New IGP in the saddle

By Carlyle de Silva

Reference is drawn to a well researched commentary on police matters by Rtd. Senior DIG Meryl Gunaratne renowned and respected for his analytical skills and deep understanding of sensitivities pertaining to National Security, Intelligence, and Police Administration. The article per se carried in a leading weekend edition of Sunday June 6 is an in-depth analysis of the current police administration and perhaps may be of immense interest to the new administration.

N.K. Illangakoon - IGP

I am encouraged to offer some thoughts on the apathy of the police service which in recent times has plummeted to abysmal depths. To begin with the news of the sudden and premature retirement of the former incumbent has sent mixed signals both within the system as well as for public consumption. The decision to retire seems impulsive and shrouded in secrecy to which the public is not privy.

I say so because the departing IGP had three good years to serve and there was nothing on the grapevine to suggest he was calling it a day except to say he was leaving on a matter of principle. If the decision was impelled by professional ethics then he should have gone long ago when the police became the cynosure of public ridicule and ignominy.

If the decision to retire overnight was brought about by a decree of the high command all due to the Katunayake fiasco then his retirement on a matter of principle falls flat on its face. Before the ill-fated FTZ disaster the former IG was riding on the crest of a wave. However, in a dramatic reversal of fortunes he was compelled to retire, but not without a little sermon to his troops, public servants and even the private sector, on professional ethics. His term of office comprised a toxic combination of self minded focus and arrogance. Delegation and consultation seemed obsolete or nonsensical. Perhaps he was oblivious to the maxim; “overconfidence leads one to believe in the oft misplaced notion that the end justifies the means and that the rule of law that must apply to all do not apply to some”.

The very recent incidents of police ineptitude in dealing with stark lawlessness are too numerous to be enumerated in a brief commentary. Apart from the mayhem and chaos at the FTZ Katunayake, the disastrous raid at the Welikada Prison where a posse of police officers beat a hasty retreat by the might of 2000 odd hard core criminals, the senseless killing of a deranged youth off the shores at Bambalapitiya, and the killing of two youths at Lunawa, the list goes on, are grim reminders of police apathy and pathetic leadership. Whatever Police action that followed in these matters is now history and in the course of time will be shuffled to the archives for posterity.

To the public with an insatiable thirst for justice and impartiality however the appointment of N.K. Illangakoon a man with a vision who is neither devious nor dishonest is indeed a breath of fresh air. He is said to be an officer widely regarded as an embodiment of simplicity and commitment. In his opening address to the media he pledged new dimensions to the Police Service and vowed to fight corruption and identify public relations as a priority. He has also guaranteed restoration of public confidence. I wish him every success in his endeavour. It is imperative that the dip in police morale and public confidence be restored to meaningful levels sooner than later for which it is mandatory that the IGP is free of political restraints and shackles. He should be given a free hand to restore a semblance of discipline within the force.

It was only this morning the screaming media headlines heralded the first bold steps in the right direction taken by the IGP where he had ordered the withdrawal of twenty three vehicles from the former IG’s security detail. This news was music to the ears of some frustrated cops who hitherto had to make do in three wheelers or on foot to attend their daily chores. I guess manpower audit insofar the vehicle and human resources will expose the colossal waste of public funds especially in the context of perpetual peace prevailing across the country

Police attack campus students who staged a protest at the Viharamaha Devi Park in Colombo [File photo]

Mr. Illangakoon assumes the office of IGP after a protracted spell of mediocre leadership at the helm of an organization renowned for convention and traditions. The image of the Police Service had taken a nosedive in the recent past and suffered public ignominy and criticism due to a litany of atrocities committed with impunity. Police corruption and misconduct have increased dramatically with organized crime such as the illegal drug trade, abductions, bank heists, mafia or similar criminal activity taking centre stage.

Police corruption is a complex phenomenon that afflicts society at every level and will continue to affect us irrespective of whether one is a public servant or a policeman. The task of the new IGP therefore is neither easy meat nor enviable as he has inherited a legacy of total chaos and muddled management. What is on offer to the public today is mediocre policing and weak leadership which accounts for the collapse of public confidence.

It is said of the new IGP that he is strong willed and brooks no nonsense irrespective of the stature of persons especially certain politicos who would seek to bully him into submission. In such a backdrop the IGP must be accountable to the Commander in Chief – period. If the head of a disciplined force such as the Police is seen to cave in meekly to ridiculous and illegal demands of the powers that be then nothing else matters.

In this context I am reminded of the great betrayal of 600 policemen who were ruthlessly slaughtered when upon directions from PHQ they surrendered to the LTTE and were led like lambs to the sacrificial altar. These brave men who were fighting for their motherland died for the sake of the survival of a ‘despot’. If the IGP at the time who ordered the surrender had stood his ground and defied what was obviously an illegal order he may have lost his job but the 600 men would still be alive. The rot set in then and the residue still remains a reason why people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the police.

In stark contrast we had role model IGPs of yesteryear who graced the office with dignity and decorum. My mind goes back to the period when the Police was a showpiece of the southern hemisphere. A few such names worth a mention include the likes of S.G. De Zoysa, E.L. Abeygunawardene, John Attygalle, Disssanayake brothers, Stanley Senanayake, Ana Seneviratne, Cyril Herath and Frank de Silva.

The incumbent IGP has a sacred duty to arrest the ever growing trend of human rights violations. When I hear about any member of the public irrespective of his stature being mistreated by police, I take a moment to pause. I think about the litany of atrocities and the horrific statistics of victims in the criminal justice system in which we are more likely to be arrested for the same crimes, more likely to be convicted, incarcerated and expected to get more prison time than those blessed with power, social or political clout. The Supreme Courts have been inundated with multitudes of FR petitions consequent to violations of Fundamental Rights of humans often committed with impunity and flagrant disregard for civilization. But I also think about the experience of good police officers, who put their lives on the line day in and day out, and are constantly forced to grapple with the confused social order that comes from some 2500 years of culture and traditions.

The Police in the very recent past have been accused of astronomical bad behaviour for offences that may range from simple assault, sex related offences, abductions, etc. Whenever a dangerous criminal or a rabble rouser is shot, officers are typically accused of oppression or police brutality, sometimes by those who don't even know the facts of the case. If a crime goes unsolved we complain about police not doing their jobs. But when officers arrest the wrong person, we complain they are being overzealous and perhaps corrupt. Sometimes they have used excessive force even when they don't intend to. All of this is compounded by the officer's fear that he might not come home for dinner that night after taking on the most dangerous elements of our society.

In this simple commentary I would not be sweeping in any condemnation of any officer in particular or the administration in general but to state in all honesty that enough is enough. It is my experience that the fallback position of Sri Lankans is to scream police brutality at the first sign of being "caught in the act". Whether those acts are illegal or a misunderstanding is conjecture or speculation. It is the black mantra of victim hood that should be questioned by critics and not the police doing what they risk their lives for, which is the safety for all.

One can reasonably argue that the blame for this malady cannot be placed squarely on the shoulders of the incumbent IGP. He is very fresh in his job and has assumed command only a few hours ago. I wish Mr. Illangakoon a full term of success with the least of political intrusion which often accounts for the bane of good police administration.

The writer is a former ASP and Director of the CID in Papua New Guinea (Rtd.)

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