Where exactly does one begin to express one's outrage regarding the state of policing in Sri Lanka? One incident after another has captured the headlines these past weeks. The most problematic of these incidents include the attack on a student, Nipuna Ramanayake allegedly by a gang of police officers led by the son of the Director of the Colombo Crimes Division SSP Vas Gunewardene and the killing of two young boys over a private dispute allegedly by a team led by the Officer-in-Charge of the Angulana police.
Both incidents invoked extreme public reactions verging on mob justice being meted out to the abusers in police uniform. In yet another instance, people from the Maradana area this week assaulted four persons in civil clothes who, in trying to arrest a person saying that they were police officers, severely assaulted the pregnant wife of the alleged suspect causing her to be admitted to hospital. Quite ironically, the so called policemen were themselves admitted to hospital due to their injuries at the hands of the mob.
A spiralling circle of violence
and public reactions
In all these instances, the spiralling circle of violence is very clear. First, significant sections of the police take matters into their own hands by meting out death and destruction to all and sundry including those who are innocent as well as guilty, settling private scores as well in the meantime. This trend is now heightened by the licence given to them by the political leadership of the day to deal summarily with the underworld. Secondly, the public also take matters into their own hands by meting out justice to police abusers without further ado.
All this points to a highly dangerous trend in law enforcement processes .
One positive feature of this extreme public reaction however is that government figures from President Mahinda Rajapaksa downwards have been compelled to promise that stern action would be taken against perpetrators in police uniform. But promises are promises as they say and assuredly, transferring an alleged abuser from one place of work to another will not suffice to satisfy the public demand for justice.
The validity of the 17th Amendment
Instead, the best way that this government could demonstrate its genuineness in addressing this problem is to ensure the immediate implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and restore an independent National Police Commission (with its members appointed by the Constitutional Council) to its proper constitutional role of disciplining the police force. There is really no other way out. In the absence of such action, promises ring hollow. In turn, the public cry for accountability should transform itself from an ad hoc and reactive response to specific incidents and instead, form part of a larger cry to restore the rule of law to policing in Sri Lanka through the realization of constitutional fundamentals.
This cry has nothing to do with the nature of the political party in government right now. I hasten to say this given that there are some party political propagandists masquerading as journalistic hacks who may well engage in now customary shrill invective to claim darkly that my above assertion is part of a sinister plot to show that the police were extremely law abiding during previous political regimes but had descended to abysmal depths due to the failure in governance of the Rajapaksa regime. The point is that this failure in governance was manifested by all political parties of all colours during past decades. It is no surprise therefore that the police force is in this present pitiable state.
What is the alternative?
This column has written about the problems of policing in Sri Lanka time and time again, not in the spirit of painting the entire police force in an evil light but rather in attempting to bring back some measure of rationality to law enforcement. It has engaged in sober debate with senior police officers, both serving and retired, who have honestly expressed their cynicism as to whether an entity such an independent Police Commission is the best way to solve the current problem, even assuming that the necessary political will is in place. The primary argument made by them is that an independent supervisory mechanism will render the internal disciplinary structures of the police force and particularly the Inspector General of Police (IGP) impotent and perhaps even ridiculous to the lower ranks, thus affecting morale in the police force. These observations are most certainly welcome in the constructive spirit of engaging in reasoned dialogue on opposing points of view.
But in the face of the evident inability of the head of the police force to discipline his men and women, what is the actual alternative to a National Police Commission provided that it is allowed to function independently? In other countries such as the United Kingdom, have similar mechanisms resulted in the lowering of the morale of the police force? There is absolutely no sign that the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) of the UK, for example, has had that effect. Instead, its impact on the internal discipline of the British copper has been salutary even though it has been criticized at times for not being as tough as it should be.
Sri Lanka's own National Police Commission, in its first term and when its members were constitutionally appointed, did attempt to put into place some good reforms. It directed that police officers indicted under the Anti Torture Act of 1994 be immediately interdicted and also prevented the politically motivated transfer of police officers during the pre election period. The actual reason why the 17th Amendment was progressively negated was due to the positions that the NPC took during this time though a convenient veil has been sought to be drawn over the same.
Unconvincing Presidential promises
The point is that Presidential promises that stern action will be taken in regard to police abuse is not enough. Given President Mahinda Rajapaksa's continuing determination not to implement the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, his government bears a great deal of responsibility as to what has befallen the police today in this country. Punishing individual police officers by assaulting them does not solve the problem. If this logic is taken to its inevitable conclusion, then the politicians with whom corrupt police officers work hand in glove, should also be assaulted.
It may well be asked then as to what is the point of having courts of law? One may well have vigilantes roaming about at will enforcing the law of the jungle and counter vigilantes opposing them. Perhaps this is indeed what we are heading towards?