Public Centric Police: How to Get There?

Sri Lanka Police marked the 156th anniversary yesterday. This article provides insight into improving the operational functions of the Police through public participation.

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Police to the fore: Over the years, the tasks of law enforcement have become more complex and extensive. This is a file photograph of the officers work for Mounted Division of Sri Lanka Police riding horses. The division was established in 1921 at as the only means of transport provided to the higher ranks and file under the British rule. [ Photo: Sri Lanka Guardian]

In every civilised society, a police system exists for the common good of the community. World over, the primary duty of any Police Force is the prevention and the detection of crime and criminal law enforcement with the view to apprehending perpetrators of crime and collecting evidence against them, enabling them to be prosecuted in courts of law and to maintain public tranquility.

Of course, based on the nature of the structure of the State and its organs and the system of law and justice, the structure and the powers and functions of the Police vary from country to country. Due to 130 years of British colonial rule, Sri Lanka inherited a police system similar to its former colonial ruler — the United Kingdom.

In many countries, including Sri Lanka, laws and statutes specify the functions of the Police Force, the obligation for it to be an institution for crime prevention and to function in this capacity. However, it meets with misunderstanding and often veiled opposition when it seeks to assert its preventive and social role. This attitude which is widespread among the public must be changed. The Police essentially need to secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the Rules of Law.

Law and order is the basic foundation of any civilised society. The most fundamental issue for the Police is dealing with the community. Over the passage of time, the tasks of the Police in serving the community have become more complex and extensive. The Police have to accomplish the impossible and therefore have to develop an operating mode that is acceptable to most of the people most of the time. The role of the Police is vastly different to the approaches of other State apparatus with a totally divergent “culture” and an arduous 2 x7 duty to perform, which needs to be understood by society.

The fundamental duty of the Police is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and properties; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence and disorder, and to respect the Constitutional rights of all people to liberty, equality and justice.

Nevertheless, people most of the time seem to be unaware that they expect the Police to perform an arduous and difficult task. Moreover, they are often a scapegoat for the community’s social and moral default.

Police in Sri Lanka are primarily responsible for the maintenance of law and order, prevention of the commission of crime, detection of crime, investigation of crime with the view to identifying and apprehending suspects, collecting evidence and thereby facilitating their prosecution in courts of law
When exercising this primary duty, Police are often criticised for their coercive role, while on the other, their attempts at purely preventive and social work are ill-received. “That’s not their job” is often heard with allusion to the alleged incompatibility between their coercive functions and their preventive aspirations.

Due to serious security threats faced by the country as a result of separatist terrorism perpetrated by the LTTE up until mid-2009, the Sri Lanka Police were compelled to assume additional responsibilities for the protection of the State, sovereignty, its national leaders, the civilian population, and property. In this regard, the Sri Lanka Police were required to perform unconventional duties similar to those performed by the security forces. The deployment of Police personnel to perform national security functions did lead to virtually one-half of the entire 85,000 odd Police Force deployed either in the Northern and Eastern Provinces referred to as ‘Operational Areas’.

As a result, the number of Police personnel available to perform conventional Police duties such as patrolling for the purpose of preventing the commission of crime, early detection of crime and receiving intelligence and conducting criminal investigations, became far less than the actual number required to carry out such duties and responsibilities effectively.

Be it either the former or the latter reason, the Police alone cannot solve the crime problem or establish Order. Police certainly could do better with the active participation of the community. The civic community must support compliance with the rule of law, instead of looking to the Police as merely an institution responsible for controlling criminality, public tranquility and/or Law and Order. An excellent case in point is the last General Election. The public well understood the importance of good behaviour and obedience to Law and Order, except in a few isolated negligible number of incidents. This perceptive approach of the public made the role of the Police relatively uncomplicated and helped them to discharge their duties towards enforcement of Law and Order with a positive note for the conduct of a fair and peaceful election. This undoubtedly enhanced the public trust in the Police.

Going by this illustration, for the Police as the enforcing arm of the Law, it is needless to say that the public adherence to discipline and observance of the rule of law undoubtedly rest as pre-requisites, they being the main stakeholders to achieve this objective. This is the most important fabric and foundation, essentially needed if we are to progress as a nation.

C. Wright Mills in his book “Sociological Imagination” has referred to social problems quite correctly as a threat to values. The high level of literacy, social mobility and the long history of exercising the adult franchise cannot be single-handedly considered as influencing forces to transform the behavioural patterns of individuals. Efforts to prevent crime must therefore include the teaching of conventional values. In this context, it is also necessary to find ways to strengthen individual bonds to society, commitment to the conventional order and participation in conventional activities. The best way is to strengthen the institutions that socialise people and continue to regulate their behaviour throughout life — the family, the school, and the workplace — address the individuals as part of society and teach necessary values for social wellbeing. In this backdrop, personal or inner controls are as important as social or external controls in keeping people from committing crimes and for the observance of the Rule of Law.

Thus, it would be seen that the solution to control crime is not only in the hands of the Police. It has a combination of multiple factors, to put it very simply, the public behaviour, their perception; attitudes; more importantly obedience to the law, respect for authority, upholding values, investment in customs and traditions – they all too play a major role, a role that will certainly be supportive in the maintenance of Law and Order by Police. Therefore, Civil society essentially plays a pivotal role and needs to be a driving force to support the Police in the flow of information to curb crime or could group together to support crime prevention mechanisms, stop other violations adversely affecting the wellbeing of the community and respect and observe the Rule of Law.

In the light of what is said, the conception of its vocation in the field of crime prevention must, at the outset, be shared by all those who are capable of helping the Police either through moral influence in the country or through their professional relations with the Police such as judges, sociologists, criminologists, social workers, probation officers, and, above all, peace-loving citizens.

It must be regarded with no separation that Policing in a democratic society is a Public Political function. It emanates from the three divisions of the Government, namely, the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary. All of this is subjected to civilian oversight, with the community finally responsible for all the processes dealing with crime and criminals. What the Police are, what they do, how they do, how well they fulfill the expectations, how professional they are, and what improvements they need are political questions, that inevitably need to be viewed as prerequisites for enhancement and enforcement of the laws.

On the other hand, reinforcements of informal controls on individual behaviour are the most vital way to reduce the incidence of crime. Compliance with most laws does not depend upon the likelihood of them being enforced, but upon the acceptance of informal norms and a concern for the feeling of others. The participation of all social institutions in the maintenance of peace and public order is a must and they could be partners in systematic crime preventive action through more effective Police-Community cooperation, which is seriously lacking in our country.

If you look back, history reveals that crime has been analysed in the last century from every aspect; biological, theological, sociological, psychological and economical. The evolution theory has taught us that we evolved from an animal state where killing and being killed were part of nature’s design. Millions of years have passed and we have shed more of our instinct. Our minds are, however, still preoccupied with the most predatory instincts, and society is pervaded by overt and covert forms of violence generating a general climate of irrationality.

No police system in this world has ever succeeded by functioning in isolation. No Police Force in the world has been able to effectively deal with crime and other Law and Order problems without the active support of the community it serves. Therefore, as leaders of civil society, as conscientious community and social leaders, as responsible citizens of Sri Lanka, all should help the Police in the discharge of their duties and functions.

Given this orientation, crime and disorder are major concerns to be dealt with by Police and could be termed “Community Malignancies” that would imperil the quality of living and morality to a very harmful extent. It is in this theoretical matrix that the community’s role and responsibility in crime prevention have to be viewed as decisive.

Unlike in totalitarian systems, in a democratic society, the police function depends, to a considerable degree, on self-policing by every citizen. This dictum comes into play a pivotal role as law observance is the most salient part of law enforcement. Traffic management is a case in point. The Police spend a great deal of time and resources doing it, but most of the actions (tasks) are done by motorists who have to abide by road rules. Hence, the order cannot be secured only through fear of punishment and the public too have an important role to play to obey the “Rules of Law”

Ironically with the social changes, the approach of the Police in dealing with Law and Order has to be generally one of professional development, including elevation of recruitment standards, extensive training covering a wide range of subjects including Police-community relations, strengthening against submissions to the demands of politicians and expansion of specialised training, resources to some degree and the gradual emergence of police-community relations.

The purposes of these areas and developments in the recent past have been to strengthen the implementation of equal protection under the law for all citizens, to foster and improve communication and mutual understanding between the Police and the community and to enhance Police education and training especially to deal in social and behavioural attitudes to meet the ever-changing challenges, vastly different to the conditions of yesteryears.

Against this backdrop, the social behaviour of people must be also well understood. The current social behaviour is that many people become so preoccupied with their own personal issues that they pay little attention to larger community problems. This situation has distanced the people from supporting the Police by way of providing true and genuine information and responsiveness to curb crime and for productive enforcement action.

Further, as in the past, large numbers of today’s youth do not submit to traditional behaviour controls, in or out of school. Problems of discipline loom large in and around classrooms. School behaviour, to say the least, especially at the upper levels, is often marginally criminal, often violent, as many witness during big matches and in the newly emerged ‘demonstration culture’, turning dangerous and frightening and even to the extent of students manhandling the teachers. Therefore, obviously, the maintenance of order continues to be important in a school setting. The fact is that if anger or hostility is accompanied by physical attack upon school staff, fellow students or property, the optimum atmosphere for teaching or learning is bound to rapidly deteriorate. Teachings at school levels and in homes and improving the quality of instructions and monitoring the activities and behaviours of students will improve the discipline and order to make children good citizens.

Public support, community-wide interest and individual participation, therefore are important to be enlisted. In other words, the information that allows the Police to exert formal control must be supported by the people.

Therefore, mutual assistance among the various components of society will certainly encourage the Police to become more functional. The best solution is to have only one urge and that should always be allowed to exit; the urge to live in peace. In this context, not only the Police but the people too have a vital role to play.

The community must understand that Police need the community in their role and that such participation is equally beneficial to all segments of the community. Public interest in the Police-community relationship at times surmounts adversely when civic peace and order are threatened by dissident groups in street demonstrations, confrontations and the like. Unfortunately, such treacherous actions have now become more common than in the past. Often these events spill over into violence and Police are quickly labelled as “villains”, forgetting the fact they are guardians of the law.

Today, people are used to a culture of taking to the streets, blocking the roads, thus inconveniencing the peace-loving public, to bring forth their grievances in the form of protests, seeking the intervention of the authorities to resolve their problems. Such situations have, of late, been a common site with no single day passing by without a demonstration taking place. The publicity drawn on such events for public consumption has also led to the replication of occurrences in the guise of democracy, little realising the ill effects to the community in particular and public tranquility in general.

Citizens must understand that the prevention of violent situations is not the responsibility of the Police alone. A just social order for all is the ultimate answer and reaching this goal is a vital responsibility also of the community. One of the most enduring Policing tenets attributed to Sir Robert Peel – the 19th Century British Home Secretary, who played a key role in the establishment Metropolitan Police Act is the adage “The Police are the People and the People are the Police”. The truth of the saying could be made real only when the community plays a hands-on role in making their neighbourhood safe and observing the Rules of Law. The citizens essentially need to understand the core values of the society they live and collaborate between them and the Police to uphold and maintain Law and Order.

It is unlikely that many instances of Police action have ever been completely satisfactory to everyone concerned; for no matter how brilliant or efficient may be, it is at most times not viewed with enthusiasm by the thwarted or apprehended offender or his or her family, friends and/or interest groups. Constructive criticism must come by way to improve the efficiency of the Police but certainly not in the way of destructive criticism to incapacitate and/or ridicule their image. Therefore, the community needs to alter this adversarial element in its relationship with the Police to understand that in all their functions, the Police carry out a multifaceted responsibility assigned to them by the community they serve. Public participation to assist the Police in their duties must be understood as a civic right of the community and not to enable the Police to win popularity contests.

Reduction of crime through community involvement, reduction of fear of crime, solicitation of information from the public, involvement of the community in Police functions and improvement of the image of the Police Force are some of the key factors that require to be listed.

The Police need the public in their role as a supportive body. The public has frequently taken the position of not wanting to get involved and then pointing the finger of blame at the Police for rising crime. This is not to say that the Police can simply point the finger of blame back at the public. What it means is that the responsibility of an efficient Police Force is two-way; it needs public support and participation to deter offenders from working against society and, on the other hand, the Police need to improve their professionalism to serve the public.

Public support, community-wide interest and individual participation, therefore are important to be enlisted. In other words, the information that allows the Police to exert formal control must be supported by the people. However, information must be truthful and should not be brought forth due to other dubious reasons, such as personal enmity, professional and personal jealousy, resentment and intervention of interest groups to fabricate evidence. Such irresponsible transgressions will only divert the attention of the Police on a wrong trail, making the end result pessimistic and negative.

Citizens must be the ones who are the major reporters of crime, witnesses of crime and accusers of wrongdoers; they are the information sources for the Police to act swiftly for the benefit of the community at large.

Police require community-based support in crime prevention and enforcing the Rule of Law. This approach of the public will exemplify the problem-solving nearness to Police and community relations, in which citizens could function as the eyes and ears of the Police. The public should not remain passive, only to protect individual interests. Public support is few and far between. Although one can observe a descending trend in civic engagement across the globe, it is amply clear that at least a minimum level of civic participation is essential to sustain effective implementation of the Rule of Law. The civic consciousness indisputably still holds great value and correspondingly needs citizen mobilisation as a driving force, if we are to translate the enforcement of Law and Order.

Citizen involvement in crime prevention and control cannot be considered an unrealistic expectation in today’s context; many citizens are apathetic and prefer that Police alone be responsible for maintaining law and order. Citizens must, therefore, should not forget the fact that all policing is community policing and the job of the Police will be easy if the citizens obey the Rules of Law.

Abraham Maslow has said that “when one’s only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. The public participation in assisting the Police is twofold: to be disciplined and to cooperate with the Police in the prevention of crime and the preservation of public tranquility.

The creation of this kind of community participation requires the collaborative effort of all social agencies as a complementary option to conventional law enforcement. The impetus of building a Police-Public partnership will certainly bring forth success in civilian policing for the wellbeing of the community and is bound to ameliorate the maintenance of Law and Order to enhance the quality of life.

Asoka Wijetilleka

Asoka Wijetilleka is a former Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police, currently functioning as the Advisor to the Minister of Public Security and is the Secretary General of the International Police Association, President of the Association of Chiefs of Police, Sri Lanka and Exco. Member of the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA), Sri Lanka

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