.
Police recruitment criteria must also be changed. Scrutiny regarding involvement in discriminatory behaviour, criminal acts and human rights violations, as well as suitability for public service, needs to be made integral to recruitment processes.
In response to the huge volume of complaints against the police in the 2006 Prakash Singh case, India’s supreme court passed seven directives including establishing police complaints authorities at state and district levels. In Pakistan, though police accountability is a concurrent jurisdiction, owing to dysfunctional public safety commissions and complaint authorities at all levels, the process lacks institutional fairness.
Internal and external accountability mechanisms have strengths and weaknesses. The public considers the latter more credible. The former relies heavily on the commitment of senior police management. Transparency also needs the engagement of other actors and institutions, such as human rights commissions. The efficiency of an internal apparatus can supplement an external one, thereby expediting the accountability process.
Complaint authorities and public safety commissions must have a pluralistic composition (ie include women and minorities) of members selected transparently to ensure credibility, and be linked with parliament to enhance autonomy. Effective parliamentary oversight of the security sector requires proactive standing committees. These are not possible without instant access to information, sufficient resources and enhanced legal and operational understanding of the criminal justice system. The existence of transparent procedures will protect operational autonomy of the police as well as public safety.
Policing the police is not possible without functional federal and provincial police complaints authorities, public safety commissions as envisioned in PO 2002 and regional police complaint authorities mentioned in KPPA 2017. Public safety will remain elusive without accountability, professionalism and autonomy.
The writer is author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.
Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2021