Evaluating the national police commission
Five months after the National Police Commission (NPC) came into being under the 17th Amendment, public evaluation of its role and effect has largely been that the glass is half empty rather than half full. This weighing towards the pessimistic side of the scales is a boringly familiar refrain wherein we create monitoring bodies with larger than life expectations and continue to be resoundingly disappointed by their immediate failure to perform isolated miracles.

The Commission, though brought about by the political pressures of that day, had answered a long existing demand by this country's rights activists since the recommendations of the Basnayake Commission Report, for an independent mechanism to inquire into charges of corruption and errant behaviour on the part of police officers. When this mechanism was ultimately created, it had, of course, a more grandiloquent mandate; namely to engage proactively in cleaning up the service itself.

Towards that end, the 17th Amendment put into existence a seven member Commission appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. Puzzlingly, no qualifications were stipulated for the nomination of members, unlike in the case of nominations for both the Elections Commission and the Human Rights Commission. Every member held office for a period of three years, subject to particular exceptions.

These are if any member becomes a politician either at central, provincial or local government level, upon resignation or removal from office by the President on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, conviction of any offence involving moral turpitude, subjection to an imposition of civic disability or vacation of office. Security of tenure of the members are further guaranteed by the payment of such allowances (as are determined by Parliament), that will be charged on the Consolidated Fund and not be diminished during their term of office.

Its powers are manifold. These include, in the first instance, the appointment, promotion, transfer disciplinary control and dismissal of police officers other than the IGP. The latter process involves the recommendation of the President to the Constitutional Council and the consequent approval of the Council.

Secondly, the NPC is given vital powers to establish procedures to entertain and investigate public complaints against a police officer of the police service. Such complaints may also be made by any aggrieved person. The NPC is required to provide redress 'in accordance with the provisions of any law enacted by Parliament for such purpose.'

Thirdly, the Commission is given authority to formulate schemes of recruitment and training and the improvement of the efficacy and independence of the police service and ancillary issues, codes of conduct and the standards to be followed in making promotions and transfers.

Lastly, particular powers are assigned to it under Appendix 1 of List 1 (to the Thirteenth Amendment), which contemplated a National Police Commission, the composition of which was different and less satisfactory than the existent body under the 17th Amendment. The NPC, as existing now, shall not, however, in the exercise of its powers derogate from the powers and functions assigned to the Provincial Police Service Commissions, as and when such Commissions are established.In measuring its performance within the past five months to its powers, some hiccups have been evident in its functioning. Some of the problems are self-evident.

The Commission lacks membership of any individual with past serving experience in the police force, posing a reasonable question as to how this lacuna came about in the first place. Even though no qualifications had been specified under the 17th Amendment in the nominations of its members by the Constitutional Council, one might have expected common sense to prevail in the actual process, either on the part of the Council, the recommendatory body or the President in whom the power of appointment is vested. What we saw in the first appointments however, was an absence of this essential ingredient.

The resultant position has been that the NPC, devoid of the necessary expertise in this sense, has exercised its authority under Article 155J of the 17th Amendment to delegate to the IGP, particular powers relating to transfers of police officers and recruitment to and promotions in the lower ranks of the police service. Reportedly, these powers should be exercised by the IGP in accordance with the directions of the NPC as contained in its policy document on Delegation of Powers.

The 17th Amendment confers authority to the Commission to delegate its powers in two instances. Firstly, Article 155H stipulates that the NPC may delegate to a Committee of the Commission, the powers of appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal of such categories of police officers as are specified by the Commission. This Committee, not consisting of members of the Commission, shall be appointed by the Commission.

In the second instance, Article 155J states that the NPC may delegate to the IGP, the above powers in relation to any category of police officer. It is this section that has been utilised by the NPC in the instant case. This same provision also gives the power to the NPC to delegate the same powers, in consultation with the IGP, to any police officer as well.

Should the powers so delegated by the NPC to the IGP been better delegated to a committee of the Commission under the former provision, comprised of retired police officers possessing the required expertise, instead to a single individual, subject as the IGP is traditionally to strong political pressures? The purpose of setting up the NPC under the 17th Amendment was, after all, to bring in a measure of outside monitoring to the functioning of the police service. As to whether this element would be satisfied by the drafting of policy guidelines and ensuring the availability of appeal to the NPC against the decision of the IGP, is a moot point.

From a different perspective, the failure of the NPC up to date, to put into place procedures to entertain and investigate public complaints and the complaints of aggrieved persons against a police officer or the police service as a whole, is a serious drawback.

Reportedly, the Commission is planning to draw together a strong investigative team comprising retired police and judicial officers and to station hand picked investigative teams in key outstation cities for this purpose. While this is laudable from an investigative viewpoint, putting into place of procedures for the entertainment of such complaints, essentially the first step in this process, remains important in order to instill public faith in the Commission. It is a pity that this aspect has not received as much attention as it deserves in the debates that have hitherto taken place on the functioning of the NPC.

Five months is perhaps too short a time to measure the activities of the NPC with any objectivity. The Commission itself, has complained of lack of funding. In another sense, authoritative action that it has taken to date, namely with regard to higher level promotions in the police service, are already the subject of dispute in the Supreme Court and the decisions of the Commission have been subject to variations. These are all formidable teething problems that the body is facing at this point in time.

However, it must be understood that if the Commission captures the fundamentals of public confidence and moral authority that this country so desperately needs in its functioning, its ability to withstand pressures from whatever quarter will increase by that commensurate amount. This remains its most immediate - and imperative - task.

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