Considering current discrepancies in the police, its administration needs a complete revamp
I was flagged down by two traffic cops somewhere down South last week for speeding. I was pretty sure I was running below 60 as I was blocked by two three-wheelers in front of me. But the cop showed me 76 on the screen of his old speedometer which could have been at least two decades old. I had a good case to argue, but would I be successful? I decided to compromise.
Instead of writing the charge sheet, one cop started talking to me in a decent manner. He wanted to know who I was, where I worked and where I was going. I was not keen to divulge personal details as they were not directly involved with the offence that I had allegedly committed. But I told them that as I had exceeded only 4 points of the speed limit, they had two options – either to charge me or let me go with a warning. I urged them to adopt the second option. They were obliging, but indicated that ‘something’ was expected in return. Then I became firm - no bribes. “The people of this country decided on January 8 that enough was enough, and that decision includes you, not only the executive of the country. So, please don’t pardon me, write the charge sheet,” I said.
Then it appeared that the two cops assuming that I was someone high up started feeling the heat. They repeatedly asked who I was and I replied that I was a citizen of this country. Then they asked me to leave without a charge sheet, but I insisted that I will not leave until I get the charge sheet to my hands. By now, a big drama was unfolding in the street. Vehicles were flying by, but the attention of these two cops was entirely on me. My wife was furious that I was not obeying the cops – (another cop was waiting in the car).
Then the two cops started divulging their grievances, probably to win my sympathy, and their stories disturbed my thoughts. “Sir, this my 26th hour on duty wearing this uniform without a single minute of rest,” one said. “ We are pressurized by our superiors, receive poor salaries, have no welfare schemes, appraisals, live away from our families for long periods, face tough duties under difficult conditions...” the list of agonies and frustrations continued. I thought that we should be thankful to these cops for smiling.
However, there are plenty of complaints against our guardians of law and order in the country. Just think a while – what is the first impression you get when you hear the word, ‘police’? I am sure it would not bring positive connotations to your mind as ‘police’ is associated with corruption, misuse and abuse of power, misconduct, no respect for individuals or human rights etc.. And there are plenty of examples around from the top most to those at the bottom. Imagine, we had an IGP who had drug trafficking barons paying for his higher education and DIGs conducting contract killings and going on treasure hunts. If so, what can we expect from lower ranks of the police?
Mind you, this is not unique to Sri Lanka, almost everywhere it is the same except in countries like Singapore where you find better salaries being paid to policemen and superior systems in place for these service providers to function.
There is another side of the coin. The frustration and disappointment among police cadres at all levels. If a human being wearing a uniform continues to be on duty for 26 hours at a stretch, finds us on the wrong side of the law, what kind of consideration could we expect from him? His stress is relieved through the beating up of a person on a street, or in a cell. This is not to justify the misconduct of cops in anyway. I hope you have seen the recent video of cops beating a handicapped person in Anuradhpaura and the dim-witted clarification made by their seniors to justify that conduct. Look how the police dealt with the 17- year- old suspect in the Seya rape and murder case. Police divulged unnecessary details to the public. Remember the recent case of ‘Batti’ in Ratnapura where a cop physically attacked a woman in public? Why do these incidents continue to occur?
There is a dire need of change in perception on both sides – police and the public. On the side of the police, not only exceptions, there are structural and technical needs as well. Grievances should be looked at with open minds. “My take home salary is around 17,000 as I have loans to repay. My wife is not employed and we have two kids. How on earth can we live on such a salary?” asked one police sergeant.
If all allowances are added to the basic salary, the take home of a constable would be around Rs 35,000; but if loans installments and other dues are deducted, the balance is hardly anything. Not every police officer is given living quarters, but those who don’t, have to rent a house to live in. The supply of uniforms is also unsatisfactory. For example a policeman is allocated only one pair of shoes and two pairs of socks each year.
Of course, one can easily compare police salary scales with any other state sector scales that are not that different. But please do not forget the fact men and women in the police force have no specific working hours and they are not compensated for extra duty hours. Imagine that cop I mentioned above who had completed his 26th hour of duty - a pure violation of labour law. But those legal provisions are not applicable there. The only methods of compensation are independent appraisals and rewards – but as I understood, they do not exist in the Police Department. The appraisals are not independent and transparent – but entirely depend on individualism, so do rewards. Mostly nepotism or favouritism could be the main criteria for selection. The reward fund of the Police Department should have billions of rupees but hardly anyone receives rewards complained both seniors and juniors complained. The rewarding system under the prerogative of one individual, as they claimed, should be revised, made transparent and independent. Police promotions are another can of worms, it seems. “Yahapalanaya should penetrate all levels of governance ending authoritarianism”, was a good comment I heard a senior officer make.
The change in perception within the rank and file is of paramount importance if the police need to correct its negative image in society. The process should start from police constables who are the first victims in the chain of command. Police need to review recent adverse incidents and find what went wrong and why it happened and find remedies.
(I have not sought comments from both police spokesmen, the acting one as well as the one studying in China as both of them are well known to me from our young days. Their own stories will be longer than this piece).