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Policemen as law-breakers

Print edition : Aug 29, 2003 T+T-

The growing problem of police high-handedness can be addressed by giving due emphasis to ethics and down-to-earth instruction in law and procedure at the training stage.

THIS is almost a follow-up to a column in which I had examined why the police often resorted to violence while dealing with crime suspects. Among other factors, I had referred to the enormous pressure brought on them by politicians, the judiciary and the police leadership to produce instant results. Third degree methods came naturally to some policemen as part of their upbringing; and to others, this undesirable propensity to inflict pain on others in total violation of the law was an acquisition subsequent to their entry into the profession. In both cases, violence was undoubtedly fostered by a consensus within the police that sanctified the use of force in pursuit of professional excellence. As a result, application of force on those suspected to have violated the law or caught red-handed doing so is considered a highly desirable way of bringing relief to victims of crime, who could be either the state itself or just an individual.

It is this perceived requirement of natural justice that dominates the minds of most policemen when they ill-treat crime suspects. Seldom do they reflect on the legality of such conduct or its impact on police image. When policemen break the law they undoubtedly harm the reputation of their force. But then, is there enough empirical evidence to suggest a direct relationship between conduct that is contrary to the law and the image of a police force? This question arises because I have often heard responsible members of society hail strong police action - including `encounter' killing - against known rowdies and anti-social elements who had remained untouched by the proverbially long arm of the law. In such instances, human rights activists find the tide of public opinion against them and are compelled to adopt a low profile. It is situations like these that encourage the police to believe that it is their divine right to employ violence even if it is not sanctioned by law.

The issues involved here are complex. Taking strong positions without the backing of research is not merely the bane of those who demand righteous conduct from the police. It is also unscientific. Many of us in the police, currently or in yesteryear, are inclined to do exactly this. We tend to jump to untenable conclusions, swayed by popular impressions or simple emotions. This is why when we come across well-argued research papers, there is hope that there is enough material for policemen to read and think for themselves while formulating their responses to day-to-day problems.

Prof. David Bayley of the State University of New York is no stranger to India. He has not only written on the Indian Police but has many friends amongst the police community here, and displays a heartwarming generosity in sharing his international perspective on policing with many of us who know him intimately. He is heard with respect by the United Nations as well as by the U.S. Department of Justice. Obviously, when he talks about the impact of police conduct on the image of the department, our interest is greatly aroused. His paper, "Law Enforcement and the Rule of Law: Is there a trade-off?" carried late last year - which I read only recently - by Criminology and Public Policy, the profound journal of the American Society of Criminology, is a classic treatise on the contentious subject. What is interesting is that the same issue of the journal carries two Reaction Essays that respond with striking precision to the points raised by Prof. Bayley. These are again by two eminent thinkers, Paul Chevigny of the New York University Law School (whose Edge of the Knife:Police Violence in the Americas is a highly regarded work) and James Finckenauer of the Rutgers University, New Jersey.

All three professors show extreme understanding of the nature of police work and the practical problems that policemen face in the streets. They do not sermonise as many of us are wont to do. They seem convinced that moral appeals to policemen are not attractive enough and may not yield dividends in the form of good behaviour that abhors breaking of law just to produce results. Many observers veer around the assumption, almost Biblical in its tone and content, that policemen are to be forgiven for their illegal acts because they do not know what is legal and what is not. Bayley is convinced that the problem is not normative, but is more cognitive. This would mean that policemen violate law consciously, knowing that what they are doing is wrong and they rationalise it subsequently saying that this is required to render justice to victims. What compounds such behaviour (interestingly referred to by some scholars as "noble cause" misbehaviour or "blue-coat crime") is that it is abrupt and instantaneous and often reckless, meant to drive home two points; first, the police are efficient and action-oriented, and secondly, they are quicker purveyors of justice than all other state agencies put together. Against this setting, it will be futile to hold classroom moral discourses on the need for respecting human rights. The scene is very vividly described by Bayley:

Moral exhortation alone is unpersuasive because it does not address the tradeoffs that police are convinced that they face... lecturing to the police about human rights is met with palpable lack of interest. The police act as if they know all that, which in many cases is true... What is needed is evidence-based demonstration that rectitude is useful to the police in fulfilling their mission of preventing and controlling crime.

Among many factors that encourage police disrespect for the law is the belief that such an attitude, when displayed especially in the context of an egregious crime (for example, a rape and murder case) that has shocked the community's conscience, would actually enhance public admiration and respect for them. Policemen often tend to forget that such endorsement is extremely transitory and could reverse itself in no time when certain limits are crossed. Again, many in the lower rungs honestly believe that advancement in one's career is linked to heroics and adventure laced with open disregard for the law, and that a low profile that places emphasis on adherence to the law is seldom rewarded. This assessment flows from the culture nursed in many police organisations that lauds performance without ever asking questions on the means employed and gives the lowest priority to conformity to law.

The disadvantages of acting contrary to the law, whatever may be the justification for it, are not all that obvious to the hardboiled policeman. He assumes that even if he is pulled up by his superiors or by courts for violating the law, his misdemeanour will be viewed lightly and compassionately because he was not acting for his own material benefit or self-glorification but in fact for avenging some injustice to a victim. Though slippery, such argument holds water because the focus of criminal justice agencies, already weighed down by an excessive workload and constantly needled by complaints of inaction, is almost exclusively on results. They hardly spare a moment for concerns of human rights.

The one fallacy in police thinking here is that by stretching the limits prescribed by law, policemen take upon themselves the role of the sole guardian of law and order. I have always been incensed by the widely prevalent opinion that any failure to contain crime is exclusively that of the police, as if the rest of the criminal justice system, particularly the judiciary, and the community at large had no role at all in stemming criminal behaviour. I agree with Prof. Bayley when he says that by indulging in overzealousness even by cutting corners, the police are left holding the baby all by themselves. This is one big pitfall that policemen are hardly conscious about. Incidentally, the analogy holds good also for anti-corruption work done by premier enforcement agencies. For instance, when a case prosecuted by the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) fails in court, the media and parliamentarians, both past and present, come down on it like a tonne of bricks as if rooting out corruption was the concern solely of the CBI and none else!

There is a constant refrain against the police that they are guilty of causing the many deaths in police custody that come to light from time to time. I will not tire of repeating that many such deaths are the result of an excessive zeal of the police in trying to get at the truth of a crime even by inflicting pain and injury on a suspect held by them. Such mindlessness has got many promising officers into serious trouble, and some have gone to jail or have lost their jobs. This is the hazard of cutting corners and disregarding procedures prescribed by law.

The dilemma that faces enlightened police officers and academics like Professors Bayley, Chevigny and Finckenauer who observe the police with great interest is how to fuse care for ethics and self-protection with the concern and anxiety for performance. I share their belief that the only way is to demonstrate to the conviction of the grassroots policeman that use of force in field operations does not necessarily deter crime and that it invites only disrespect and non-cooperation from offenders as well as the respectable law-abiding members of society. Credible demonstration of such a fact is difficult because it is difficult to prove that when crime is low in a particular locality, it is not because of strict enforcement of the law but because citizens are more careful in protecting their property or criminals have made their own assessment and moved to greener pastures where the community is lax or have attractively large wealth available for targeting.

Bayley and company believe that training in ethics is definitely welcome and cannot on any account be discarded. We must remember here how business all over the world, shocked by the misconduct of leading lights in major corporations, has started pleading for more intensive instruction in ethics in leading B-schools. By the same token, ethics should receive its rightful place in police training institutions. But it is not the only measure that will take care of the growing worry over police high-handedness in many parts of the world. Ethics should be supplemented by down-to-earth instruction in law and procedure. The two should go hand in hand.

Meanwhile, the role of research in collecting empirical evidence to establish that police violence is counter-productive most of the time is to be understood and encouraged. The task is unenviable because figures of crime prevented are hardly quantifiable. What is possible is a projection of crime figures for future years taking into account past statistics. If such projection does not prove that proactive policing in disregard of procedures has in fact brought down crime, it will be one way of convincing policemen that crime control expectations do not require them to overstep the law. Till this problematic and intricate exercise is imaginatively structured and successfully carried out, we will have to muddle along, carrying with us policemen who know only one way of tackling crime.