THE PROBLEM WITH PAKISTAN’S POLICE

Published July 7, 2024
Illustration by Sarah Durrani
Illustration by Sarah Durrani

“You are men and women of violence,” proclaims Dave Grossman, a retired military officer, to eager police trainees in the award-winning documentary Do Not Resist. One wonders if he draws his inspiration from the policing tactics so infamously practised in Pakistan, where such a declaration seems less an instruction and more a statement of fact.

While everyone in Pakistan has long been aware of the police culture in vogue in the country, the post-May 9, 2023 posturing of the police gave a rude awakening to a large chunk of the citizenry because, this time round, even those belonging to the affluent class were exposed to a brand of policing thus far reserved only for the poor and downtrodden — ‘militarised policing.’ 

According to criminal justice expert Peter Kraska, ‘militarised policing’ is a policing style that “increasingly draws from and patterns around the tenets of militarism and the military model.” In Pakistan, this has manifested in the widespread adoption of military tactics and an organisational structure that emphasises force and domination, particularly towards the powerless and marginalised segments of society. The events of May last year stirred up a national debate, and the long-interred topic of police reforms was soon disinterred.

As a result, multiple articles and opinions appeared in national dailies, wherein writers sought to identify the wrong and recommended measures to cure the malaise. What these articles, mostly authored by retired police officers, had in common was that almost every piece ascribed the streak of violence perpetrated by the police force in the aftermath of the unfortunate events of May 9, 2023 to the politicisation of the force and argued for depoliticisation.

Politicisation of the police is certainly one of the issues that must be dealt with, but it is only a partial diagnosis of the rot, as it is hard to ignore that the personnel of law enforcement always seem ready to embrace violence, even when they are not dictated to by their political overlords. The excessive use of violence underscores the notion that the issue is inherently internal and can be resolved from within.

As a member of the police force who has seen the issues that plague the system, in this article I will delineate the specific internal challenges within police departments that foster a militarised approach to law enforcement. Importantly, these challenges do not stem from the oft-cited issue of political interference. Instead, they are intrinsic problems that can be effectively addressed from within the department, without the need for external intervention.

The people of Pakistan generally fear rather than trust the police and the police’s high-handedness in dealing with the public is regular fodder for stories in the media. But is the issue only the politicisation of the force and political interference, as many high-ranking police officers will have you believe? A serving police officer offers a different perspective, focusing on the rot within the system… 

ORGANISATIONAL IDENTITY

The issue is less to do with politicisation and more to do with the organisational identity of the department. Organisational identity — the collective understanding of what defines an organisation’s central, enduring and distinctive characteristics — significantly influences the behaviour of its members. This identity not only shapes how members perceive themselves within the organisation but also guides their actions and interactions with others, both inside and outside the organisation. 

The organisational identity of the police force in Pakistan has been shaped by an enduring colonial hangover. It is hardly a new revelation that this force was raised by the region’s colonial masters with an aim of suppressing and subjugating the natives. 

In his book Defenders of the Establishment: Ruler-Supportive Police Forces of South Asia, K.S Dhillon, a retired officer of the Indian Police Service, says: “The Indian police was never meant to be a citizen-friendly agency. At no time in history was it expressly required to fulfil any role other than defending and safeguarding the ruling establishment. Its design, structure, attitudes, values, functional modes and legal backdrop were all geared to serve the government in power and maintain status quo in society. If in the process the mass of the people come to grief, so be it.” 

This is what the real identity of the force and its members has been ever since it was raised, and police are not willing to shed this identity even today. After Independence, the role and character of the force should have been changed, but it was kept intact. Many have blamed the political leadership for this, but the buck actually stops with the police leadership, which could not get out of the mindset of ‘sahib bahadur’ [imitating Western ways and airs] and, in fact, took pride in carrying on the colonial legacy. 

This identity gives a sense of superiority to policemen and, while dealing with citizens, they behave as if they are the masters. The ‘Annual Report on Police Reforms in Pakistan (2020)’ by the Justice Project Pakistan states that police behaviours and attitudes towards civilians are reflective of a ruling rather than serving attitude. The report cites numerous cases where police actions are characterised by an abuse of power and a disregard for civilian rights, reinforcing the perception of the police as a force that sees itself as ‘rulers’ over ‘subjects’ rather than protectors of the community. 

The report particularly points to the widespread use of arbitrary detention and excessive force as indicators of this problematic stance. This identity manifests itself when a policeman who is manning a road picket or standing guard at a place, capriciously stopping and frisking passersby, gets irritated if one dares to question the legality or necessity of his actions.

Politicisation of the police is certainly one of the issues that must be dealt with, but it is only a partial diagnosis of the rot, as it is hard to ignore that the personnel of law enforcement always seem ready to embrace violence, even when they are not dictated to by their political overlords. The excessive use of violence underscores the notion that the issue is inherently internal and can be resolved from within.

FLAWED STRUCTURE AND NON-ACCOUNTABILITY

The inception of the police force in the 19th century in the Subcontinent was marked by a dual classification system: senior officers (assistant superintendents of the police and above) and junior officers (constable to inspector, further divided into upper subordinates and lower subordinates). 

The higher, gazetted ranks were exclusively occupied by Englishmen, while the lower, non-gazetted ranks were open to Indians. This structural discrimination was strategic, positioning English officers in roles of authority and privilege, effectively quelling any insurrection from the locally staffed lower ranks. The local officers, typically underpaid and marginalised, often redirected their frustration towards the public, perpetuating a cycle of oppression and resentment.

Following Partition in 1947, Pakistan inherited this colonial legacy, which was perpetuated with the establishment of the Police Service of Pakistan (PSP) in 1948. This new entity maintained the same centralised and discriminatory framework, where the division between senior PSP officers and junior provincial cadre officers not only continued but deepened. 

Distinct terms — such as ‘noori’ for privileged PSP officers and ‘naari’ for less privileged provincial cadre officers — emerged, highlighting the disparity. PSP officers, assuming leadership roles at all administrative levels — district, region and province — exercise absolute authority over their subordinates. This power is often used to enforce strict control, sometimes through authoritarian and unlawful methods. 

They use their absolute powers arbitrarily and capriciously to keep the ‘naaris’ on a tight leash.  So these subordinates, willingly or unwillingly, religiously execute what is commanded to them by their superiors in the name of so-called discipline, without giving any consideration to the legality of the orders. Often, even illegal and unwarranted orders are executed by these men as they seek to curry favour with their authoritative and all-powerful bosses, who themselves are accustomed to absolute control. 

If anyone dares to object to unjustified orders, they risk being penalised, abused, humiliated, booked and arrested on trumped-up charges. Thus, all the commands are executed in letter and spirit to steer clear of trials and tribulations. Such commands regularly include booking, arresting and torturing ordinary citizens, as well as workers of political parties. Orders are regularly carried out to ingratiate lower staff with those political overlords who ultimately ensure coveted postings, or as favours to one’s acquaintances.  

A 2018 study by the Institute of Social and Policy Sciences titled ‘Police Culture and Performance in Pakistan’ reveals how this rigid hierarchy stifles the ability of junior officers to voice concerns, fostering

an environment where senior officers exercise unchecked authoritarian power, often justified as maintaining order, thus mirroring oppressive colonial policing models.

Dr Hassan Abbas, a noted expert on South Asian police reforms, points out that these structural inequities serve as catalysts for abuse of power, particularly among senior officers who are seldom held accountable. Corroborating this, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s 2021 report notes that allegations of police misconduct involving senior officers rarely lead to an investigation, with less than 10 percent of such cases resulting in any official inquiry.

There are multiple instances of PSP officers abusing their powers and escaping the wrath of the law, either because the matter was swept under the rug by their seniors or due to the absence of a strict accountability system. 

For example, after a complaint by a citizen in 2023, an enquiry was initiated against PSP officer Hassan Afzal over allegations of abuse of power. During the enquiry, startling revelations surfaced, alleging that Afzal — at the time serving as Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Gujranwala — got a trader kidnapped and subsequently embroiled in fake cases of robbery and rape at the police stations of Toba Tek Singh and Wazirabad. The enquiry officer, the City Police Officer (CPO) Gujranwala, proposed stringent action be taken against Afzal, yet nothing has been done so far. In contrast, lower-ranked officers who have acted on the wrongful commands of their superiors have faced harsh consequences.

 Policemen beat a supporter of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf in Islamabad on March 18, 2023: within the police ranks, the more brutal an officer is, the more they are celebrated | Reuters
Policemen beat a supporter of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf in Islamabad on March 18, 2023: within the police ranks, the more brutal an officer is, the more they are celebrated | Reuters

In another high-profile incident from 2017, SSP Junaid Arshad, while posted in Gilgit Baltistan, created a fake Facebook profile of his ex-wife and uploaded objectionable and obscene pictures of her. He was charged under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (Peca), 2016. Despite an additional session judge cancelling his bail, he evaded arrest until 2019, when the complainant appealed directly to then Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, prompting his order for the authorities to apprehend the accused. Though the officer ‘met his Waterloo’, yet the case underscores the impunity often enjoyed by high-ranking officials, requiring intervention from the highest judicial office to ensure accountability for such serious offences.

This selective accountability system enables senior PSP officers to wield their power for personal or political gain, fostering a culture of impunity that insulates them from scrutiny, due to flawed organisational structures. Patrick V. Murphy, a former police executive in America and president of the National Police Foundation, characterises such systems as “selective” and “hierarchical”, allowing senior officers to evade scrutiny and continue their practices without consequences.

Thus, the structure of Pakistan’s police force, largely inherited from colonial times and scarcely reformed, promotes a culture where senior officers operate with near-total impunity. This environment not only undermines the rule of law but also perpetuates a cycle of abuse and corruption that is difficult to break.

‘MACHO’ CULTURE AND GLORIFICATION OF VIOLENCE

One is led to wonder what compels an educated man to embrace violence after joining the police force. The straightforward answer to this question lies in the ‘machismo’ culture that pervades the police force. 

A 2016 study by researcher Muhammad Asif Nawaz titled ‘Police Organisational Culture and Job Satisfaction: A Comparison of the Perspectives of Managers and Line Officers in the Pakistan and Turkish National Police’ underscores a deeply entrenched culture of aggression, specifically within the Pakistani context. It details how these norms of masculinity are not only prevalent but are actively reinforced by managerial practices and expectations, which in turn solidify aggressive behaviours as a celebrated aspect of policing culture in Pakistan.

Thus, the more brutal an officer is, the more they are celebrated. Such an officer is revered and viewed as a role model by fresh inductees, hence making these officers take pride in their unlawful behaviour. For example, on the first day I joined the police department with three of my batch mates in 2017, we encountered an assistant sub-inspector. Dressed in a white shalwar kameez and lounging on a sofa, he proudly recounted how he had fatally shot a man the previous night. 

He boasted that no other officer in the district had the courage to perform such an act of ‘valour’. According to him, he was the only one who met the demands of bravery required and had executed the task on the orders of his district police officer. This is how trigger-happy men deem themselves as the bravest souls on Earth and their colleagues also try to follow in their footsteps to become ‘brave officers.’ This culture consumes everybody, from constables to PSP officers. Personnel who believe in legal and more humane ways of policing are considered cowardly and are thus looked down upon by their own colleagues. 

Many of my colleagues, juniors and even some complainants regularly taunt me by calling me ‘shareef [innocent]’ — a term used to mock my soft-spoken nature. They suggest I quit the job, deeming me a misfit for the role. This peer pressure can force police personnel to engage in acts of violence simply to escape the stigma of ‘cowardice’ and to prove themselves as ‘successful’ and ‘brave’ officers.

INADEQUATE TRAINING AND RESOURCES

One critical factor exacerbating the brutal culture within the police force in Pakistan is the severe lack of proper training. Police personnel often receive minimal training in areas crucial for modern policing, such as human rights, community engagement, crisis intervention and non-violent conflict resolution. This deficiency not only hampers their ability to handle situations tactfully, but also increases their reliance on force as a default response mechanism.

The training that does exist tends to be overly militaristic, focusing more on physical strength and less on the skills necessary for policing a civilian population. This kind of preparation reinforces the idea that physical force is not only acceptable but expected in day-to-day interactions with the public. 

For instance, when we underwent police training back in 2017, the trainees included highly educated individuals, some of whom had completed their PhDs and M.Phils. Despite this, the training focused solely on obeying superiors, with no emphasis on respecting human rights or acquiring modern policing skills. This glaring deficiency in our training speaks volumes about its inadequacies.

Furthermore, the police are frequently under-equipped and lack the necessary tools that could provide alternatives to the use of force, such as non-lethal weapons and modern investigative technologies. This situation is compounded by poor working conditions, including long hours and inadequate compensation, which can lead to low morale and high stress. Such conditions foster an environment where abuse of power becomes more likely.

Having examined the reasons outlined above, it should now be clear that blaming the political leadership for substandard policing culture is misleading. With this understanding, we should focus on exploring viable internal solutions to remedy the crisis plaguing the police force in Pakistan.

 Police officers stand guard at a road in Karachi: local officers, typically underpaid and marginalised, often redirect their frustration towards the public, perpetuating a cycle of oppression and resentment | AP
Police officers stand guard at a road in Karachi: local officers, typically underpaid and marginalised, often redirect their frustration towards the public, perpetuating a cycle of oppression and resentment | AP

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE

Align organisational identity with democratic values: The organisational identity of the police must be restructured in order to align with democratic values and community service rather than control and repression. This involves comprehensive training programmes that emphasise human rights, legal boundaries and community engagement. Police officers must be nurtured to embrace a mindset of service rather than domination. 

The example of Thailand can be a guide. In Thailand, a notable shift in police training and organisational identity began with the introduction of the ‘Police in the Community’ programme. This initiative, launched in the early 2000s, focused on transforming the traditional view of police as authoritative figures into a more community-centric role. 

The programme incorporated extensive training in human rights, conflict resolution and community engagement. As a result, surveys conducted in subsequent years showed an increase in public trust and a decrease in complaints against police, illustrating the positive impact of aligning police identity with democratic values and community service.

Empower provincial oversight for greater police accountability: The existing two-tier structure of the police, with officers divided between central and provincial cadres, is fundamentally flawed and incompatible with the principles of a functioning democracy.  This structure creates a paradox, where PSP officers, though posted in federating units, are primarily accountable to the central government rather than to the provincial authorities where they serve. Such a set-up severely hampers regional autonomy and the responsiveness of the police to local needs.

In a system where even the chief executive of the province lacks the authority to hold these officers accountable, it is unrealistic to expect them to exercise their powers judiciously. This lack of direct accountability encourages a culture of impunity and often leads to an erosion of trust in the police force. For the police to act as true servants of the community, accountability mechanisms must align more closely with the regions they are supposed to serve. Only through reforms that ensure greater provincial oversight can we hope to see a police force that is responsive, responsible and fully aligned with the needs and the will of the local population.

If lateral entry through Central Superior Services (CSS) is to be allowed, the federal government should allocate provinces to the officers and the respective provinces should be given the authority over the officer’s promotion, as well as any disciplinary proceedings. However, the officers may be rotated among provinces after a certain period of time and standard of service, following the approval of the chief executive of the concerned province. This will ensure there remains continuous oversight on police actions and transfers.

Ensure uniform and strict accountability across all ranks: The accountability mechanism prevalent in the police department is only limited to subordinate ranks, ie constable to inspector. Though this mechanism is fraught with loopholes that allow personnel to mostly get away with their unlawful actions (more often than not, the penalties imposed upon them are overturned at the appeal stage), it has somehow created a sense of fear among police personnel who fall within the ambit of this law. But the irony is that no such mechanism exists for the transgressions of PSPs. 

No authority in the province is empowered to question their excesses and penalise them. Even if misconduct is proved against them, the case is sent to the federal Establishment Division. This complicated system allows them to usually get away scot free. An independent oversight and accountability mechanism needs to be put in place to hold this class of officers accountable and it should be ensured that the transgressor faces the requisite penalty.

Combat ‘macho’ mentality and glorification of violence: This requires comprehensive internal reforms. Strict penalties should be implemented for misconduct. Additionally, tackling the pervasive macho culture that often glorifies aggression requires targeted training programmes that emphasise empathy, conflict resolution and community engagement. Moreover, the establishment of civilian review boards can offer critical oversight, ensuring public accountability and helping to shift the public perception of the police from enforcers to community protectors. Together, these measures can help cultivate a professional ethos that values restraint and respect over force and domination.

Limit discretionary powers to arrest and detain: There is a dire need to review the existing legal framework that grants blanket powers to the police with respect to arrest and detention. Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure vests the SHO with unlimited powers of arrest, which flies in the face of Article 10 of the Constitution, which provides a safeguard against arbitrary arrests and detentions. This fundamental right has routinely been flouted across the country. 

Furthermore, necessary changes and amendments to the law are badly needed to bar the police from arresting an individual merely on the grounds that their name has appeared in the first information report (FIR). Police should be allowed to arrest an individual only if irrefutable evidence against them appears during the course of the investigation.

REORIENTING THE POLICE FORCE

It is therefore evident that the crux of the issue lies not so much in political interference, as is often claimed by senior police officials, but rather within the internal dynamics of the force itself. These claims of political meddling are frequently leveraged by high-ranking officers to mask their own exploitations of power for personal gain. 

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the fundamental problems are ingrained within the police structure, and meaningful reforms must originate from within. While the political leadership might play a supporting role, the onus of initiating and driving these changes rests squarely with the police command.

For substantive progress to occur, the police leadership must shed their entrenched ‘sahib bahadur’ mentality and vested interests. If the command can fully commit to re-orienting the force towards a service-oriented ethos, focused on public welfare, substantial improvements could be realised within a few years. 

Ultimately, what’s required is a police command that is not only open to change, but is actively engaged in steering the force toward becoming a genuinely public-serving entity. This commitment at the highest levels of police administration is crucial for fostering a culture of integrity and accountability in policing.

The writer is a sub-inspector in the police and is currently serving in a specialised unit. He has a law degree from the University of Punjab. He can be reached at maharmurrawat240@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 7th, 2024

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