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The challenge of policing Karachi

July 27, 2012

KARACHI may be the country’s largest metropolis and the hub of finance, but in terms of law and order there are many challenges.

The city has developed the regrettable pattern of explosive violence interspersed with brief periods of relative calm. Yet since the mid-1980s successive civilian and military dispensations have failed to come to grips with the situation. Admittedly, the challenges are of considerable magnitude. This is a sprawling city with chaotic slums, exponential population growth and deficient municipal services. Even as the writ of the state weakens, ethnic polarisation is increasing, the sectarian divide is deepening and extremist militancy is seeping deeper into the fabric of society.

Nearly 30,000 uniformed police officers of different ranks are deployed in the city, buttressed by the Rangers’ forces. However, as in other parts of the country, the police force is inadequately trained, demoralised and politicised. Underpaid but perennially overworked, the Karachi police must contend with conventional offences as well as a set of crimes that are particular to it: targeted killings, sectarian strife, land-grabbing, extortion rings, organised crime and so on.

The polarised and politically charged climate creates law and order situations that are underpinned by political motivations. A number of political parties use the city as the theatre for shows of strength. These realities only make the task of policing Karachi more daunting.

The enormity of the challenges means that achieving the desired goals is tough, but certainly not impossible — if the politicians, police leadership and the community act in tandem.

The political parties need to rise above petty self-interest and agree to depoliticise the police force. On paper, the solution is simple: ensuring that tough administrative measures geared towards law and order are completely cut off from political considerations. The even-handed enforcement of the law, regardless of the group involved in the breach of peace or its affiliations, would have an immediate improving effect.

Freeing the police of political interference at the administrative level is also vitally important. This can be achieved by giving the inspector general of the police security of tenure and delegating to him financial and administrative powers. He should have complete freedom to choose his team as well as the authority to transfer officers under his command and the power to initiate disciplinary proceedings against them.

To make the police chief an effective leader capable of delivering efficient policing, the government would have to amend the Police Act, 1861, and Police Order, 2002. Other necessary steps are ensuring that the merit criterion is met in recruitments and promotions; strict action must be taken against policemen who resort to extraneous influence.

It is the political leadership that has to rise to the occasion and resist the impulse to unduly interfere in day-to-day policing. Karachi needs a professional policing model, and there should be no compromise on this crucial principle.

In the same vein, though, civil society at large cannot afford to remain divorced from the task of policing either. Communities must play a more active role by pressing for a depoliticised, operationally independent and accountable police service. To quote Sir Robert Peel, the UK prime minister after whom policemen in that country are nicknames ‘bobbies’, “the police are the public and the public are the police.”

If the quality of policing does not improve, the losers are the communities. But in Karachi, well-connected community leaders seek the deployment of policemen as guards for their own security. These people need to voice the demand for a more professional police force capable of serving and protecting the entire citizenry. Another part of the solution lies in community policing.

The declining morale of the police force must also be addressed. The state must strengthen the police vis-à-vis society’s powerful groups and individuals. Meanwhile, it must be remembered that the police are first in the line of fire. A large number have been killed fighting terrorists and organised criminals, and several policemen have been specifically targeted by extremists, armed members of political parties and criminal gangs. Few of the killers have been brought to book. Senior police officers need to recognise that drastic action is urgently needed, particularly in the cases of ‘cop-killers’. Delays will only further weaken the resolve of other policemen.

Enduring peace also requires de-weaponisation: regulating licensed weapons, confiscating illegal arms and putting into place strict checks on the inflow of weapons. The starting point is the computerised registration of existing arms licenses. There are over a million weapons in Sindh but no database. Many licences have been issued without police verification of the character and record of the licensee, which means that even people with criminal records have been able to obtain permits for prohibited-bore rifles and sophisticated automatic weapons.

A system needs to be instituted so that the failure to register is tied to the loss of the permit, and those on the registration records are put through background checks. The government can also consider putting a temporary ban on the issuing of new licences. Subsequently, the issuing of arms licences must be centralised at the provincial level so that records can be maintained and applicants scrutinised. Licence-issuing authority should not be devolved to the districts.

Meanwhile, the Surrender of Illicit Arms Act, 1991, will have to be invoked to facilitate the confiscation of unlicensed weapons. This must be followed by search operations and increasing the punishment for the possession of unauthorised weapons. Currently, most criminals arrested in this regard are bailed out in less that a week; many become repeat offenders. This issue will have to be addressed through amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Karachi’s law and order situation can be prevented from getting worse by taking timely action. But if reforms are delayed any longer, the issue is likely to turn into a nightmare of epic proportions.

The writer is a barrister and deputy inspector general of the police in Sindh.