The basic functions of the police include law enforcement and maintaining order. But often it is seen that in the hustle and bustle of policing to maintain and enforce order, the police violate the rules and norms of the laws, which leads to lawlessness and dishonest law enforcement.
This conundrum in law enforcement was reminded to me by the then Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court, RL Narasimham. At that time I was assigned as Deputy Superintendent of Police in Cuttack. While discussing the public order issues of the town of Cuttack, Justice Narasimham said that the police must constantly bear in mind that order must be maintained by law; otherwise, the dacoits can ensure better order than the police at any time. It was a very insightful observation.
The British leadership attempted to build the Indian police on the model of the army. The Indian Police Act of 1861 was enacted after the “Sepoy Mutiny” of 1857, as foreign rulers wanted to establish a loyal and docile police force. The khaki uniform and rank insignia were similar to those of the army, and the emphasis was on drill, parade, and physical fitness.
So, when we were training as trainees at the Central Police Training College in Mount Abu, we were constantly told that the police service was not for the weak and timid or for people with utopian thoughts and ideas. The war on crime is tough and relentless – almost a Sisyphean task, meant for the tough and stony hearted.
On my first assignment in the district, the SP, a rough, weather-beaten policeman, told me bluntly to bury what I had been taught in training school five fathoms deep and adapt quickly to the harsh realities on the ground. There were many other senior officers like him who shared a similar view: that in policing, the end justifies the means.
In order to see that the criminals and lawless elements get their due merits, rules and laws, if necessary, must be circumvented. For firm and effective policing, a police officer must not confine himself to the four corners of the law. There is also public demand and pressure on the police to adopt shortcuts and third-degree methods of punishing hardened and feared criminals who thumb their noses at the slow-moving criminal justice system. .
However, illegality in the name of the forces of order is an anachronism which perverts the system and enlarges the forces of order. Any monstrous act of police violence or atrocity generates police phobia and turns public anger against the police. Many laudable and courageous acts of the police are forgotten and their follies and weaknesses are brought to light. The police also become the scapegoat for the failings of other agencies in the criminal justice system. Deprived of the solicitude of the public and the media, they develop a fortress mentality and see the world as “us” and “them”.
Criminologist Gordon Misner, while explaining the psychology of the police, says that the police see themselves as “crime fighters standing up against the Mongol hordes without the support of the public, politicians and the courts”. Even many conscientious police officers feel that they are doing a difficult and dangerous job without society understanding their moral and professional problems.
Research studies have shown that public and press bashing has a destabilizing impact on police morale. In fact, police violence and brutality, as political scientist and criminologist David Bayley puts it, is often correlated with public esteem for police authority. Lack of public esteem lowers police officers’ self-esteem and as a result they resort to force more often. On the other hand, the unnecessary use of force lowers the public’s esteem for the police. It is also observed that the abusive or excessive use of force is limited in societies where reserve and physical constraints are valued.
It is a cultural variable. Bailey, in his book, Forces of order: Police behavior in Japan and the United States, says that in Japan, a policeman who refrains from using force even at the risk of severe emotional repression is respected for it. By contrast, in the United States, police officers cannot leave challenges to their authority unanswered. Backtracking is considered cowardly in India. The military model of policing continues, largely unchanged. The emphasis is much more on discipline and strict policing than on serving the people and defending their rights.
In a democratic society, the law gives broad powers to the police to combat lawlessness by anti-social elements, but also retains provisions to ensure that these powers are not used to jeopardize the rights of citizens. Conviction of criminals is important, but more important is that the police must operate in a way that promotes the values of a liberal and democratic society. Illegal and impermissible means ultimately undermine the ends. The absence of a culture of human rights also encourages the police to adopt inadmissible means of policing. The quintessence of human rights is respect for human dignity, and police officers in India have yet to learn to respect the rights and dignity of minorities, women and marginalized sections of society. They often become the target of abuse of force and violence by the police.
The police mandate to use force to combat violence and lawlessness raises the key question that the police themselves should not engage in unnecessary or excessive use of force. Anarchic police become an abomination in a free society. Again, policing without law is not desirable from a practical point of view. I have witnessed many promising careers of young police officers ending sadly for breaking laws and perpetrating illegalities due to the misconception that the end justifies the means and that the “noble cause corruption” is necessary and inevitable. But the truth is that enacting illegalities damages the reputation and credibility of the police and erodes their effectiveness. They lose public cooperation and without its support it is not possible to effectively control public disorder.
The Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland (Patten Commission) has rightly stated: “A misapplication or unfair use of the power to limit a person’s human rights by means such as arrest, strip search and house raids can lead to bad relations between the police and the whole neighborhood, making it impossible to maintain order in that neighborhood.
Former Chief Justice Narasimham’s observation on policing by law should be kept in mind by every police officer. It underscores the essence of law enforcement and provides valuable insight into core police functions.