”Unfortunately, the 18th Amendment put paid to even these feeble attempts at systematic reform of law enforcement processes. What we have now consequently is plain and utter chaos. This is what the politicians want, no doubt. The question however is whether we want this for our society and for our communities?’
Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Sri Lanka remains a classic study in farcical contrasts between the reality and the image. Nothing illustrates this assertion better than what passes for law enforcement today. During previous weeks, discussion of a National Police Academy was ironically juxtaposed with yet another of the now periodically violent outbreaks of public anger against the police, this time in Dompe where a young man died in police custody, leaving his wife and one year old child destitute.
In addition, violent killings of both the socially marginalized (for example, beggars) and the relatively privileged (for example, a tireless medical practitioner in the Southern parts of the country), assaults on numerous persons including the Registrar of the Sri Lanka Medical Council continued unabated. Meanwhile, the police officers responsible for the killing of a Free Trade Zone worker during protests against the pension bill some months back are still to be brought to justice.
Superficial responses to a serious problem
Where the incidents in Dompe were concerned, the reactions were similar to public anger manifested earlier over ‘grease devil’ attacks. The ‘grease devils’ have mysteriously disappeared into thin air, so as to speak and we are still mystified as to who was responsible. It did not help that the incidents were presented with an unfortunate and irresponsible communal twist in some media when enraged and frightened people attacked police stations in the Northern peninsula following attacks on women living in their communities.
This phenomenon of mob reaction against the police is common all over the country. Police excesses are now being met by a long suffering citizenry with excesses of violence against their tormentors. To remedy this situation, seriously thought out reform of disciplinary processes, a systematic delinking of the political command from the police command and a proper working of the criminal justice system are needed. But what do we have instead? Each and every incident is superficially responded to by the government and the police establishment, depending on the extent of public reaction.
For example, in Dompe, the policemen allegedly responsible for the death of the suspect were transferred to Colombo and were thereafter arrested. We have no guarantee as to what will happen thereafter though it is hoped that, once an inquiry is held, a newly appointed Inspector General of Police (IGP) may enforce harsh action. But there have been many instances where action was taken in the immediate wake of an incident in order to appease the public and then, was allowed to quietly fade away. It is therefore important that public pressure and media attention is continued, at least in this case.
Undermining of internal police responsibility structures
The Dompe incident is just one of several deaths of unarmed suspects in police custody. The complete impunity with which abusive officers behave is shown by the fact that preliminary reports indicated that the police had falsified medical reports concerning the incident. This is nothing surprising. Time and time again, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court had recorded its deep dissatisfaction with the way that medical records in cases relating to torture have been tampered with by the police. We have yet to hear of any adequate disciplinary action being initiated against officers specifically named by the Court in these applications.
Another incident recently concerned the beating and assault of a suspect by police officers in front of the Magistrate of Jaffna. Again here, what is remarkable is the fact that the responsible police officers believed that they could engage in this type of behavior and escape unscathed. There is indeed reason as to why they would think in this manner. The record of disciplinary sanctions being visited on erring and abusive police officers is poor indeed. In some rare cases of deaths in police custody, criminal convictions have been entered into, as was seen in the Angulana police station double murder case but these instances are few and far in between.
Moreover, there is an aspect to this situation, which has yet to filter into the public mind, though it is well understood by serving and retired senior police officers. This aspect concerns the almost complete undermining of the chain of police command responsibility by political interference and the consequent chaos being created in police ranks.
The recent shooting of an Assistant Superintendant of Police (ASP) by an Inspector attached to the Special Task Force allegedly over the disciplining of two police officers is a small indication of the extent of the problem. Unlike in decades gone by, senior police officers now hesitate to reprimand juniors for excesses, not knowing what consequences (political or otherwise) could be visited on them.
Excessive militarization will not help
Knee jerk reactions, superficial announcements regarding the establishing of a National Police Academy as well as repeated reassurances that Sri Lanka will have a trilingual police force will do little to address the root of the problem. More ominously, there are reports that the government intends to enforce stricter measures to bring rioting crowds under control. The government needs to acknowledge that even if it intends to transform this country into one gigantic military camp, public uproar at continuing injustice can be quelled only up to a certain point.
One clear option to restore sanity to chaos is to return to the 17th Amendment and its concept of an independent National Police Commission (NPC). This, in turn, will enforce strict disciplinary measures against the police which the head of the police has (historically) been unable to do. When this constitutional amendment was operational, Rules of Procedure (Public Complaints) were put into place in January 2007, the substance of which took in elements from a draft submitted by independent lawyers to the NPC in 2006.
These Rules of Procedure were wide ranging in their ambit and was a fair balance between the authority that must necessarily be accorded to the IGP and the independent supervision of the NPC. Complaints by an aggrieved person, a social organisation, public organisation or non-governmental organisation or by an attorney-at-law on behalf of an aggrieved person may be lodged against police officers to a Public Complaints Investigation Division (PCID), a special Division established under the ambit of the NPC.
At the conclusion, if disciplinary action or prosecution against a police officer is recommended to be instituted, the IGP or the relevant senior officer may initiate such action. The NPC, after receipt of the final order following the disciplinary inquiry or case, was authorised to “grant whatever redress possible, according to the law, to the complainant.”
The PCID could meanwhile act on their own, even through print or electronic media reports. Time limits were specified for the investigation of the complaints. All police officers were required to give assistance to the investigating officers and the PCID was vested with a wide variety of powers in this respect. Granted, the Rules could be improved upon in some respects. However, this was a definite improvement on the previous ad hoc procedures whereby police officers were sought to be disciplined.
Unfortunately, the 18th Amendment put paid to even these feeble attempts at systematic reform of law enforcement processes. What we have now consequently is plain and utter chaos. This is what the politicians want, no doubt. The question however is whether we want this for our society and for our communities?
- Sunday Times