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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Sri Lanka: A few practical suggestions for police reforms

By Basil Fernando.

“A History of Ceylon Police” by late A.C. Depp, former Inspector General of Police, is a book consisting of three volumes that gives a good insight into the manner in which the police system came about in Sri Lanka. Reading these pages removes any surprise about the rather pathetic condition into which this institution has evolved.

The unfortunate thing is it need not have been this way.

There was a short period of experiment into the development of the Sri Lankan police in line with the Metropolitan Police instead of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The following opening remarks of Chapter I of this book refer to this short-lived experiment:

“We cannot concede that the Irish Constabulary is at all an analogous Force to our Ceylon Police, and we would here beg leave to express our opinion, that it would have been more conducive to the efficiency of our Force, which is or ought to be, almost entirely occupied in the usual duties of a town Police, if the English Metropolitan Police had been preferred as a model to work from, instead of a Force, however, admirable in its own country, so unsuited to our requirements as would appear to be the Irish Constabulary . . .
(From the Report of the Commission on Police, 1864)

… Before 1866, the Ceylon Police Force was influenced in its development by the London Metropolitan Police and the Royal Irish Constabulary. From 1840 onwards, under the guidance of Mr. John Colepeper, a former Sergeant of the P ‘ Division of the Metropolitan Police, the Ceylon Police Force grew up resembling the Metropolitan Police in dress and manner of work. However, this influence was shortlived. Mr. Thomas Thompson, a former Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary took charge of the whole Force in 1845. Later, Mr. William Macartney, another Inspector of the Irish Constabulary took over from him in 1848 and began shaping the Force on the lines of his old Force. The outward appearance underwent a visible change, the Blue Serge uniform of the Metropolitan Police giving place to the Green uniform of the Irish Constabulary. Changes took place in other respects too.”

In 1832, the London Metropolitan Police was created and it transformed the nature of policing in the United Kingdom and later also in the United States. This model was also adopted with suitable modifications in almost all countries of the developed world. The change of the policing model was in keeping with the political and social changes that were taking place in Europe at the time where democracy was transforming the political and social landscape. The State had to come to terms with people’s demands for recognition of their human dignity. The relationship between the State and the people had to undergo a transformation in keeping with the ending of the rule by the Monarchy. That “law is the king”, was the common slogan which summed up the nature of this transformation. A completely new discipline was needed within the policing establishment to make it capable of establishing a relationship with the people who had become the masters of their own destinies. Thus, the Metropolitan Police was built within the framework of overall change in a society organised around democratic principles.

It was this system that was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1840. However, when the leadership within the organisation changed with persons recruited from the Royal Irish Constabulary, the system once again fell back into the ‘old model’ and unfortunately it is within that “old model” that the entire policing service has remained, to-date.

The narrative given in this three-volume book on the History of Policing in Sri Lanka, graphically illustrates that there was no overall design for the institution at any time. What took place was ad hoc developments depending on various exigencies that the system faced from time to time. The shaping of the institution was in the hands of various officers recruited for leadership and their tenure of office lasted only for short periods. Besides this, particularly in the 19th Century, the practical difficulties were overwhelming. Even finding personnel to be officers proved a difficult task. The following story illustrates the type of problems that were faced:

“Adverse criticism eventually led to the appoint¬ment of a Commission. The members of this Commission consulted all the available material regarding the Force, questioned a large number of witnesses and produced their report in December 1864. They observed that there was no proper test by which the efficiency of the Force could be judged. But from the evidence gathered and from the observations made, they concluded that the Force was inefficient. They attributed the inefficiency to the lack of proper inspection and supervision of the men. They observed that very inferior men were being taken into the Force and old worn-out men were allowed to continue in Service. The most striking instance was that of the Assistant Superintendent of Police, Mr. P. H. de La Harpe, whom they had viewed at one of their sittings. De La Harpe was one of the veterans of the Force and an officer who had served with Mr. Thomas Oswin, the first Superintendent of Police in 1833. He had an unblemished record and was reputed to be one of the ablest detectives of his day. Of him, the Commissioners observed: ‘on his coming before us we were surprised and pained to find that a man so broken and decrepit should have been left, as was then the case, in charge of the Force of the Town. It is in our view to be regretted that he has not ere this been allowed to retire. We must submit that he should now be called on to do so and that the office should not be filled up’”.

The 20th Century brought about new problems, but the policing service did not undergo any change in design either in its overall institutional blueprint or in terms of any significant organisational changes. Each new problem was faced only in an ad hoc manner and that naturally led to the ever deepening of a chaotic situation. From time to time commissions were appointed such as the Justice Soertz Commission of 1946, but the recommendations of these commissions were never implemented.

It was this ad hoc approach, which even led later – when insurgencies took place in the South as well as in the North and East – to the authorisation of enforced disappearances of persons after their arrests were secured. Such ad hoc arrangements, which allowed even illegal acts to be performed by the police, further undermined the chaotic system, which was created in line with the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Despite constitutional changes bringing about a National Police Commission, and some honest efforts made by some Chairpersons of the Commission to undo the unacceptable situation, it has proved impossible to cure the ills arising from the very nature of the organisation itself.

It is quite unlikely that in the near future, any government will dare to undertake the venture of police reform, although mere talk of such reform will always remain in the political vocabulary. Perhaps the task of police reforms should be approached from a more practical point of view.

All over the world we are witnessing an unimaginable scale of changes brought about by the information communications revolution. The echoes of this change can also be felt even in the remotest corners of Sri Lanka. Perhaps, the changes in the police organisation should be thought of in terms of overhauling its completely outdated communication system at all levels.

From the very first act of taking down of complaints of victims of crime into every aspect of investigations as well as communications with the Courts, modern technological methodologies should be brought in and this could virtually transform the system within a short time and with much less costs.

What we would require is to have the assistance of persons qualified in the use of such technologies, and they are not hard to find. When looking at jurisdictions where such transformations in adopting modern technologies have already taken place, one can easily see that bringing about this change is quite within the reach of Sri Lanka, both from the point of view of availability of skills in such technology as well as from the point of view budgetary requirements.

In fact, not long ago, in the years 2006/7, the World Bank funded a project in Sri Lanka in assisting such a change in introducing an automated courts system. The project was abandoned before it could be launched countrywide. However, that project was only related to the courts. If the entirety of the policing system’s work is also brought within such an overall automated system, it would become possible for Sri Lanka to have a type of a policing system that is suitable for its needs in the present time.

What is required is the imagination and the will to achieve such a change and thus a willingness to answer to the cries of the people for an efficient system of justice.

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