The Police Way

The following article originally appeared in Pakistan Today.

A friend’s house was robbed in Islamabad a couple of months back. She was visiting another city at the time and there was no one at home. Robbers broke into the house and took some jewelry and other valuables. But the real dilemma started for her after that.

She lost some property and valuables but the question, for her, was whether she wanted to have an First Investigation Report (FIR)—the required first  step before the police can start a formal investigation—registered with the police or not. First was the anticipated hassle of trying to get an FIR registered and then the uncertainty of what the police will do to "investigate" the crime. Friends prevailed on her to have an FIR registered, which took more than a week, a number of phone calls to senior police officials and a lot of hassle (and all this just to register a complaint with the police that she had been robbed and even at the end of it we are not sure if a "real" FIR was registered or not!) to get done. But the real trouble started afterwards.

The police arrested the husband of the maid who worked at my friend’s place. They questioned her driver and a couple of people who worked in and around the house. They hassled all of these people, visited their houses and sometimes even places of work and generally created a threatening environment for everyone.

But the worst-affected was the maid’s family, of course. The husband was not only kept in lock-up, he was beaten up/harassed by the police and the entire household was threatened. This made my friend quite uneasy. If the person was not guilty he was being tortured for no reason. And even if he was guilty this was no way to investigate a crime as clearly the police do not have a right to beat people up while investigating suspects.

When my friend went to the police to complain that they should not be beating this person, their answer was typical: "Do you want to have your case pursued or not, and do you want your stuff back or not?" The implication was that if you wanted your robbery to be resolved, live with the fact that torture and beating was the only tool that the police had for investigation. And if you did not want people to be beaten up, why you had insisted on getting the FIR registered and why you were pursuing the case.

Torture is endemic in our police stations and police lock-ups. There is plenty of corruption and nepotism in the police system, and a lot of torture is related to that: people playing power games between themselves and using the police to settle scores and intimidate opponents and so on. The police act as more than willing mercenaries in this. In fact some of the litigation in Pakistan is also done for the same purpose.

But another major reason for torture in police custody is that this seems to be the only means of investigation that the police seem to have at their disposal. Most of the convictions in our courts are not on the basis of physical evidence and investigations based on forensics and so on, they are based on confessions and testimonies. And the best and the easiest way of getting people to talk is to beat them up and make them talk.

Think about it. There is robbery or murder. And the culprit is not obvious and/or has not given himself/herself up. Gather all the people who were around the crime, relatives, those who had a stake and so on, and beat them up, someone is bound to tell a story. Since a lot of crime is of course local, this is not a bad way to solve crimes. Especially where the police are rewarded on keeping crime reports down and solving crime, and the state does not really look at how the crimes were "solved" and what rights were trampled on the way.

Given lax accountability, and in fact no accountability in many cases, it is no wonder that the police add their own angles to the game. They make money from cases. Whoever can pay and whoever can be exploited, the bigger the crime the better. Unless, of course, some influential is involved, in which case the police becomes a pure instrument in the hand of the powerful.

The issue is not just good or bad people in the police. It is the poor system in which these people are embedded. They are given too much power, have no accountability or whatever accountability they have, it is to the government and to the powerful. To top things off the police have little training, almost no resources and poor facilities. Even if they want to, the police-station level staff is not capable of doing good investigations.

There has been a lot of talk of changing the thana culture in Pakistan. But until underlying factors linked to political power, use of police as an enforcement arm, and competence are looked at, understood and addressed, than a culture will remain the same and policy initiatives will be mere talk. And incompetence or corruption will rule and torture will remain the only investigative technique. Citizens will remain afraid of going to the police and involving them in anything, fearing their own safety and safety of those whom they involve.

This might keep reported crime statistics under some check but it is hardly the way to organize a police force of a country. No wonder survey after survey shows the police to be one of the most corrupt and the worst department, in the perception of people, of Pakistan. It is some distinction to take that honor in a field filled with strong competitors.

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