Reforming the police

Published: February 17, 2013
The writer is a columnist based between Karachi and London. She was formerly a staff writer at the New Statesman

The writer is a columnist based between Karachi and London. She was formerly a staff writer at the New Statesman

Violence is a fact of life in Pakistan. Terrorist attacks, political violence, robberies, and kidnaps continue across the country. In certain areas — Karachi and Balochistan among them — the law and order situation is close to breaking point. There have been repeated calls for the military to restore stability, while the private security industry is booming as people hire guards to guarantee their safety.

All of this points to a failure of policing. The police infrastructure is arguably one of the most poorly managed institutions in Pakistan. Across the country, police forces are chronically underfunded, understaffed, and undertrained. Among the ranks of the police, there are undoubtedly some very brave individuals who risk their personal safety to serve their country every day. There have been some high-profile cases of deaths of officers like Safwat Ghayur and Malik Saad, who died at the hands of suicide bombers. However, such individuals are let down by a lack of resources. Notwithstanding the immense personal bravery of some in the force, it would be extremely naïve to deny that the force is also beset by endemic corruption, and social and racial biases.

The benefits of a functioning police force are obvious. First and most obvious is the basic safety of citizens, which is currently not guaranteed anywhere in Pakistan. Second is the question of the enforcement of laws. Several positive legislative changes introduced in recent years have become redundant in practice because the police on the ground do not enforce them. A bill criminalising acid violence was passed in 2011, but according to campaigners, just 10 per cent of cases make it to court.

Attackers with means can pay off police officers, while misogynistic attitudes prevail and negatively impact investigations. Thirdly, studies have shown that effective police and intelligence work is more effective for counterterrorism than military force. One such study, which examined the role of police in counterinsurgency operations in Cyprus and Malaya, concluded that nearly all major operations of this type in the 20th century have relied heavily on indigenous police forces.

However, as it currently stands, Pakistan’s police force is variously — and accurately — described as ill-equipped, overly politicised, and deeply corrupt. Equipment and technology are outdated, and the police are frequently outpaced by the inventiveness and agility of terrorist groups and criminal networks. Pakistan does not have the facilities to retrieve DNA evidence, for example, although new forensic laboratories — including one in Lahore — will hopefully improve this situation once they become operational. Intra-agency rivalries and bureaucratic obstacles prevent mass upgrades of technology. Meanwhile, the training provided to police officers ignores or gives cursory treatment to several crucial aspects of the job, such as interrogation, and the treatment of vulnerable groups such as women, children, and minorities. Low pay is the norm, which means that the temptation to accept bribes or misuse authority is high, even for well-intentioned officers. Yet low pay — which some provinces have attempted to rectify with salary increases — is not the only problem. A 2012 report by the Asia Society’s Independent Commission on Pakistan Police Reform noted that alongside these problems of resourcing, “both the police leadership and the rank and file appear to lack a sense of accountability to the public they are meant to serve. Moreover, the system simply is not structured to reward good behaviour, as merit-based opportunities for professional advancement are scarce”.

So how has this situation been allowed to evolve? While the police force itself comes under a lot of criticism as the most visible representative of the state, it would be unfair to place all of the blame at its door. Successive governments bear responsibility for failing to prioritise police reform and modernisation. Given repeated domestic problems such as ethnic and sectarian conflicts, growing insurgencies, and high criminal activity since Pakistan was formed in 1947, it is a curious fact that investment in law enforcement has never been a high priority. This has been equally true of civilian and military governments. Most analysts point to a lack of political will as one of the main obstacles to reform. The 2002 Police Order was an attempt at reform introduced by General Musharraf. It included measures to improve accountability and neutrality in law enforcement, but failed, largely due to politicians keen to retain influence. This problem extends from politicians to the armed forces to senior police leadership. None of these groups have pushed reform forward.

Of course, there have been triumphs. The police effectively restored peace to Karachi in the late 1990s, and have successfully challenged some militant religious groups in Punjab. The National Highways and the Motorways Police, which is responsible for traffic safety, has been praised for its effective organisation. Over the last 10 years, Pakistan has been one of the top five police contributing countries to United Nations peacekeeping operations. Its officers are highly rated, yet the benefits of this professionalism are not reaped on home turf. How can these successes be built upon and expanded? Among other measures, the Asia Society report calls for a series of institutional changes. These include an overhaul of the current system of hiring police to ensure transparency and fairness; the establishment of an independent monitoring body to check corruption; improved and expanded training, and changes to working conditions and pay.

The party that forms the next government should realise that any legislative reform is irrelevant in practice if the country does not have an effective police system to enforce it. That is just as true of laws that protect women and minorities as it is of counterterrorism operations. As crime rates across the country remain high and conviction rates low, higher standards of policing would significantly shore up the authority of the state and improve the government’s credibility. And politicians need all the credibility they can get — a recent Gallup poll found that just 23 per cent of the population trust the civilian regime. Police reform is not a particularly fashionable issue, but it is a crucial area from which all other reform can flow. With parts of Pakistan starting to slip out of the state’s control altogether, an effective, responsive, and modern police force would be a good place to start pulling things back from the brink.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2013.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (13)

  • Parvez
    Feb 17, 2013 - 10:03PM

    Very true.


  • Ejaaz
    Feb 17, 2013 - 10:22PM

    With a population headed to hit 250 million soon, and 300 million in sight with an infrastructure designed to handle about 50 million, what do you expect the police to do? The police is drawn from the public and what fraction of the public do you think is functionally literate? We have produced millions of young kids who now believe with every fiber of their being that Pakistan is the Kila of Islam, and is destined to lead the coming Khalifa (see what our infamous Dr. A.Q.Khan says about that) and the notion of a state outside of the Pan-Islamic Khilafat is against Islam. Is Kilay ka Allah hi Hafiz hey.


  • MSS
    Feb 18, 2013 - 1:26AM

    Droga & Kotwali have become a SHO &Thana. That in nutshell is the transformation in the last 100 years. Police have become more mobile and have electronic means of comm. The mindset has changed for the worse. The drogha of Ghalib’s day had more sense of honour than the SHO of today.
    General corruption levels at all levels of society, political control of police and other factors mentioned by the author makes any improvement unlikely. First bridle the politician then squeeze the police force, provide operational and resources support, develop and implement new strategies review and refine as you go along. Raise the recruitment standards.
    If you succeed, let India also learn from your experiences. If not, start again with a new force.
    @Ejaaz, agree 100 percent.


  • varuag
    Feb 18, 2013 - 8:22AM

    The problem lies in the genesis of the Police force in the subcontinent as they evolved from the Irish Constabulary system (coercive police) and not from the London Police system (civilian police). This coercive element was critical when British ruled, but is now counter productive since people end up distrusting the police force, thereby severing an effective rapport with the society. Police force per 100000 people is also terrible India (~130), Pakistan (~207) compared to world wide average of about 350. Most of the funds get transferred to paramilitary organizations like FC or CRPF and they end up sapping the resolve of insurgencies, while actual police forces are resource starved.

    Reforms in police force has absolutely no political support. Repeated PIL’s and plethora of commissions have tried, without luck, to reform the system in India.

    Morale is always going to be a problem in a low paying, ungrateful job like police. Not only is a vast majority of constabulary doubling up as servants to the high and mighty, security of the so called VIPs also consumes significant numbers and police are denied holidays when the society celebrates festivals to ensure security. A lot of police officials operating in distressing environments must be suffering from PTSD but no one cares.

    Also a vast majority are constables (~88% in India) with dim prospects of promotions and entire burden of carrying out the actual field operations. One can easily enhance the educational qualification required for constabulary, enhance pay and also promote in house promotions to boost morale. Even then, higher offices are beyond reach since there is a separate recruitment for higher police (IPS in India and PSP in Pakistan). There is also a need for sensitization of the police towards gender issues and a need for increasing the recruitment of women to correct the current skewed gender ratios.

    The police aspect has to be looked into holistically since police is but a cog in the wheel of criminal justice. A reform of police will be useless unless accompanied by a reform in the judiciary and enhancement of the scientific training methodology along-with deployment of a dedicated cadre of motivated attorney generals for all districts (at par with district magistrate) to be recruited nationally by the FPSC or the UPSC as the case may be. The west in general and US in particular suffer from prosecutorial over-reach and intimidation (as exemplified in the tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz) while the subcontinent suffers from prosecutorial callousness and ineptness.


  • Manoj Joshi India
    Feb 18, 2013 - 8:27AM

    Police in Pakistan had been framed under the Indian Police Act of 1861 by the British rulers. The objective behind the creation of this department had been to check any revolts against the His Majesty’s Government. The act of 1861 has continued as a similar story exists even in India wherein the police became the force of the ruling authority. The department is the executive arm of the judiciary hence their actions are those as governed and instructed by the government machinery. The ratio of policeman per thousand citizens is drastically low but, the police department is certainly not to be blamed for it. The VIP duties and security for which the policeman is deployed is not to his choice or approval but a decision of the administration. The policeman try their best despite constraints to discharge their duties in the best possible manner but there are various pitfalls that come. In India despite directions from the Supreme Court in India Police Reforms still remain to be implemented. Police Commissioner system in India has taken almost thirty to thirty five years with regard to implementation in India and it was only in the year 2011 that Police Commissioner System was implemented in Jaipur and Jodhpur. The story of the police in Pakistan would be not much different. As a department the police needs to be given a greater autonomy and the onus of keeping the check on the law and order situation should rest with the police department only. In addition from this force should be removed from the List of Provincial Subjects to the Federal List of Subjects and a centralised police head should be made. A post need be created. Although a policy decision to be taken is a must if the policing has to be made more effective. People must learn to accept the police and the gap that has existed between the police and the people needs to be bridged. Steps in this regard need to be taken by the citizens of Pakistan as well as the provincial and federal government. Centralization of the police force becomes all the more necessary as crime has changed in its nature from having been localised to global hence police as a department has assumed a far greater importance.


  • RAW is WAR
    Feb 18, 2013 - 8:48AM

    police? keep dreaming.


  • RAW is WAR
    Feb 18, 2013 - 8:52AM

    police? forget it.


  • Omer
    Feb 18, 2013 - 1:24PM

    I tell you one policing solution to Karachi, give the police to its local populace.


  • Genius
    Feb 18, 2013 - 2:55PM

    Does anyone want a Change in Policing or any other Officialdom? Change yourself people change yourself. Who is the eventual sufferer of all kinds of incompetece and corruption in the Oficialdom? The people. True. What people do even then? Sleep. So if people want to sleep, they will suffer. But on the other hand they do not want to suffer, they have to wake up and then work to achieve what they want. If the people want the Ofiicials to serve them and all sorts of corrupt practices to end then they have to organise themselves and work to achieve it. Has any leader or any political party been able to give solution to peoples’ problems as yet? No never. People will never get the solution to their problems when they leave it for others to do it. But if people come together to organise and try to solve their problems themselves they will certainly achieve what they want. Have people anywhere tried this formulae? They should try it and see for themselves if it ever fails.


  • Hayiam
    Feb 18, 2013 - 6:20PM

    I salute you ma’am for bringing this very vital and attention demanding subject, for i have been deeply disappointed and embarrassed to see how the Police of Pakistan is one of the most poorly led and managed institution and has absolutely failed to meet the demands prevailing in our country.Very strict and serious reforms are required in Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies. In Pakistan The Police is not a very appealing institution for taking up a job, people would often find it humorous to know that someone may have the desire to work in police whereas compared with other countries say USA the NYPD is a very successful agency and people are not insulted for stating that they work for the Police instead its a respected career.


  • Baba Ji
    Feb 18, 2013 - 9:04PM

    – “With parts of Pakist­an slippi­ng out of the state’s contro­l, an effect­ive police force would be a good place to start.” –
    Yeah, that police force is called ARMY !!!


  • Feb 20, 2013 - 7:54AM

    Can the writer and everybody else take 5 minutes and read “police reforms in Georgia”. Corruption ended in 6 months after the reforms. We need to adopt Western police system. We adopt Western life style, why not police style too.


  • Feb 20, 2013 - 6:36PM

    It is our 1861 colonial police structure that is at fault. Nothing else! Compare our police system with Western countries and you can see clearly what is wrong with our system.


More in Opinion