The dilemma posed by police powers


When NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were shot dead in December 2014, the police department in the city exhibited such symbolic solidarity with the slain officers that it shamed, albeit briefly, New York City Hall and fuelled national debate on policing. During a period of increasing tensions between police officers and civilians, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was heard supporting protests against the use of excessive force by the police. It is believed that De Blasio’s posturing stoked anti-police sentiments that may have led to the deaths of Liu and Ramos. As a result, when he took to the stage to express his condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of both officers at their funerals earlier this year, several grieving police officials turned their backs towards the mayor. This silent protest against the betrayal of their political leadership highlights souring relations between a state and its front-line respondents, the police. Similar strains between the state and police are being experienced in Pakistan.

When SSP Mohammad Ali Nekokara, a well-reputed officer with 19 years of civil and police service — an alumnus of the London School of Economics and Harvard — was confronted with a crowd of some 30,000 protesters in Islamabad’s Red Zone last August, he calculated the risks of police action against PTI and PAT workers. He also calculated the potential retaliation that would be inflicted on his own men. He advised the interior secretary that force should not be used against peaceful demonstrators. His concerns were ignored and, following the orders of the district magistrate, Nekokara resorted to the use of measured force, employing tear gas against the protestors on August 30. A day later, he was instructed by the government to disperse the sit-in protestors. Nekokara anticipated that after a prolonged and exhausting dharna, such action would result in events akin to those witnessed in Model Town, a repeat of which would be disadvantageous to the democratic system. He further feared that his supervisors and political leadership would, once again, fail to own and defend the officers involved should there be any loss of life.

Nekokara’s appeals were disregarded. Due to a difference of opinion, the SSP Operation then requested to be posted elsewhere. As was the fate of former IG Punjab Aftab Cheema, Nekokara was sent on forced leave and a few weeks later, he was charge-sheeted for refusing to follow orders (read: use force illegally) against protestors. Now, after a sham inquiry, the Establishment Division has recommended Nekokara for dismissal on grounds of “disobedience”.

What is common in the aforementioned cases is the inability of the political leadership to support and efficiently manage the institution that is entrusted and designed to use force. Egon Bittner, a renowned expert on the sociology of policing, famously wrote that the use of force is the “essence” of police work. It is both a right and a responsibility. It is also routinely abused which makes it the least agreed upon concept in police literature that centres on strife in urban areas. Nekokara is one of many police officers in Pakistan who has fallen prey to poor leadership, confusion and a difference of opinion concerning the use of force. Liu and Ramos were not targeted for excessive use of force directly, but their killer is one of many in the US, who perceive police officers as aggressive and brutal. In New York, De Blasio’s statements may have undermined the security of honest police officers, and in Pakistan, the government’s unofficial policies bring to question the state’ ability to provide security to its own agents.

Police solidarity witnessed in the cases of Liu and Ramos is part of an occupational culture of policing that is strengthened through training, socialisation on the job and feelings of brotherhood. When the political leadership of Pakistan chooses to isolate its police officers, it sends a strong message to the civilian population: that the state does not have confidence in its police forces. It also sends a message to the police: that they are neither trusted by the public nor their administrators. This only strengthens the sub-culture of policing (incorporating a ‘we versus them’ mentality) that further alienates police officers from civilians, weakening the social contract between the state and its people.

But there are layers within the occupational culture of a police force. Sociologist Peter K Manning has identified three: the field officers or “street cops”, middle management and the senior-most command. Nekokara falls under the category of a middle-management officer. His ongoing inquiry is proof of the extent of influence of the political leadership that has bypassed official procedures to manage the institution of the police — across layers — as best suited for the status quo. In terms of the senior command, this was seen not so long ago in Sindh when former IG Iqbal Mehmood and former AIG Shahid Hayat were removed for refusing to cave under the pressures of the provincial government and the political powerbrokers it was seeking to appease.

What the political manoeuvring of senior and middle management does is that it poses dilemmas for the field officers who have to either engage in force or practise restraint in the face of immediate security threats that have little physical proximity to their senior command or its political administrators. Tampering with the middle and senior management layers thus results in a politicised police culture across rank and file. This is not to say that political leadership should unconditionally support all police officers. Police discretion leaves room for individual officers to react and respond to potential threats to his self and society in various ways, many of which are informal and extra-judicial and should be investigated by designated administrators of the law. But the abandonment of police officers by their leadership for upholding the rule of law in the wake of deteriorating trust towards the police is both demoralising and disheartening. With militancy escalating in Pakistan and crowd management becoming increasingly difficult for field officers, must our political leadership continue sidelining the one mechanism that was created to address urban disorder?

Published in The Express Tribune, March  26th,  2015.

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