Almost every day we see protests and demonstrations against police action or inaction. Some of the protests are spontaneous, and some others are well organized or pre-planned. The spontaneous protests are generally against police inaction after a criminal act or incidents of alleged police brutality.

While some analysts are of the opinion that these protests are an indication of people’s mistrust of the police ability to maintain law and order. Some say it is due to resentment or anger towards the government. Others say that the protests reflect people’s discontent about judiciary.

The reason could be any of the above or some of them or even all of them. What is clear is that there is a growing tendency to take the law into one’s own hands rather than wait for slow process of judiciary action or inept police action.

It is no secret that there is an imperative need for police reforms. The much-awaited Police Commission was set up, fulfilling yet another campaign promise of the government of good governance and it is inundated with complaints and inquiries into issues ranging from police excesses and allegations of brutality and torture. The Commission, which has an important responsibility of formulating and strengthening the law and order machinery, is currently busy with various inquiries such as allegations against death of a youth and the police use of excessive force, role of police dealing with the alleged abduction of a youth by a group of supporters of a young Member of Parliament and many alleged police attacks on civilians.

In some of these recent incidents the image of the police suffered heavily. Last year, the police muddled up the investigations into the rape-murder of child Seya and over enthusiastic members of law enforcement, in their eagerness, perhaps to please their seniors, or due to constant pressure from the media, obtained ‘confessions’ from ‘prime suspects’ and later produced ‘real suspects’ with another ‘confession’ and ended up as the laughing stock of the entire nation.

Then we saw the police attack on students of Higher National Diploma in Accountancy (HNDA), who were protesting opposite the UGC. The police claimed they used ‘limited force’ or ‘reasonable force’ to disperse the student demonstration in front of the Ministry of Education. The electronic media showed the merciless attacks unleashed by the guardians of law on the unarmed male and female students.

The police behaviour showed that that the men in uniform were convinced that there was only a very thin line to separate the criminals from the rest of society, society being one black stripe and the criminals the other. The symbolism is that the only thing separating society from the criminals is this thin line. For the policemen, the students were the members of the society who were crossing over that thin line to become the criminals. Such irrational police mentality cannot be changed overnight. But immediate steps must be taken for healthy police reforms. That should be the first task of the Police Commission. The general concept is that a cop is a cop and he held that thin line which demarcates the society and the criminals and made that line resist the bad guys, protecting the good guys.

The protests and demonstration are a part and parcel of democracy and protest marches and demonstrations should be regularized as it is an exercise of a democratic right. Police may argue that unlawful assemblies in public places, without permission will not fall into that right. The remedy is to train law enforcement officials to deal with such demonstrations, legal or unlawful, with utmost restraint.

There is an imperative need to educate the law enforcement officials about their mandate, duties and responsibilities. The Peelian principles are a good guideline for such education. Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Sir Robert Peel defined ‘an ethical police force’ with his guidelines that came to know as the Peelian Principles.

The Police Commission must take immediate steps to initiate the above duty guidelines to police officers to ensure better policing that could erase the black marks we often find on police uniform.

Law & order takes to streets (3) Law & order takes to streets (2) Law & order takes to streets (1)