Enforcing Police Accountability through Civilian Oversight


Sankar Sen

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    For Gouri, Sandip and Saurav with love


    It is yet another thought-provoking book from the facile and prolific pen of an old war-horse of police reforms. Sri Sankar Sen served as Director General of Police, Director of the Indian Police Academy and Director General in the National Human Rights Commission. I had the privilege of knowing this fine human being while he was in the Human Rights Commission. My admiration for him has since grown vastly as I watch his tireless effort to bring some meaning and sense to police culture of the day.

    With the marked increase of violent crimes, acts of terrorism aided by sophisticated explosive devices; ruthless and cynical contempt for the suffering of thousands of innocent men, women and children; the inadequacies of the criminal justice system and the frequent extremely liberal judicial attitudes raise some difficult issues. There is increasing tendency to achieve political objectives by resorting to violent means and to “re-draw national boundaries by blood”. Strong laws granting adequate powers to the law enforcement machinery might become necessary to protect the society. But then, the quintessential prerequisite is the assurance that such vast powers are not abused. When strong laws are sought to be brought forth, the State must pause to think about the kind and quality of men to whom such powers are entrusted. Experience has shown that law enforcement agencies have not always attained the state of ethical and moral responsibility that ought to go with the possession of wide powers. It is human experience that unbridled authority has always tended towards excess and abuse. History has provided ample illustrations of unregulated power quickly degenerating into tyranny. The attempted cure becomes worse than the disease itself.

    Summing up the consequences of police misbehavior, David H. Bayley observed that

    the fear of police brutality might affect calls for police-service, readiness to assist the police, levels of emotion in police contacts, avoidance of police contact, latent disrespect, repressed anger, and inclination to believe the worst about the police. As a general reaction, faced with a non-cooperative populace, police may resort to sweeps and searches; suspects who flee rather than talk may be more likely to be considered guilty and to be treated roughly; the anger and resentment fed by perceptions of police brutality may encourage protests and collective violence, reinforcing the police belief that only force will work; and belief in the prevalence of brutality may cause people to criticize the police no matter what they do.

    Sankar Sen, in his book says: “Bad application of promiscuous use of powers to limit a person's human rights by such means of arrest, house-searches, stop and search, lead to bad relationship with the entire neighborhood, thereby rendering effective policing of those neighborhoods impossible.” It is trite that the efficiency of the police rests on public confidence. It is the public that supplies intelligence and information and without public support it is only a vain policeman who thinks he can do without public faith and support.

    Around 60 years ago, a foreign scholar described Indian polity as a “functioning anarchy”. In the wake of the Indian Independence and emergence of the free Republic of India into the comity of Nations, speculations in the Western press, particularly the American, were rife that the stability of the new republic was tenuous. The Universal Adult Franchise, which was described as the greatest gamble of history, was considered by the Western Press to be too idealistic. Sixty years later the Western Journalistic tone changed. It was one of reluctant admiration. Indian Democracy, they said, was robust though chaotic. India's economic progress, they said, indicated that India was the first to achieve this “not through the raw muscle of the factory, but by its brain power”. India's GDP has now crossed trillion US $ mark. The American Intelligence Council's Report “Mapping the Global Future” indicates both strengths and weakness of India's Economic potential by 2020.

    All human ambitions are subject to the paramount claims of death. Extending the metaphor, we might justifiably say that our whole ambitions, both economic and political, and as a civilized nation is subject to a sound criminal justice system. Use of physical force is the monopoly of the State. If private actors successfully and brazenly get away with the use of physical force to gain their own ends, the State is diminished and the faith of the people in their Government is eroded. If a sizeable section of the people lose faith in their Government and in the justice of their society a socially negative critical-mass occurs, resulting in widespread cynicism which unleashes a power of destruction. Something nearing this has already happened. Now politicians and administrators are groping for solutions elsewhere than where solutions are to be found.

    Reform of Criminal Justice is too serious a matter to be left alone to the judges and policemen. History has been unkind to people whose thinking is not creative and who do not manage the forces of change. We shall have to admit that the Criminal Justice System has failed. Well-equipped, trained and honest policemen and policing are really non-existent, barring a few honorable exceptions who are too few to make a difference. Judiciary has to take big share of the blame. Court delays, untrained magistracy, lack of active case-flow management, desultory court practices, non-adherence to time schedules have contributed to the collapse. We have not learnt from our experiences or from the experience of other countries. The creation of the Court of Criminal Appeals in England was itself the result of ground-swell of dissatisfaction with the Criminal Justice System. More recently, the establishment of the Criminal Justice Review Board was itself the result of some serious miscarriages of Criminal Justice such as the “Guildford Four,” “Maguire Seven” and “Birmingham Six”. These instances were described by Lord Devlin as “as the Greatest Disasters that have shaken British Justice in my time”.

    To hasten the collapse and heighten its disastrous consequences is the pervasive atmosphere of corruption. The honest citizen is perplexed and helpless. What an African potentate did in recent history is indeed the crowning glory of corruption. He erected his own statue in front of High Court Building of his State and etched below it in enduring granite a distortion of a famous biblical exhortation. It read “Seek Ye the Kingdom of Politics All Else Will Be Added Unto you”. The whole world was shocked but it only served to remind them of the political realities of the times. Democracy, the way it is practiced, can lead to electoral despotism and the tyranny of the majority. Alan Bullock described what happened in Hitler's Germany. Street Gangs, he said, came into possession of the resources of a great modern state. Gutter came to power. But Hitler never ceased to boast that it was by majoritarian democratic vote. This has lessons for our own democracy.

    Yet, I believe India and Indians are not without hope. Not everything is lost yet. We have lost our way but surely we will find another. Such books and men like Sankar Sen will continue to remind us of this.

    M.N.Venkatachaliah Former Chief Justice of India

    24 December 2009



    Policing a democratic society is a difficult job. Protection of the fundamental rights of the people and compliance with law are the twin pillars of good policing in a democratic society. The mandate of the police to use force to curb violence and disorder raises the key issue that the police themselves should not indulge in abuse or misuse of force. The exercise of police power has to be subjected to checks and balances and, in order to be credible, have to be reliable, as well as, effective in their operation and must be perceived as such by the members of the community.

    Police in democratic countries have to be accountable to multiple mechanisms. Police remain accountable to independent judiciary, civilian bodies like Ombudsman, Human Rights Commissions, etc. Since the 1980s, in many Western democratic countries, civilian oversight mechanisms have come into existence, making the police accountable to civilian oversight bodies. The police, thus, lost the monopoly in deciding if the police officers were treating the civilians right. Public demand for civilian oversight has acquired an edge because of the widely held perception that police superiors tend to protect their subordinates.

    Police organizations in different countries of the world have also voiced strong opposition against civilian oversight agencies on the ground that they undermine police morale. Despite anecdotal evidence, there are no hard empirical data to support the contention that civilian review produces adverse impact on police morale and job performance. The emerging trend in democratic countries in the world is in favor of stronger forms of internal review.

    Working of the Review Bodies and their impact on police functioning and the view points of the complainants have been discussed in the different chapters of the book. The real challenge before the Oversight Bodies is to convince the police leaders that adherence to rules and human rights norms will help the police to enjoy greater trust and cooperation from the civilians and function more efficiently. Indeed, willing compliance is to be preferred to exacted deterrence. The purpose of civilian review should be to demonstrate to the communities that the police are responsible as an institution.

    In India, the police accountability is poor. The police remain beholden in to the ruling party. Recently the Supreme Court in India in a landmark judgment in the case of Prakash Singh vs. Union of India has directed the Central and state governments to set up Police Complaints Authorities. Unfortunately the response of the Central and state governments as well as the police leadership is lukewarm. The political masters want the police to remain beholden to them and not function as genuine custodians of the rights and freedoms of the people. The country needs professional and accountable police and for this a strong movement of the civil society is called for.

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    About the Author

    Sankar Sen is presently Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. A distinguished member of the Indian Police Service, from the Orissa cadre; he served in the Intelligence Bureau for seven years, and also as the Additional Director General, BSF, West Bengal. He was the Director of the National Police Academy, Hyderabad and the Director General (Investigation), National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). As the Director he was responsible for many innovative changes in the training programs of Indian Police Service officers. He was also deeply involved in the human rights sensitization of Indian police and personnel of para-military forces and improvement of the prison administration. He built up an excellent investigation wing of the NHRC. Sen was awarded the Police Medal for Meritorious Service in 1979 and President's Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 1986. A large number of his articles on law-enforcement, terrorism, drug trafficking, custodial justice, human rights, etc., have appeared in national dailies and well-known magazines in and outside the country. His publications include Indian Police Today (1994), Police in Democratic Societies (2000), Human Rights and Law Enforcement (2002) and Human Rights in Developing Society (2009).

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