Policing the police

Published July 1, 2024
The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.
The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.

THE establishment of dedicated Police Complaints Authorities has been a long-standing demand in the discussion on police reforms in Pakistan and India. PCAs were introduced in neighbouring India in 2006 under the Indian supreme court’s orders. Although the Pakistan Police Order, 2002, envisioned police complaints authorities, they have yet to be made functional in Pakistan.

The Indian supreme court issued seven directives for structural police reforms when it issued its judgement on the matter, including establishing PCAs at state and district levels. This was an outcome of the realisation that without accountability, the police cannot win public trust. So far, 23 states in India have constituted State Police Complaints Authorities (SPCAs), while 18 have constituted District Police Complaints Authorities (DPCAs).

The PCAs are mandated to check police excesses, recommend punishments, and suggest policy improvements to change police behaviour. The DPCAs are empowered to inquire into complaints against officers up to the rank of the DSP. At the same time, SPCAs deal with complaints against officers above the rank of the DSP and investigate cases of serious misconduct.

Under court directives, the SPCAs are to be headed by retired superior court judges, while DPCAs are to be headed by retired district judges. Other members should include retired civil or government servants, police officers, and members of civil society. However, the judgement is silent on eligible members’ required qualifications or skills. Ensuring diversity is another challenge. In some instances, PCAs are dominated by serving and retired officers, but the presence of serving officers impacts credibility negatively and defeats the fundamental principle of natural justice: that no one can be a judge in their own case. If serving officers are part of the oversight, it loses credibility.

PCAs are expected to be accountable.

The credibility of PCAs is also dependent on the selection process of their chairpersons and members. The chair of the SPCA is selected from a panel of retired high court judges proposed by a senior judge. Members are chosen from a panel prepared by the State Human Rights Commission or Public Service Commission.

To ensure fairness in the selection of independent members, the Sikkim Police Act has adopted an independent selection panel, but in other states, members of PCAs are appointed at the sole discretion of the governments. The idea of having an independent selection committee is to ensure safeguards against political appointments. This is not possible without political neutrality and autonomy. Best practices dictate that such positions be advertised so selections can be carried out transparently, and citizens should be given opportunities to submit objections about the members to be considered.

In the absence of independent investigators, PCAs would remain dependent on the police. The Kerala, Assam, and Haryana Police Acts make a provision for hiring retired and independent investigators. However, no police law in India gives a time limit for inquiries, which results in an increase in pendency and erosion of public faith in PCAs to deliver justice. Therefore, setting a time limit for such inquiries is also necessary.

Since PCAs are public institutions, they are expected to be accountable. The submission of annual reports is one of the measures to ensure accountability. This report should be laid before the legislature and accessible to the public. The Tripura and Uttarakhand Police Acts specifically mention the provision of separate budgets, but in India, the budgets of most PCAs are administered through the home departm­e­n­­ts, with PCAs having no role in budget-making, which limits their independence. Without adequate financial independence, the oversight bodies cannot function independently. Lastly, PCAs in developing societies often limit their outreach efforts, so public outreach, including the introduction of websites, should consciously be made part of police laws.

In Pakistan, the Police Act of 1861 did not envision any complaint management apparatus. The Police Order of 2002 did, however, envision the establishment of public complaint authorities, using the term ‘complaint’ 71 times in its text. Chapter X of the Police Order deals with the composition and functions of federal and provincial PCAs. However, since all provinces have opted for different police laws, PCAs are yet to become functional in Pakistan.

Policing the police is not possible without functional PCAs, public safety commissions as envisioned in the Police Order, and regional police complaint authorities as mentioned in the KP Police Act of 2017. Public safety will remain elusive till these checks are introduced.

The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.

X: @alibabakhel

Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2024

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