Police violence

Published January 10, 2021
The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London.
The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London.

THIS month marks three years that Naqeebullah Mehsud was killed. Police violence in Pakistan has relatively declined since 2018, especially since his death and the widespread public outcry that followed. However, such violence, including police shootings, remains endemic as evidenced by the killings of Amal Umer and Nabil Hoodbhoy in Karachi, the Sahiwal incident, and most recently the murder of Osama Satti in Islamabad.

The tendency for the police to resort to violence can be attributed to a number of factors, including the prevalence of an authoritarian police culture and the lingering effects of security operations that have routinely encouraged excessive use of force to quell terrorism — an issue that remains vaguely defined in our laws and lay conversations.

One of the primary reasons behind the phenomenon is the continued reliance on militarised responses not only to ‘terrorism’ but also to routine crime and threats to public order. Crime and the maintenance of public order are conflated with Pakistan’s national and domestic security policies, which results in routine criminality being addressed with the highhandedness of law-enforcement agencies, rather than through socioeconomic and structural reforms that can help reduce crime and settle political grievances peacefully. This trend can be witnessed, through varying degrees, across successive civilian and military regimes.

These trends are now taking place in the wider context of growing intolerance towards dissent and non-compliance with authoritarian policing and state mechanisms, not to mention problematic legal frameworks (ie, ATA, Peca and the sedition law) that are applied to curb political dissent and opposition.

State insecurity produces reactive and repressive institutions.

Unsurprisingly, in this environment, the will to make police organisations less militarised and more community-friendly remains weak. Counterterrorism policing, which demands hard policing strategies, is still preferred. This is in sharp contrast to community-oriented policing that is geared to serve and protect, not defend and destroy.

The decline in police violence in terms of numbers may be due to a few reasons. First, there has been a reduction in the incidence of attacks on police and security officers, at least compared to the 2013-2016 period. Thus, there may be less incentive to avenge the killings of state officials. Second, Pakistan has seen a reduction in the frequency of terrorist attacks generally and the momentum generated since the aftermath of the APS Peshawar attack in 2014 has waned, leading to a decline in security operations and the space they create for police highhandedness. And third, the backlash generated after the killing of Naqeeb and the Sahiwal incident has demanded the police introspect and take stock, or at least contain extrajudicial practices till some of the lost legitimacy is regained.

But these factors offer temporary respite from police killings, which are likely to occur due to the inability of policing institutions and its administrators to institutionalise structural reforms within LEAs. These reforms are necessary to help develop an institutional philosophy that is separate from that which still sees regular policing and routine police work as a ‘war’ against crime and that looks at marginalised and minority communities as harbingers of disorder and chaos.

Bleak as it may sound, police killings will also continue if the state — with its multiple power centres — refuses to address its own insecurities. The criminalisation of otherwise non-criminal acts and trigger-happy police organisations are symptoms of state insecurity, evident in South Asia since the colonial period and one of the key reasons why reforms do not take root in the postcolonial context.

State insecurity produces institutions that perform in reactive, repressive and discriminatory ways. Pushback to and criticism of such repression is met with further violence (overt or covert), meted out by the state through its law-enforcement agencies. Thus, the cycle of police violence continues, and its victims are often innocent civilians like Osama Satti.

This cycle must be broken. But it cannot be broken if we remain fixated on establishing heavily armed and specialised police units, officers of which are trained to kill and then deployed to the streets once the units have been disbanded, or even otherwise. It also cannot be broken if state institutions and the laws they are designed to enforce remain embedded in colonial structures that the postcolonial state all too conveniently continues to rely upon.

To limit police excesses, we must address police militarisation: (i) by realising that it encourages the use of excessive force; (ii) by addressing how militarism is internalised by police officers through training and education; and (iii) by limiting external interferences in routine policing and police work.

The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London.

Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2021

Opinion

Editorial

A grave tragedy
Updated 08 Feb, 2023

A grave tragedy

It is hoped that Pakistan continues to send as many personnel and relief goods as needed to Turkiye, Syria.
Pharma shutdown
08 Feb, 2023

Pharma shutdown

IN the midst of an economic and political maelstrom, a fresh crisis threatens the availability of drugs in the...
PSL season
Updated 08 Feb, 2023

PSL season

PSL has provided a launching pad for several of the team’s current stars, and for them, hitting top form will be key.
No pardon for rape
Updated 07 Feb, 2023

No pardon for rape

Cultural filters and biases can often lead to faulty applications of the law.
Health insurance
07 Feb, 2023

Health insurance

THE planning ministry is reported to have raised objections to Punjab’s flagship universal health coverage...
The people’s demands
07 Feb, 2023

The people’s demands

AS the people of KP are literally on the frontline of the battle against terrorism and violent extremism, they are...