Reforming the police

Published : Nov 24, 2001 00:00 IST

Any attempt to introduce reforms in the Indian Police should necessarily extract the politician's consent to let the police force function as a neutral body.

NEW YORK CITY has a new Mayor. The fabled Guiliani, hailed as the 'Mayor of the World' for his role in the aftermath of September 11, is to yield place to fellow-Republican Mike Bloomberg. The change-over also sets the stage for the arrival of a new Police Commissioner, Ray Kelly, who returns to the coveted position after a lapse of several years. Kelly was known to be an informal adviser to Bloomberg and his nomination came as no surprise. According to knowledgeable persons, Kelly's nomination will be endorsed by large sections of the New York Police Department (NYPD) because of his professionalism and his track record in his previous assignments, including that of the Chief of U.S. Customs.

Back home, only a few days ago, Bangalore city saw the induction of a new Police Commissioner, H.T. Sangliana. A little prior to his appointment, the much-respected newspaper Deccan Herald wrote: "What the law-abiding citizens of Bangalore need or want from their police commissioner is entirely irrelevant. The politicians will decide who will suit their purposes best." I laud the daily for such a blunt and hard-hitting statement that aptly summarises the situation in every State. Deccan Herald then went on to analyse the merits and shortcomings of some of the candidates who were in the "race". The report referred to one of them as the "son of the soil" and as belonging to the same clan as the State Home Minister. Another candidate was stated to have the backing of the Chief Minister's "coterie", but had the disadvantage of having "a number of qualities not favoured by the IPS, the Union Home Ministry and the Centre's Department of Personnel" (I cannot comprehend what Deccan Herald was talking about). A third candidate, in the opinion of Deccan Herald, apart from being well known, had the additional advantage that " as a non-local, he could be more amenable to political advice" than the two of his colleagues. One does not get to read much about the professional abilities of the three. I take umbrage at this because it does not do justice to the three Indian Police Service (IPS) officers. I am sure each one of them has had a high professional rating.

Close on the heels of this extremely 'analytical' report comes the news that Sangliana has been chosen for the job. I am sure that this has been well received because he is a talented officer with a lot of courage. The point that I am making here is that the press chooses to label police officers the way it desires. While it has the absolute freedom to write on public servants, it is duty-bound to ponder whether such labelling serves the public cause.

The appointments in New York City and Bangalore highlight the obvious contrast between the police forces of the world's two largest democracies. No eyebrows have been raised in the U.S. over Mayor Bloomberg's choice of Kelly, who is now in retirement and is employed with a private corporation, reportedly on a handsome salary. Actually this has been looked upon as a logical choice that takes into account Kelly's record of professional achievements and the confidence that the new Mayor has in him. Pre-empting Sangliana's appointment, Deccan Herald gives the impression that political acceptability is somewhat of a negative factor in nominating officers to important positions. I am amazed by this wide disparity in perceptions.

I have to refer to an interesting interlude I recently had with a Professor at the Harvard Law School. I was at pains to explain to him how the Supreme Court of India was trying to insulate the Central Bureau of Investigation from political influence. I also told him about the apex court striking down the Single Directive issued by the Union government to whittle down the CBI's authority to launch investigations against senior public servants. The Professor's reaction was one that surprised me. He told me in no uncertain terms that conferring so much authority on an enforcement agency was a negation of democracy. He was possibly echoing the views of many in the U.S. who were appalled by the amount of authority that Edgar Hoover had arrogated to himself as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during his 42 year-reign beginning in the 1940s. He was credited with having built up embarrassing dossiers on successive U.S. Presidents, who naturally were intimidated by him. When The New York Times recently wrote an uncomplimentary report on how the new FBI Director George Mueller was demonstratively content with playing second fiddle to Attorney-General John Ashcroft, I was amused. What a transformation from the Hooverian days!

DO we not get a confused picture out of all these happenings in the two countries? The bottom line is, do we want an autonomous but accountable police, or will we settle for one police that is clearly subordinate and subservient to the political executive? My bet is, if we put this to vote, the average citizen will plump for the former. Is this an index of the quality of our polity or of a public opinion conditioned by anti-establishment media, aided and abetted by the police themselves? I shall leave this to your judgment.

Contrary to popular impression in India and elsewhere, U.S. police forces are not all that immune to political suggestions. The police chief in each city holds office, at least figuratively if not literally, at the pleasure of the Mayor. A new Mayor invariably brings in his chief from outside the force, although instances of an insider being preferred have not been uncommon. The Mayor, being a "political animal" (an expression that I inadvertently used at a seminar much to the hilarity of the local Mayor who was present on the occasion), expects and extracts loyalty from the police chief, and the latter will deny it only at his peril. Display of such loyalty is often rather subtle, and not crude, as that of some police chiefs in our country.

Many of us in India, including myself, have always regarded total political insularity of the police as the desired objective of all police reforms. We have been aiming at the model established in the United Kingdom, namely, autonomy blending with accountability. The National Police Commission (1977) aimed at this and suggested a fixed tenure for the Director-General of Police (DGP) and the creation of a State security commission to monitor police performance. No State government has bought either proposal. A widespread lack of political will to implement these recommendations marks the current scene. What is horrendous is the continual assault on the neutrality of police. Every new government has been using the police as a tool to settle personal scores with its opponents. Naturally, the police have become the laughing stock of the community at large. The impression is that things will have to get worse before they could become better. What do we do to get out of this morass? The need for an efficient and a wholly professional police has become all the more crucial when the spectre of terrorism of the Osama bin Laden variety haunts us.

I have had delightful sessions lately on the subject of reforms in the police force with Professor David Bayley of the State University of New York (SUNY), Albany. He is an authority on international policing and a great admirer of the Indian Police. His Police and Political Development is still regarded as a classic and an authoritative work on the Indian Police. He understands the Indian scene as well as many of us do. The National Police Commi-ssion did well to seek his views before formulating its recommendations. Professor Bayley has impeccable credentials. I therefore read with great interest his just-released report to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), Washington D.C., Democratizing the Police Abroad: What to Do and How to Do It.

Professor Bayley envisages a clear role for the U.S. in funding police reforms abroad. He is categorical that the agenda should vary from country to country, depending on the native genius and culture. His accent is on realism. "To be successful, reform programmes must be constructed on the basis of strong theories supported by real-world experience... Policing is complex, and not all objectives can be achieved through the same programmes," he writes. In his view the precondition for success is the government approval for the agenda and its enthusiasm for reform. When we discussed this recently at length in the context of what has happened in India, we seemed to veer round to the assessment that police reform had not really taken off because we did not begin our enquiry with the politician or did not sell the agenda to him the way we should have. Possibly, we imposed a few solutions on him, and, almost at gunpoint, sought his endorsement. It is our belief - we may be proven wrong - that, in order to succeed, the next exercise could begin with the politician. Any terms of reference to a future Police Commission could be drawn up by the political executive in consultation with a wide spectrum of political parties.

I am definite that this suggestion is going to provoke a howl of protests from my brethren in the Indian Police. Actually, being only a former policeman, my motives may even be questioned for making a suggestion that could arouse fears of further politicisation of the police. I have bundled up courage to make the suggestion because all attempts at reforms until now have had only modest success. Unless we carry the politician with us right from the word "go", we are likely to stagnate. It is my stand that once we are able to convince the politician that a politically neutral police is the best insurance against capricious action by the police when he is in the Opposition, a wide spectrum of political parties will opt for insulating the force from the pressures of day-to-day street-level politics.

Finally, a stray thought. Is there a case for another National Police Commission? We have not had one for more than two decades. Or, will a standing Police Commission, on the lines of the Law Commission, take care of a deteriorating situation? I leave this thought with the discerning reader.

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