ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Policing the Police

Despite people’s faith in the police becoming precarious, the pace of police reforms is dismal.

For the first time in India, two policemen were sentenced to death last month for a case of custodial death in Kerala, and three other policemen were awarded imprisonment. The torturing and killing of a young man, Udayakumar, had taken place in 2005 and the police were sentenced last month by a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court. Given India’s dismal record on custodial deaths, the case merits a study of how several factors came together favourably in the course of 13 years, to ensure the sentencing. It also highlights, for the umpteenth time, the contempt for due processes and the lack of accountability shown by the police force when dealing with crime, and the total neglect by the centre and states of the clear directive given by the Supreme Court on police reforms in 2006.

In the present case, it was the diligence shown by the officer and doctor who conducted the inquest and post-mortem, respectively, in Udayakumar’s case. The state government did its part in suspending the concerned circle inspector and the crime branch chargesheeted and arrested the two policemen accused of using torture. When the prosecution’s main witnesses turned hostile, it was Udayakumar’s mother who petitioned the Kerala High Court to order a CBI inquiry, and it was the CBI court that conducted the exemplary trial. The fate of a majority of other such trials in the numerous cases of custodial torture and killings is strewn with impediments that are familiar: witnesses who turn hostile, doctors who give in to the pressure to give the police a clean chit in the post-mortem report, investigations that are little better than “cover-ups” for the accused, and the vulnerability of the family of the victims who are unable to get legal and financial help.

The 2006 directives of the apex court, to a great extent reflect the recommendations of five reports of the National Police Commission and a host of commissions and committees headed by eminent jurists and policemen over the years. The Court’s ruling was then hailed as a decisive move in the sluggish trajectory of police reforms in India. This hope has been dashed since, with the centre and states either implementing the directives selectively, conveniently, or ignoring them altogether. Some of these directives dilute the power of the state executive in terms of dealing with the police, and hence the reluctance to implement them effectively. Had the apex court ensured their implementation under its own observation, the outcome perhaps would have been different.

The reports of the various commissions and the Supreme Court directives offer comprehensive suggestions. These include replacing the Police Act, 1861 with a new one, making the police force independent of executive interference by improving methods of recruitment (including that of top-ranking police officers), transfers and promotions, separating the investigative wing of the police from the law enforcement wing, and setting up a mechanism to deal with complaints against the police.

The thrust of the police reforms campaign has also been to ensure that public perception of and faith in the police as an institution does not crumble completely. In fact, the “Status of Policing in India” 2018 report that covers six major areas—the crime rate, disposal of cases by police and courts, diversity in the police force, infrastructure, prison data, and disposal of cases of crimes against Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/women and children—finds that in all these fields police performance weighs in against the marginalised and the minorities. It reveals that police discrimination based on class is the most common, followed by gender, caste, and religion, with the public fear of the police being higher among the country’s religious minorities, particularly the Muslims.

From the rather dismal pace of the implementation of police reforms, it is clear that the Supreme Court needs to step in to ensure that its 2006 order is strictly complied with and errant states are punished for contempt.

Institutional bias is an ever-present phenomenon worldwide. In the United States, the case of the Chicago police reforms shows how a Justice Department report in 2017 stated that Chicago’s police force is prone to racial bias and use of excessive force along with a “pervasive cover-up culture.” This followed the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white officer. Chicago state and police officials, however, drew up a detailed plan to ensure accountability that would be implemented under the federal court’s supervision.

The CBI judge while passing sentence in the Udayakumar torture and killing case said that the acts of the accused persons will adversely affect the institution of the police. And “if the faith of the people in the institution is lost, that will affect the ... law and order of the society and it is a dangerous situation.” The figure of the dabangg policeman—who, though “corrupt,” is also portrayed as a great help to the poor of the neighbourhood—may be popular in cinema. But, the reality is different and police reforms must pick up pace in earnest.

Updated On : 11th Aug, 2018


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