The obstacles against humane policing

Many in the political firmament believe that law and order cannot be maintained without the use of physical force.

Updated - April 25, 2023 02:07 pm IST

Published - April 06, 2023 12:43 am IST

The serious complaint of human rights violation recently against an IPS officer in Ambasamudram in south Tamil Nadu should greatly embarrass the State government and the police hierarchy. The officer has been suspended from service and his alleged misconduct is being probed. The Chief Minister must be complimented for his swift action against the offending official. This should send a strong message to the police force in the State that no illegal physical treatment of crime suspects will be tolerated and that such behaviour will be subjected to a clinical and credible enquiry by an independent authority.

The case revives memories from June 2020 when a father and son from Sathankulam in Thoothukudi District in Tamil Nadu were tortured for keeping their establishment open beyond permitted hours. The two subsequently died and the policemen concerned are on trial.

Police excesses in the U.S.

The history of policing in many countries is pockmarked by episodes of excesses. The U.S. is one country which has had far too many instances of police torture. The Rodney King incident of 1991 in Los Angeles is a watershed in policing. In this incident, the police stopped an African-American motorist to check his credentials. Upon resisting, he was severely beaten up by a group of uniformed patrolmen. The assault was caught on camera and circulated, leading to widespread outrage and disturbance of public peace. The incident acquired racist overtones and added credibility to the long-standing, strident charge that the American police — dominated by the White male — was always looking for African-American targets.

The more recent death (May 25, 2020) of 46-year-old George Floyd, again an African-American, in Minneapolis following gory physical torture in public view is another instance that has shocked the average American. In this case, the victim, accused of having failed to pay for what he bought at a convenience store, was pushed to the ground and held by his neck until he suffocated to death. This led to vandalism by the African-American community not only in Minnesota but in the northeast of the country as well.

In contrast, police handling of the public is more civilised in most of Europe, including the U.K.

Against the known instances of police brutality across the globe, we can safely assume that a large number of cases of torture have also gone unreported. This largely constitutes assaults on women. Only about 10% of complaints are believed to have been registered. Also, only a small percentage of the offenders have been convicted.

Expectations for the future

Many citizens ask me as to whether we can expect more humane and civilised police conduct in India in the years to come. I offer no guarantee that police brutality will vanish in the near future. This is largely due to corruption among public servants which has burgeoned in recent times. If there is no public outrage against corruption it is because the personal costs involved for crusaders are increasing by the day. In the same manner, police excesses will continue to rise because the stress that an average policeman is subjected to from his higher-ups has not abated. The pressure to produce results has been on the rise. Our country has large police forces. To disseminate the message of ethics to the bottom of such large outfits is a gargantuan task.

There is huge criticism of the Indian Police Service (IPS) which was created immediately after the Independence with great expectations. But these have been only partially fulfilled. However, the IPS has done remarkably well in introducing science and technology. There are now many officers in the IPS who have graduated from IITs and IIMs before being appointed. They have done a lot to make those in the lower echelons understand the value of technology in policing. This is good so far as it goes. But these achievements have done little to spread the message that technology and ethics should go hand in hand.

Entrenched philosophy

It is sad and equally true that many in the political firmament subscribe to the philosophy that without physical force on misbehaving citizens, the quality of policing cannot improve and law and order cannot be maintained. Taking a cue from some ‘tough’ Chief Ministers the police leadership has succumbed to the lure of human rights transgressions. They have unabashedly preached the use of third-degree and extra-legal methods to the problem of solving crime. The consequence is incidents like Ambasamudram and Sattankulam.

In the former case, the officer involved hails from outside Tamil Nadu and no personal grudge could be attributed to him. In all probability, this was a case of overzealousness gone astray.

The question that is often asked of me is whether solid training in ethics at the time of induction could smoothen the rough edges of a recruit. This applies equally to everyone from a highly placed IPS officer to a constable at the grassroots. It is preposterous to believe that inputs in ethics during training will last long. The pressures in the field are so enormous that the impact of ethics evaporates quickly.

It is here that the DGPs and IGPs have a crucial role in indoctrinating young recruits on the value of sticking to the law and civilised behaviour.

If these leaders themselves are votaries of lawless policing, only the Almighty can save the law-abiding citizens from an unprincipled police force.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director who now teaches Criminal Justice and Policing at the Jindal Global University,Sonepat, in Haryana

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