The third degree

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

Police personnel deviating from service ethics in the course of enforcing law and justice is a result of misconceived notions of professional excellence and extraneous pressure. Training methods with emphasis on ethical values could bring about a change in their attitude.

A SHOCKING story in the press a few weeks ago went almost unnoticed. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, on her return from a foreign tour, placed a Director-General of Police (DGP) of the Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department (CID) under suspension for failing to complete quickly the investigation into the murder of a young Hindi poet, Madhumita. Several other police officers were eased out of the Crime Branch for the same sin. (A court has stayed these transfers asking the government whether it had conducted any inquiry before ordering the shift.) A State Minister had resigned following charges that he was involved in this unfortunate affair.

I still cannot believe that an officer who holds the highest police rank in the State could be so arbitrarily suspended. Since Mayawati has a track record for such action, I am inclined to go by the report. (As I write this column there is another report that some other officials, including a few from the Indian Administrative Service, have been suspended following the Chief Minister's whirlwind tour of the districts.) The hapless DGP must be cooling his heels waiting for mercy at the hands of a chief executive who has set new standards of administrative `propriety'.

I am citing the Madhumita episode here to explain to the readers why many police officers are literally coerced into using high-handed methods in investigating crime. I am not for a moment suggesting that such force is to be condoned. There cannot be anything more abhorrent and barbaric than inflicting violence on defenceless crime suspects within the confines of a police station or other police facility. My objective here is only to let the readers know the circumstances under which a sizable number of custodial deaths occur. Authorities who control or supervise police investigators and have personal political stakes demand quick success from policemen. The latter succumb to irregular pressures to produce miracles in the form of identifying the accused or unearthing stolen property. Interestingly, the demand for use of third degree against suspects comes not only from politicians but from senior civil servants and members of the judiciary as well, whenever the latter become victims of burglary or theft.

Ultimately, the issue turns around to who the victim of a crime is. If he or she is either rich or otherwise influential, there is an even chance that the police will employ obnoxious methods to get at the truth. The media are no less culpable because of their hype in reporting some crimes, which carry juicy details of a public personality, and the police investigator is put under considerable pressure to solve such cases.

Police violence has received great scholarly attention. The problem is not something peculiar to India. There are credible reports that in several countries the police, apart from resort to violence in pressure-cooker situations, regularly use unethical methods to extract information in complicated cases.

The continually spawning literature seriously addresses the issues involved here and has come out with several theories. "Breeding Deviant Conformity: The Ideology and Culture of Police" is a brilliant essay that Geoffrey Alpert and two other professors in the United States wrote a few years ago as part of a book, Forces of Deviance: The Dark Side of Policing (Waveland Press, Prospects Heights, Illinois, 1998). It examines three paradigms in arriving at some striking perspectives of police character.

Some studies suggest that, more than others, individuals with certain distinctive personality traits enter the police. According to these, broadly speaking, the police profession attracts men and women who are authoritarian in their conduct. This explains, at least partly, why a large number of policemen display a pattern of behaviour that is "conservative, aggressive, cynical and rigid". This psychological paradigm is no doubt controversial and has actually been ripped apart by several scholars as being too narrow in focus and blind to an established fact that personality is dynamic and changes over the course of life on the basis of new experiences. Nevertheless the paradigm opens up an avenue for exploring and identifying factors that possibly influence police responses to certain situations. (On a lighter vein, I am certain that my wife will be inclined to go with this paradigm, because she has always accused me of being authoritarian, and she should know, having lived with me ever since I joined the police more than four decades ago.)

GROUP socialisation and professionalisation are the cornerstones of the sociological paradigm that governs a policeman. According to this, when being inducted into the force, policemen do not, more than anybody else, carry any heavy psychological baggage. As individual human beings, they are as normal as those who enter occupations such as medicine, law and engineering. There is a transformation only when they become part of a professional group from which discipline and cohesion are extracted at the police training academy. The need for conformity in such a setting drives a desire to acquire habits and practices that are most visible around them. An exposure to the "unique demands of police work" and experience-sharing as they proceed along the ordained career path greatly determine how they will behave distinctly as policemen.

Finally, the anthropological paradigm highlights the undeniable effect of the occupational sub-culture on police conduct. This induces policemen to view the world differently from others. To be specific, there is more than an underlying distrust and suspicion of those with whom they interact and a continual sense of physical danger to themselves. These factors directly cloud police thinking and reactions. Police training methods contribute not a little to the strengthening of sub-cultural traits. Perhaps no one could describe the impact of this skewed training focus better than David Bayley, a scholar of incomparable insight: "The possibility of armed confrontation shapes training, patrol preoccupations, and operating procedures. It also shapes the relationship between citizen and policeman by generating mutual apprehension. The policeman can never forget that the individual he contacts may be armed and dangerous and the citizen can never forget that the policeman is armed and may consider the citizen dangerous." (Forces of Order: Police Behaviour in Japan and the United States, University of California Press, 1976.)

While Bayley's description applies eminently to the U.S. scene, where every policeman is invariably armed, the terrorist threat in almost every part of India has necessarily brought about a change in police attitudes and reactions. I will not be surprised to see frequent trigger-happy responses to day-to-day handling of crime that will invite charges of police brutality.

Alpert and others are clear that there is a distinct police ethos that needs attention while studying police sub-culture. There are three components to this. The ethos of bravery exemplifies instant and direct action to solve a crisis and glorifies the legitimacy of using force against criminals and lending support to colleagues who employ force in the discharge of their duties. The ethos of autonomy, which heightens the desire for independence in operations, and the ethos of secrecy, which enshrines the virtue of not letting down a colleague even if he were in the wrong, logically follow. An ambience is thus built in which the resort to illegal methods to get at the truth of a case on hand becomes a virtue.

I could be rightly accused of theorising a problem that is so much of a reality in the field. The point I would like to drive home is that police personnel cause custodial deaths or inflict other acts of violence not necessarily out of a desire to seek personal gain. No doubt in a few instances, this kind of insanity is the result of individual officers wanting to extort money or other illegal favours. But a majority of occurrences are the result of a misconceived notion of professional excellence or extraneous pressures. An infatuation with statistics impels investigators to queer the pitch of an investigation and resort to shortcut methods to solve a crime somehow. Further, when an investigator is morally convinced that a person in his custody had employed violence against another, the use of force against him becomes ethically acceptable to a police officer. This unfortunate and deceptive rationalisation has been the doom of many policemen found guilty of using third degree.

HOW does one go about transforming police attitudes? My honest response is that it will be futile to expect policemen totally abjuring custodial violence. We can at best hope for a reduction in the number of instances of such abuse of authority. Distressingly, the accent on scientific methods of investigation has not really paid off in India, although it has in many countries in Europe. Increasing oversight of police operations internally is definitely one way of tackling the evil.

But, for this to work, police supervisors themselves will have to be convinced that resorting to third degree is both unprofessional and unethical. This is, however, not the case. If you conduct a secret poll, my surmise is that a majority of senior officers will categorically say that without strong-arm tactics, no criminal investigation can move forward. I am sure I will be roundly criticised for this outrageous statement. Nevertheless I make it in the hope that a body of opinion that spurns illegal methods of investigation comes forward to say that it stands squarely for adherence to ethics even under the most trying circumstances. Such open espousal of propriety will send the right signal to all police officers who read this column.

THERE is the eternal debate about the deterrence value of penalties for crime. The same applies to action against policemen who are caught for human rights violation in their day-to-day chores. Neither criminal prosecution nor departmental action has brought about any unequivocal rejection of third degree as one major means of instilling fear in those who transgress law. But this is no justification for going slow on prosecutions or initiating internal disciplinary proceedings. The heat will have to be maintained. I am happy that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has initiated several measures to ensure this. I would, however, place the greatest emphasis on endeavours to bring about a cultural change within the police.

Several scholars have written most convincingly on the need to enhance instruction in ethics to police trainees. In fairness to police administrators it must be said that there is new awareness of the critical role of inputs in ethics to rookies. It is equally true that this has had only a marginal impact on perceptions inside the police. This is because of the failure of training method to explain imaginatively how temptations to stray away from the path of law and virtue in field situations can be resisted. Case studies are a must. Regular trainee interactions with senior officers, past and present, who enjoy a reputation for upholding ethics, will greatly enhance the credibility of training programmes in ethics. The average trainee needs to be convinced that adhering to values will in no way affect progression in his career. Nothing short of this will help him solve the many ethical dilemmas that he faces each working day.

Many of us are cynical of symbols and everything that goes with them. This is why we despise exhortations on behalf of organisations to which we belong that our conduct should be ethical. Nevertheless some organisations, both public and private, which have survived many crises in their long history, do not jettison such exhortations. It is this spirit that addresses the Code of Ethics for Law Enforcement that was drafted in the mid-1950s by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). I cannot end more appropriately than by quoting excerpts from it:

"As a law enforcement officer... I will never act officiously... With no compromise for crime and with relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the law courteously and appropriately without fear or favour, malice or ill-will, never employing unnecessary force or violence... . I recognise the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of police service."

Can there be a more persuasive appeal to the police community to abide by traditional values in their enforcement of law and justice?

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