Police in Pakistan - least trusted arm of the government

Given how citizens are becoming non-state actors, improved policing is not just necessary but vital

Fasi Zaka December 07, 2016

A year ago, I spoke to a friend online who was posting particularly angry write-ups about Pakistan. It was uncharacteristic because of the generally ultra nationalist views of the friend in question.

It turned out the friend’s home was robbed. That’s a traumatic experience in itself, but it wasn’t what pushed my friend over the edge. It was the unwillingness of the police to register an FIR unless they were paid a bribe, which my friend eventually did.

The trauma of being robbed at home is significant; it’s a deep violation of the most sacred space that one feels safe in. To come to terms with it is an uneasy proposition, but its compounding is particularly pernicious when the police inflict a double whammy.

‘This Crooked System: Police Abuse and Reform in Pakistan’ is a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) this year that tellingly explores cases akin to the one written about above and far more egregious cases.

Visiting expat family ‘robbed, sexually assaulted’ by cops in Islamabad

It’s a fascinating read giving a harrowing account of what ails the police system and how the citizens of this country feel about it. Surveys show that the police force is the least trusted arm of the government in the country, and that’s for a good reason.

A general lack of knowledge about the law, and the tendency of the police to apply it arbitrarily have created a sense of dread whenever the citizen needs recourse from the police. The “thana” culture is not a culture as much as it is a severe manifestation of the power imbalances between citizen and state.

The report highlights not just the excesses of the police, but why it has gotten the way it has. The police themselves are oppressed by their working conditions, incessant interference and a lack of reform in the law governing them. Extrajudicial killings are in part a reflection of the police force’s lack of confidence in other institutions that let criminals go free, which is in part because of the police’s poor evidence gathering functions. The recent motorway fracas between army lads and the police is a telling example of either the army’s institutional arrogance and its own belief in its primacy or at least contributing to it is the general lack of respect given to the police anyway.

The highlight of the report, and possibly the most important thing that can help citizens immediately, is to enforce written reports by the police as whenever they delay or refuse to register FIRs. At the very least, this is the beginning of ending the most common and frustrating experiences for Pakistanis.

People like myself often defend politicians; we do so recognising the difficulty they operate in, and the uneven expectations stacked against them. But the police are a topic where they do deserve condemnation because control over the police is a dominion that the politicians have kept generally unreformed because it works to their advantage in the constituency.

I remember during the 2013 elections speaking to a driver working in Islamabad, asking him who he wanted to vote for. He mentioned the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl. I asked, then when Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) fever was at its peak, why not Imran Khan? In the driver’s constituency, the driver said the ticket had not gone to an electable but an ordinary person, a non-career politician. Surely, I asked, that should be a qualification, and incentive? The driver said no; he said if he ever needed help with the police, the JUI-F politician could deliver because of his extensive local influence.

The report also makes mention of the need of metropolitan policing, that is to have truly local policing. It’s something the current hybrid system of CSS officers doesn’t allow for, despite the intermittent and half-baked efforts at reform. It also credits the PTI with some innovation and partial attempt at changing things, despite the lacklustre results.

The state has a credibility problem, its legitimacy being undermined by the police. Given the seriousness of the issues around security that stem from citizens becoming non-state actors, improved policing is not just necessary but vital.

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