The latest outcries of Police brutality were heard on Sunday (August 9) when a 65-year-old resident of Stace Road, Colombo 14 collapsed and died during a confrontation with the Police. The Colombo North Police division conducting a drug raid in the area apprehended a woman in possession of heroin while the residents including the victim had obstructed the Police from carrying out the arrest. It was during this fracas, the victim had as the postmortem has revealed now suffered a heart attack causing his eventual demise.
‘Minimum power’ as mentioned in the Penal Code under Private Self Defense has long been an issue of contention as the law does not expressly set out as to what amounts to ‘minimum power’ in an incident. According to ASP Gunasekara Police is expected to use equal force when making arrests. ‘It is up to the courts to decide if the force used is excessive’
However, the area residents allege that the Police officers, conducting the raid had manhandled the victim, an allegation that the Police vehemently denies. While a tense situation arose, the crowd was placated by Colombo North SSP Ajith Rohana with the promise to take action against officers if found to be guilty of the charge. However, on Tuesday (August 11) the postmortem report by the Colombo Government Medical Officer somewhat exonerated the officers. According to Police Spokesperson ASP Ruwan Gunasekara, the report had found no signs of assault on the victim, and instead discovered that he had suffered heart failure along with the suspect having a history of lung and kidney disease. “We believe the officers will be fully exonerated following the inquiry conducted by the Police Department,” he said adding that when officers have been found in the wrong the Department has in fact taken necessary action against such officers.
While in this instance, the officers may have not acted erroneously it is due to perhaps a troublesome number of actual police brutality incidents that has given rise to similar situations such as that of Grandpass recently. With people being taken into custody being found dead in the jail cells after an alleged beating to others being shot, while supposedly trying to escape during being transported or otherwise the public tend to have grave doubts regarding the Police despite perhaps no wrong on their part has been committed.
According to ASP Gunasekara, the department has always ensured that action is taken if officers have been found guilty in any incident of assault. “We cannot take action every time an allegation is made if the officer is not at fault,” he said, adding that this will discourage the Police officers in carrying out their duty. According to Gunasekara this might influence officer to not act as they would see it as welcoming unwanted trouble. “However we have never covered up any incidents of Police brutality and always taken action against wrongdoers.”
Speaking to The Nation, Commissioner of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, Dr. Prathibha Mahanamahewa said Sri Lanka’s Second Republic Constitution of 1978 Chapter 3 Article 11 expressly provides freedom from torture. “The article provides protection against mental and physical torture and therefore the Police Department is specifically prohibited from torturing suspects,” he said adding that under the law not even a terror suspect can be treated as such.
“Police can say when trying to arrest an individual he attempted to escape calling for them to use ‘minimum power’. Such reasons cannot be accepted because they are trained individuals,” he said adding that even though there are several cases where the police were attacked by hard core criminals the Police should always remember that their job is to arrest the suspect and take legal action.
‘Minimum power’ as mentioned in the Penal Code under Private Self Defense has long been an issue of contention as the law does not expressly set out as to what amounts to ‘minimum power’ in an incident. According to ASP Gunasekara Police is expected to use equal force when making arrests. “It is up to the courts to decide if the force used is excessive,” he said explaining its legal aspect. This is perhaps another reason that often Police are found to be using more force than necessary. However, it must be noted that setting such limits might be impractical due to different situations will call for varying degrees of force to be used.
Dr. Mahanamahewa was, however, of the opinion that the incidents reported related to torture has drastically come down compared to recent years with now only a handful cases are reported. Mahanamahewa further stated that the authorities are now keen on taking action. “This I must admit is commendable,” he said.
According to Attorney-at-Law and Women’s Rights Activist, Nimalka Fernando people have lost confidence in Police over the last five to six years. “They never inquired into allegations when complaints were made and even if inquiries were done those were done in a biased manner,” she said adding that they were in fact working according to the instructions given by the Politicians.
“There is a deep resentment amongst the people against the Police. They have lost the credibility. “If there is credibility there is respect,” she concluded. According to her, there have been instances where people who were arrested later dying in the prison cells due to severe torture by the Police and suspects who were handcuffed were killed in encounters saying that they tried to attack the Police,” she said. Fernando says that such incidents clearly depict the mentality of the Police force in this country. “Unfortunately those who are in authority have failed to give an explanation as to what exactly happened in such cases. We have not seen an official response from the police department yet regarding such incidents.” she said.
To 25-year-old Sandaruwan, a member of the general public said while Police brutality is quite prevalent today it is somewhat acceptable that certain amount of force be used by the forces during its duty. “Some actions of the Police bring questions to our minds thus creating a sense of doubt against them,” he said adding that however he has also heard of the police attempting to educate its officers regarding how to avoid such situations. “The mentalities of the officers need to be fixed,” he said claiming this is the main issue for such incidents of torture to arise.
When questioned ASP Gunasekara admitted confrontations and using force is in fact a balancing act and when asked if Police are educated regarding taking steps to avoid such situations ASP Gunasekara said as happened in this situation how was the Police to know of possible health issues of a suspect or member of the public. While this can be true should the police not be more responsible towards the lives of the people that come under their care once an arrest is made? Like mentioned before however this can only be done through changing the mentalities of the Police force.
As recommended by legal and elected officials in the United States mentalities and similar situations can be changed along with providing to police better training to improve community relations. According to them, the Police need to learn more than about the simple logistics of policing but also the broader significance of their role in society. When once training is all about shooting, handcuffing, it can create an imbalance leaving the officers lacking people skills. It is clear an officer also needs training on dealing with community members in nonthreatening ways and along with better communication skills.
Better bond between the police and people can also be achieved through training to change even the smallest police behaviors that can have a larger positive effect such as stopping police from using harsh or derogatory language when talking with the public or outright racial profiling. Hearing an officer uses a slur or swear word can give citizens a negative impression.
While in the Grandpass situation the Police are probably in the clear the outrage expressed by the people in this situation as others show that the Police have much to do to regain the trust lost due to a handful of errant officers and their actions. Like Sandaruwan says the public bias against the Police is its own fault, a matter that should be looked at for the betterment of society and the department as well.