March 28, 2020
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Police Will Police The Police

Four years on, and the UPA’s promise of police reforms is barely in sight

Police Will Police The Police
Illustration by Sorit
Police Will Police The Police

Delhi is unsafe. Ask any woman living here. Ask those in elite neighbourhoods with private security, or slum-dwellers who make their own ‘adjustments’ to survive as best as they can. If this situation were not bad enough, hardly a day goes by without a depressing instance of police wrongdoing hitting the headlines. Since one in every 10 policemen in Delhi has a complaint against his name, it is clear the police are part of the problem.

If police misbehaviour is to be corrected, this reality must be recognised. In 2006, the Supreme Court devised a holistic six-point plan for all states and the Centre to improve policing. Part of the plan was creating independent police complaint authorities at the state and district levels.

Instead of taking this opportunity to radically change the face of policing in the Capital, the Centre did nothing for four years and has now finally embarked on a set of hesitant changes that promise little improvement. The police brass has objected vehemently to the setting up of an independent police complaints authority. Their argument is that the police already work with the constant dread of rebuke from the courts and a clutch of rights bodies. They say no agency internally disciplines its cadre as much or as frequently as the police.

But the general public has no faith in these internal procedures because they are veiled, slow-paced and uncertain in outcome. All too frequently, the complainant gives up out of fear or exhaustion. Meanwhile, the misbehaviour repeats itself. The public, therefore, takes the view that the force is corrupt, abusive and underperforming, yet well protected from within, and without, thanks to political connections.

A well-functioning specialised agency that watches over how the police handle complaints against themselves would go a long way in restoring public trust.

Across the world, effective complaints authorities are made up of diversely skilled people of impeccable integrity who are independent of the police and politics. The most effective ones are able—without interfering with ongoing investigations—to summon persons and call for documents, to insist on explanations and make binding recommendations. Governments and police chiefs are expected to comply with what they say. Disagreement with their advice has to be justified in writing, and outcomes are discussed in Parliament.

If allowed to be effective, complaints authorities can repair systemic weaknesses, improve standards, increase accountability and help reform the internal culture of the police. Most importantly, a strong police complaints authority can reduce the public’s distrust quotient.

But sadly, in Delhi, the reluctance to face down police lobbies has meant the complaints authority currently being mooted amongst the power elite is going to be as weak and ineffective as the 21 set up so far in the states.

Its composition, selection procedures and terms of office seem designed to curb truly independent functioning. For example, the court wanted the chair to be a retired judge, chosen from a panel of names provided by the chief justice. But the formulation for Delhi mooted by the Union home ministry gives its lieutenant-governor the option of choosing either a retired judge or a retired civil servant as chair, not from a court-nominated panel, but through his own quiet confabulations. According to this formulation, the other members of the authority, too, are to be directly appointed by the lieutenant-governor from a pool of retired officers, including retired police officers. There is little hope, then, of diversity and all likelihood of a predominance of ‘police-minded’ members. Alarmingly, the lieutenant-governor can remove any member at will. The home ministry’s model dilutes the overall authority of the new body by saying that its directions shall “ordinarily be binding”, unless Delhi’s lieutenant-governor disagrees with them. The Supreme Court had insisted that the recommendations “shall be binding”. Finally, with only one complaints authority for the entire state (the court wanted authorities both at state and district levels) and serving 13 million people, the authority is soon likely to be as overburdened as every other such institution.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that these infirmities are deliberately designed to create a subservient agency, destined to be ineffective because of the imbalance between its capacities and the weight of public demand. This is depressing news, especially since Delhi should really be setting an example for the rest of India in the area of police reforms. Instead of tinkering with milksop half-measures, the government needs to remind itself of its manifesto promise to radically reform the police. An opportunity for reform must not be squandered.

(The author is the director of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.)

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