Selecting a police chief

Published : Oct 25, 2002 00:00 IST

Studies in comparison between the experiences of Bangalore and Los Angeles.

MY good friend of more than two decades, Thimmappayya Madiyal, has taken over as Director-General of Police (DGP) in Karnataka. There could not have been a worthier choice. An officer of outstanding professional skills and with a Himalayan reputation for integrity, he has an admirable track record. My best wishes to him.

It is unfortunate, however, that the choice was marred by a slight yet needless controversy. Madiyal had another officer senior to him who staked his claim for the prestigious job. According to press reports, this gentleman, who has also very good credentials for the job, actually met the Chief Minister and pressed his case. This was unexceptionable if one considers that rising to be DGP in the State Police is to reach the pinnacle of one's career. But what may not serve the cause of the Karnataka Police force as a whole will be any move by vested interests inside and outside the police to take this decision to court. This unfortunately, however, has become the order of the day! Not only does taking administrative matters to judicial forums embitter personal relationships, it actually sends out a wrong signal down the line of a police force being fractured and divided . Nothing can be more disastrous to police performance.

Many readers may not be clear about all the issues involved here. Hence some fundamentals. In each State Police department, there are several officers in the rank of DGP, the number depending upon the number of posts assigned to the State cadre of the Indian Police Service. For instance, if there are two cadre posts of DGP, the State government can actually appoint four officers to the rank of DGP. A few States have exceeded even this quota prescribed by the Government of India. However, there will be only one officer in this rank who will occupy the main post, sometimes called DGP - Law and Order. For all purposes, he is the Head of the Department (HoD). The unseemly scramble we often witness is for this job. It does not always go to the seniormost DGP. If I remember right, the consensus of judicial opinion is that there should be rational and known criteria governing the choice, as also the observance of a prescribed procedure. Nowhere has it been decreed that it is the seniormost DGP who will head the force.

In matters of public appointments, courts frown only on bias, arbitrariness and lack of procedure. I hope that in Madiyal's case, the State government has observed the procedure and has not breached propriety as contemplated by the court. This is especially important because it is one State that has seen a spate of litigation, some frivolous and some with a little merit. In effect, as long as an officer's rank and pay are protected, or he or she is not passed over for unstated reasons while being considered for promotion from one rank to another, he or she cannot hold any grievance. Actually, in Madiyal's case we are talking of a lateral movement from one post of DGP to another. No one can demand that he be assigned to a particular post, as long as he is not reduced in rank or pay.

Many officers overlook one point, namely, that the State government needs to have a reasonably large pool of officers from which to fill sensitive posts. If it has to go solely by seniority, the process then becomes legalistic and mechanical, vesting little discretion in the Executive.

Let us look at how the Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is appointed. There can hardly be a more crucial appointment in this country. The Supreme Court, in its well-known hawala case judgment in 1997, had ordered the preparation of a panel of names from among those who have seniority, experience in anti-corruption and investigation work and with proven integrity by a committee headed by the Central Vigilance Commissioner, which panel would then go to the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) headed by the Prime Minister, for a final decision. The latter has usually three names from which to pick his CBI Director. It is not always that the seniormost officer is selected. There is therefore an element of discretion with the ACC in appointing an officer who perhaps handles the most sensitive of investigations in the country.

When this is the case with a Central Police Organisation (CPO), how can you deny the Chief Minister of a State the freedom to choose an officer who is within the zone of seniority and is most acceptable professionally and otherwise. No doubt, in this process, certain extraneous undesirable factors, such as caste and religion, place of origin ("son of the soil") and proven record of pliability vis--vis politicians, all enter into play. This is unavoidable in a democracy. What should really enrage us is any outrageous choice of a very junior officer who has neither the professionalism nor the very high standards of integrity that the DGP's job requires.

INTERESTINGLY, there is simultaneously a change of guard in another part of the world. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) will have a new chief to replace the luckless Bernard C. Parks. As I finish this column article comes the mail from my dear friend of 50 years, Gunasekaran, who is an ardent LAPD watcher and keeps me religiously informed of all that happens in the police force of what has become his home city, that the fabled Bill Bratton, former NYPD Commissioner, has got the nod. He was chosen from a shortlist of three, the other two in the list being former Philadelphia Commissioner John Timoney and a former LAPD officer Art Lopez who is now chief of Oxnard PD, some 50 miles north of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is a very large and sprawling city with a population of 3.7 million. What is unique is that it is much more ethnically diverse than any other city, including New York. Latinos (known also as Hispanics) constitute a large chunk, as a result of which one can travel several minutes within Los Angeles hearing just Spanish and no English at all. African-Americans also form a sizeable group. The city is known for its numerous crime gangs whose members originally come from different parts of the world. Gang warfare over turf supremacy, especially while dealing in drugs, is a characteristic feature of Los Angeles, although the LAPD claims to have greatly subdued the gangs involved. I have had the scary experience of travelling in LAPD patrol cars through some of the shadiest streets of what is awesomely referred to as South Central!

Readers may recall how the LAPD came to adverse notice in 1991 during the shocking Rodney King episode in which a hapless black motorist was severely beaten up in public by some policemen, who were caught on videotape and were prosecuted. Riots broke out when some of the indicted policemen were acquitted by an allegedly biased jury. The Christopher Commission that followed the incident suggested a number of far-reaching reforms to bring about better police-community relations.

It was against this background that an acquaintance of mine during my Temple University days, Willie Williams, the chief of the Philadelphia Police, was brought in to head the LAPD. Being the first black person to lead the LAPD, great things were expected of him. Unfortunately, possibly because civil service regulations would not permit him to bring his own team of trusted officers from Philadelphia, Williams did not quite rise up to expectations. Bernard C. Parks, who succeeded Williams and is laying down office in the next few weeks, has tried his best to manage what is regarded as an unmanageable city and an equally dicey police force. Known to be a strict disciplinarian, his policing tasks have been compounded by an obdurate section within the department whose members are a law unto themselves. The latter charge that Parks is "capricious" and "arbitrary" in dealing with them. This charge has gained credence within the Mayor's office, so much so that Parks' request for another term has been rejected. The LAPD is therefore going to have its fourth chief in a span of ten years.

WHAT strikes an outsider is the transparency that marks the process of selection of a police chief in the larger cities of the U.S. Once it was known that Parks was going to be replaced, 13 aspirants threw their hats in the ring. These names were screened by the five-member Police Commission that oversees the work of the LAPD. (The present Commission comprises a Police Captain of Burbank, a suburb of Los Angeles, an LAPD Captain, an actor, a realtor and an Executive Director of the Commission itself. The Commission has the powers to review the LAPD's documents but not confidential matters under investigation. The members meet LAPD officers once a quarter to discuss crime trends and any matters of internal administration.) The Commission then forwarded a list of three persons to Mayor James K. Hahn who met them over dinner in order to make up his mind.

When all this was going on, the media actively pursued the story and wrote abundantly on the relative merits of each of the candidates. All those involved in the process of selection were also not reticent. Canvassing and personal lobbying by the three, especially Bill Bratton, who is not exactly known for his modesty, was also done. It is said that Bratton went to the extent of sending the city leaders of Los Angeles a copy of his autobiography (Turnaround: How America's Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic, Random House, 1998) which detailed his achievements in the NYPD during the period 1994-96. (Incidentally, Bratton is said to have received an advance payment of $300,000 for this book from his publishers.) This despatch was accompanied by a collection of press clippings of his days in the NYPD, which, according to Los Angeles Times, was "as thick as the Westside phonebook"!

Mayor Hahn has plumped for Bratton, whose track record in the NYPD and his knowledge of the LAPD as the member of a monitoring team that oversaw the department's compliance with a Federal consent decree have probably tilted the balance in his favour. His choice has to be confirmed by the 15-member Los Angeles City Council. Early reports indicate that Bratton will win approval as there is a public outcry against the way the LAPD has been run during the past few years. However, some people believe that a local Latino like Art Lopez should have been preferred to a rank outsider that Bratton is. This is especially because Latinos are likely to become the majority in the local population not very long from now.

Bratton has no doubt an impressive curriculum vitae. His zero tolerance policing won him a large following in the troubled Big Apple. But his penchant for publicity brought him into immediate conflict with Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, who has an equally large-sized ego. The latter spurned Bratton's achievements and manipulated Bratton's premature exit from the NYPD. It is to be seen how far Mayor Hahn and Bratton will be able to sustain the present euphoric relationship.

The crime scene in Los Angeles is also a cause for concern. According to one report, up from 419 homicides in 1998, the city reported 579 in 2001, a nearly 40 per cent spurt. Most significant is the fact that the majority of the killings were from the urban pocket of Los Angeles that accommodates less than 50 per cent of the population. Being a white person from the North-East, how far Bratton will be able to deal with the African-American and Latino segments of the population and within his own police department is something that can at best be a matter for speculation rather than prediction.

There is a lot to be said in favour of how some of the U.S. cities pick their police chiefs. There may or may not be politics in the decision making process. But there is definitely a high degree of transparency based on the belief that this is a crucial public appointment and the public need to know what they are buying. Will this method of selection suit the situation in India? The foremost question is whether a total outsider could be installed as the head of a State police force. We have tried this in the case of Punjab, Gujarat and Delhi. Julio Ribeiro and K.P.S. Gill were chosen to serve outside their cadres. They did succeed, though there was opposition from among the local officers. Pragmatists in the polity will definitely opt for this interesting arrangement. Gill went to Gujarat recently, although only in an advisory capacity, but did make some difference to a despondent situation.

The next issue is whether a State government should choose only the seniormost person even if he is not as distinguished as those who are junior to him. The tyranny of seniority can sometimes bring ruin. This absorbing discussion of the conflict between seniority and merit is an age-old one in public administration and may never be resolved. Ultimately, what is called for are enlightenment and a desire to promote professionalism rather than narrow political ends. These are two tests by which we have to evaluate all appointments to the civil service.

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