Police Order revisited

February 11, 2009

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POLICE Order 2002 was introduced with much gusto. Its avowed purpose was to reinvent the police so it could prevent and detect crime more efficiently and maintain public order. The central idea was to transform the police department into a professional, service-oriented force that would be accountable to the people.

After six years of half-hearted implementation, the future of Police Order 2002 has become uncertain. Certain circles are arguing that the order should be repealed and the system made to revert to its original status. Interestingly, the move to rescind the law is not supported by insightful debate or deliberation on its efficacy or flaws. Instead, the focus appears to be on backdoor manipulation.

Politics is the root cause behind the move to repeal Police Order 2002 and we would be well advised not to fall for this deliberate diversion. Any decision on retaining or abolishing the Police Order in part or in toto has to be made keeping in view administrative considerations and the usefulness of its provisions. The sensible course would be to identify existing problems and address those issues through legal channels in accordance with the law of the land.

It may be helpful to look at the salient features of Police Order 2002. Under the order, the police establishment was reorganised separating investigation from the operations branch, which may not have been the ideal option. It laid down procedures for the appointment and removal of a provincial police officer on merit and gave him financial powers as an ex officio secretary to the provincial government, enabling him to decide matters expeditiously without stumbling over bureaucratic bottlenecks.

It gave security of tenure to the chiefs of police in districts, capital cities and provinces so they could not be removed arbitrarily. Public safety commissions and police complaints authorities were set up to ensure public participation in policing. It is a pity that these provisions were not implemented in their entirety. However, the district police officer was effectively freed from the general direction and control of the meddlesome district magistrate.

It would be appropriate to objectively evaluate the working of the new police system. To what extent has it achieved its declared objectives and what are the pitfalls in the system? This assessment must be carried out in a fair and impartial manner if the aim is to create a professional police organisation that can successfully meet the challenge of controlling law and order. Changes should not be suggested merely to serve the vested interests of a particular group.

It is argued by proponents of the old system that the force under the new Police Order has become too autonomous and there is no institution to check its unbridled authority. The fact is that the new law puts more stringent checks on the police. They are accountable within their own hierarchy, to the elected nazim, the judiciary, the public safety commissions and the Public Complaints Authority. Furthermore, there are penal provisions for misconduct.

The bureaucracy and the politicians want to assume control of the police. Much of the clamour for rolling back the new police laws is motivated by this consideration. The question we need to ask is this is the driving force a desire to check police excesses and make

the force accountable for its conduct, or do the critics simply want to gain control over the police for ulterior motives?

Under the Police Act 1861, the district superintendent worked under the general direction and control of the district magistrate (DM). The bureaucracy exercised immense influence because of this provision. A district magistrate or his subordinate executive magistrates never succeeded in checking the reprehensible behaviour of the police. On the contrary, they provided legal cover to police excesses. Ordinary people suffered immensely because of this complicity between the local police officer and local executive magistrate.

Subordination of the police to the DM is against the universally accepted principle of separation of powers. Under the previous system, the police, magistracy and prosecution were controlled by a DM. This resulted in lack of transparency and objectivity.When the government of the day wanted to arm-twist a certain political group, the police would round up its members on the DM's orders. The Sub-divisional District Magistrate (SDM), acting on the policy laid down by the DM, would grant physical remand and refuse bail. The prosecutor would push the case in compliance with the directions of the same officer and an amenable magistrate would award punishment. This made for a travesty of justice.

In all fairness it has to be acknowledged that all is not well with the current police system either. The public has not experienced discernible change with the enforcement of Police Order 2002. There has been no decrease in crime and police behaviour has not changed. Still, a failure to deliver the goods does not mean that the new police system was inherently flawed.

The failures we see can be attributed primarily to hasty and incomplete implementation. The system was changed overnight without preparing the ground for a drastic overhaul. It should have been done in phases and supplemented with training and other initiatives. Secondly, not all the provisions were implemented. For instance, the new law gave the provincial and district police chiefs security of tenure. This was never put in place. Citizens' bodies including the public safety commissions were not made functional in most cases. The Public Complaints Authority could never take off.No system is perfect and what we have at present is not without its flaws. Nor was the previous system unblemished. But this does not mean that the solution lies in blindly reverting to the old set-up. Instead of placing the police under the control of the bureaucracy, police reforms should try to make the force accountable to the public, rid it of political interference, introduce meritocracy, modernise policing methods and introduce operational independence.

Provisions of law that have hampered police working, like the watertight compartmentalisation of the operations and investigation branches, need to be done away with to ensure smooth working, coordination and interdependence of the two branches of police.The focus of the reforms should be the police station which is the basic unit of the organisation. The public perception about the police is shaped by the treatment citizens receive at the police-station level. Respect for human rights, crime prevention and detection, overall service delivery and better police-community relations can only be achieved if the police stations are effectively reformed. Bureaucratic control is not likely to achieve this.

The writer is a barrister and a senior superintendent of police in Sindh.

shaikhsp@yahoo.com