Policing the Police


The police have been very much in the news—good, bad and ridiculous—in the past few weeks. On the good side, they arrested the murderers who buried Dekendra Thapa, a journalist, alive in 2004, despite strong protest from the prime minister. They have clamped down on drunk-driving to prevent accidents and save lives. 
On the bad side, an SSP drew a pistol when the traffic police stopped him for drunk-driving. Another SSP allegedly smuggled foreign currencies. Some senior police officers were seen enjoying a wedding party with a fugitive. A policeman raped a girl in detention and another policeman married a new woman wherever he was posted. Yet another policeman forced a rape victim to withdraw her complaint for a bribe from the perpetrator. 

And on the ridiculous side, the police arrested young people enjoying consensual sex in small hotels and restaurants in several places and asked the resorts to keep their guestroom doors unbolted to prevent “social crimes” in the police jargon. They have also decided to crack down on those young men who wear a pony tail or earrings.

These headlines demonstrate that policing the police to prevent the bad and the ridiculous is as important as policing the public. Prussian philosopher and founder of the University of Berlin Karl Wilhelm Von Humboldt (1767-1835) has said, “If it were possible to make an accurate calculation of the evils which police regulations occasion, and of those which they prevent, the number of the former would, in all cases, exceed that of the latter.” 

That is true in Nepal. Article 15 of the Police Act 2012 says the police should prevent and detect crimes, maintain public order, and assist the needy. This is consistent with the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. The police often go beyond their core duties because they are used to doing so. 

Under the Panchayat system and Hindu kingdom, this unformed force had a broad remit. It was an instrument to maintain political control and enforce Hindu moral code. It has no political or faith-related role under the democratic system and secular republic. Yet it continues to work as the ruling elite’s political tool and to act like a cousin of the Saudi mutaween—morality police—even though there is no such role in the new arrangements. 

The police have not changed their behavior either. They remain predatory in their attitude in taking things away from ordinary people, though now they are more inclusive, educated, trained, and exposed to international norms of policing through UN peacekeeping operations than before. They still arbitrarily arrest and brutally exploit the people with no political connections and use double standard: One for the powerful and the other for the powerless. 

Men are free to wear earrings or a pony tail, because there is no public indecency. Nepali laws do not prohibit two adults from having sex by mutual consent in private. Though barred, prostitution is difficult to prove and incest is difficult to detect. It is, therefore, illegal for the police to arrest men wearing earrings or a pony tail or to raid lodges, small hotels and restaurants and nab adults for “social crimes.” 

In the flagrant display of double standard, the police raid small hotels but not the big ones and publicly pillory ordinary people for “social crimes” but protect the big guys from public exposure. You may recall the incident some time ago in which the police hid information about a tipsy minister who visited a prostitute in Maharajganj while his police bodyguard waited outside. 

Arresting pony tailed men and apprehending adults having consensual sex in private are frivolous stunts that come at a high cost of the police time and resources that should have been applied to their core duties—preventing serious crimes like murder, rape, robbery, theft and fraud and resolving the thousands of unsolved cases for years. Nepal, for example, is the sixth worst among countries that have failed to solve the murder cases of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Public approval, voyeurism, and systemic weaknesses encourage such stunts. Public approval lures the police into such stunts for instant popularity. Although voyeurism is common in society, police officials often misuse their power to spy on young men and women and repeatedly blackmail and exploit the women caught in their dragnet. And police leadership allows such stunts to deflect public attention from their chronic systemic problems and failings. 

As the first two reasons require no further explanation, let me focus on the systemic problems and weaknesses. I find four major problems, which the Khil Raj Regmi government should start addressing. 

First, criminalization of politics has made the police impotent and demotivated. Powerful politicians protect and use criminals to promote their interest. For instance, the former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and his attorney-general ordered to stop investigation into the murder of a journalist to protect the killers. Ministers pressure the police to release their supporter-criminals the moment they are nabbed. Why catch criminals if you have to release them immediately? 

Second, the police have been too much politicized. Ministers frequently sold promotions and lucrative positions to the highest bidder. They rewarded and punished police personnel based, not on performance, but on political allegiance, personal connection, and promise to fill their coffers. For example, SP Ramesh Kharel was prematurely transferred from the Hanuman Dhoka police office because he did not toe the political line. 

Third, the police have a shortage of capacity, and what is available is often misused. They have insufficient training, expertise and equipment to effectively prevent crimes, investigate criminal cases, and bring criminals to justice. While there are not enough police on the beat, more than 10,000 junior officials have been deployed as slaves to till senior officials’ farms and do their dishes. 

Fourth, protecting criminals has proved more rewarding than punishing them. The police can extract money and favors from criminals and fugitives by not arresting them and not bringing them to justice. So the enforcers of the law rather hobnob with criminals than arrest them. 

Government, police leadership and the public will have to work together to remove such systemic problems. We can learn from other countries. 

In the United Kingdom, for instance, if a politician intervenes in a particular criminal case, he or she would land in jail. A similar provision and its effective execution are necessary in Nepal to end political protection to criminals and criminalization of politics.

Countries like the United States and United Kingdom have confined politicians to policy-making and taken them out of the police’s personnel and operational matters to depoliticize the police. We need to do the same in Nepal. The Public Service Commission should handle police recruitment and promotions and a committee made of senior Home Ministry and Police Headquarters officials should decide transfers of police officers. 


Government should provide more resources for training and equipment for the police to do their core functions effectively. The Police Headquarters should end the culture of slavery—deploying junior personnel as senior officers’ unpaid private servants—and redeploy these personnel to policing tasks. Police performance should be evaluated based on the core functions, not on cheap stunts.

In the West, aiding, abetting, or protecting criminals or seeking benefits from them is treated as a serious crime, and the police’s involvement in them is taken even more seriously. Police officers have lost their jobs and some are waiting to be punished with even graver penalties for simply sharing information for favors with the News of the World journalists in the United Kingdom. In Nepal too, such complaints should be investigated quickly, and the guilty brought to justice swiftly.

For this purpose, Nepal should set up an independent and permanent board, as in advanced countries, to investigate complaints about police misdeeds and abuse of power and take robust departmental action against deviant officials based on the board’s findings. Serious police crimes should be referred to other competent bodies.

Admittedly, it is difficult to prevent crimes and bring criminals to justice. Public trust and support will make the job easier. To earn it, the police must not only devote their time and resources to their core duties, stay away from bad and ridiculous headlines and stop being obsequious to the powerful and obnoxious to the powerless, but also must police themselves better. 


 Published in Republica: http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=51991  
Published on 2013-03-24 01:15:18

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