Police inaction must come to an end

Time and again Sri Lanka’s Police have been the focus of attention for its various acts of commission and omission but, recent events have shown that the Department has hit a new low. So much so, that the courts of law have been compelled to comment on the performance of certain police officers in specific incidents.

For instance, the Police are alleged to have turned a blind eye and deaf ear when ruling party hooligans allegedly torched the property of Anuradhapura’s United National Party district organiser Raja Johnpulle, reducing the much respected medical practitioner’s residence to ashes.

A few weeks ago, police were again seen looking the other way while the irrepressible Mervyn Silva indulged in his favourite pastime of bashing media men and snatching their photographic equipment at Kelaniya.

In both incidents, the courts of law inquiring into the events made adverse remarks against the Police and in the latter, they were questioned as to why they were dragging their feet in apprehending and producing the suspect minister in court.

Then, in a separate court action, two police officers of the Commission against Bribery and Corruption have themselves gone to courts alleging that attempts were made to influence them, when they were investigating the assets of a minister and that they were discriminated against when they resisted these overtures.

These events point in one and the same direction: the Police has been politicised at all levels. Many officers in the force are mere lackeys serving their corrupt political masters. It is also a two-way process: the policeman ignores the politician’s misdeeds and politician rewards him by way of offering promotions.

And the rot starts at the very top of the system. The appointment of the Inspector General of Police is at the discretion of the Executive President. Therefore, when there are several contenders for the top job, the President, who is essentially a politician, veers towards the man who could be most amenable to his own political agenda.

Honest officers, from the top brass to the reserve police constable, graduate through the ranks seeing their colleagues who serve politicians well, rise in rank and riches while they themselves languish in oblivion or are posted to a ‘difficult’ area in return for their integrity. Obviously, many officers succumb to the temptation and join their unscrupulous brethren. And so, the cancer spreads.

This is not a new phenomenon that has emerged during this administration. Both major political parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) have used and abused the system during their respective tenures of office—perhaps for nearly four decades now-and, with each successive regime, the trend appears to grow exponentially.

Obviously, when a particular system is manipulated by one political party, it leaves behind many grievances. Then, when the opposing party finally grabs the reins of power, it is their turn to make amends with a vengeance. They set out to ‘correct’ the ‘misdeeds’ of their predecessors and punish their detractors and so begins a spiral of unending political rivalry and retribution. Sadly, the Police Department seems to be particularly vulnerable to this malady.

What is of concern now - and what recent events indicate convincingly - is that politicisation of the Police appears to be the norm rather than the exception. Even in the rural hamlet, the policeman is merely an agent for the local Member of Parliament, the Provincial Councillor or the Member of the Pradeshiya Sabha.

The end result is that the Police force has become a mere extension of the political apparatus and yet another tentacle of the ruling party - whatever party it may be. And the consequences are disastrous, as the above mentioned incidents show; they indicate a complete disruption of law and order and a blithe disregard for societal norms where persons believe that as long as they have political clout behind them, might is right.

There is no easy solution to this. The more this trend is tolerated, the more it will flourish. And, it can be predicted with near certainty that politicians and policemen alike will abuse the ‘system’ to their own advantage.

It is indeed encouraging that the courts of law have intervened to caution the Police that their conduct has been found wanting. There were precedents in the past where police officers were ordered by the courts to personally pay compensation for their misdeeds and that was a step in the right direction. But that alone does not appear to be a sufficient deterrent.

The creation of an Independent Police Commission that would oversee all police appointments and transfers was a breath of fresh air in this context. But with that process now being stalled due to the non-functioning Constitutional Council, it is back to square one.

It would be naive to expect the ruling party to have a change of heart overnight and order that the police are free of all undue political influence. That simply will not happen. Therefore, it has now become the prerogative of the judicial system to police the police.

And, as recent events show, the judiciary has not been found wanting. They have acted with a degree of fierce independence that is all the more laudable in the context of the many pressures the judiciary itself is subjected to.

But one cannot expect each and every incident to be brought to justice for the judiciary to intervene. And that is why an Independent Police Commission is fast becoming an absolute sine qua non for this country.
After all, even the current ruling party must realise that someday, some time, it will be sitting in the opposition.