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When the police go rogue

  • Published at 10:54 pm April 9th, 2019
Just doing their job?
Just doing their job? / RAJIB DHAR

Law enforcement in its true sense means providing security to the people 

A news media outlet recently reported the arrest of a police officer in Dhaka on charges of robbery of a citizen. Reportedly, the officer led a group of armed people in civilian clothes and held the victim at gunpoint, assaulted him, and robbed him. Their attempt to coax further money out of an ATM machine using the victim’s card did not succeed. The officer was later identified by the victim and was subsequently arrested.

This news somehow did not get much publicity, and I am not going to vouch on its authenticity. Sensation as it is, frankly, I would not be shocked by such news. Let me elaborate.

The prime law enforcement agency in our country is the police force. Dating back to colonial days, the police have carried the perpetual image of protector of people from crime in society. From a lowly constable in a village to the highest-ranking police officer in a district, the police have been both held in awe and respect by common people. The police have also been viewed as the most visible hand of government, and its most loyal agent.

This dual view of the police has often led this important arm of the government to a dubious state of trust and fear. On the one hand, the public has often relied on the police for security and protection; on the other, they have also suspected the police of malicious intent, particularly when the agency has been employed by the government to maintain law and order. In fact, it is in the latter role the police have been often misunderstood and feared. 

In the colonial days, one of the major applications of police force outside of the domain of the prevention of crime and public security was in prevention of political protests against the government. This would include reining in anti-government political rallies, arrest and detention of people suspected of anti-government activities, and spying on people suspected of indulging in such acts. 

From colonial days through post-independence days in Pakistan, the police have been employed to bolster the government in more ways than one. Political meetings of any kind that aroused people against the government would be either not allowed, or if held, would be rousted out by force. Police would routinely round up people affiliated with anti-government political activities. 

But a cardinal principle the police followed was to act within boundaries of the law. This would mean that for any action that the police would take, it would do so within the Police Act and the laws of the land that gave it the authority to do so. They did not belong to any political ideology. Their ideology was their job, and to act as the law wanted. But what they did was within the writ of the law that was given to them.

One of the major legacies that we have carried from the colonial and Pakistan days is the institution of police. The institution has carried with it the laws and organizational structure that characterized it since the time of its creation. The same organizational hierarchy from bottom up would be followed, the same laws that began with the Police Act of British days would guide the institution. The reason was simple; the system worked well. 

But have we kept the institution in its pristine form? Have we allowed this institution to work free of political control or politics? Has the institution fallen from the image of neutrality and integrity? 

For one thing, the police force is no longer a monolithic organization of the colonial or Pakistan days. It has metamorphosed to a multi-pronged organization with separate lines of command and control. As stated in a recent report of the US State Department, numerous units of the Bangladesh Police operate under competing mandates. 

The most significant among such units are the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU), Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a mostly counter-terrorism-focused unit, and the Detective Branch (DB). In addition, two powerful units, Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and National Security Intelligence (NSI) work to supplement law enforcement in the country with overlapping responsibilities and capabilities. 

The latest report on human rights in Bangladesh issued by the US State Department, while applauding positive steps taken by the government to improve police professionalism, discipline, and responsiveness, also highlighted the failure of the government to prevent abuse of power by the law enforcement agencies. Acts like deaths by cross-fire, abduction, or mysterious disappearances of persons suspected of loyalty to opposition politics were not properly investigated nor the culprits identified and brought to book. 

The report alleged that while the government had mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption within the security forces, these mechanisms were not regularly employed. Plaintiffs were reluctant to accuse the police in criminal cases due to lengthy trial procedures and fear of retribution. Reluctance to bring charges against the police also perpetuated a climate of impunity. Officers with political ties to the ruling party occupied many of the key positions in law enforcement agencies. 

It is one thing to have a set of laws for an agency. It is completely another to have the members of that agency follow those rules. This is called accountability. That accountability starts from the highest rung of the agency. This accountability is to people, people who have voted to power the people who have control over the agencies.

In all civilized countries, law enforcement is the responsibility of the government. Law enforcement in its true sense is providing security to the people so that they can exercise their freedom without fear or intimidation. But if the law enforcers themselves turn into law-breakers, the agency becomes a rogue agency. 

We do not know if the allegation of a police officer robbing a citizen in a city street is true, but the stories and many incidents of law enforcement officials becoming rogue are not unknown in Bangladesh. What is unknown is what actions the government has taken in all these years to punish officials accused of abuse of power and lawless acts. 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.