Sri Lanka’s top cop Pujitha Jayasundera’s attempt to celebrate his department’s 150th anniversary with an estimated Rs. 60 million tamasha has been shot down by the Minister of Law and Order Sagala Ratnayake. Of course, the Inspector General of Police is entitled to bask in the glory of some of his illustrious predecessors with the usual panache comprising the spit and polish of parades.

And it would be a pretty good idea to leave it at that. After all, what is there to celebrate? The once largely proud image of the police has taken one heck of a beating over recent years.  In 2013 for the second time running within three years, Sri Lanka’s general public had ranked the police as the most corrupt institution in the country. Does this unspeakable image deserve any cause for a gala celebration?

What stands out with shocking clarity in recent times is the striking exactness in which the department has been forced to admit that collusion among some of its top-ranking personnel with the underworld has been a key contributory factor to the rapidly surging crime wave. Several earlier responses to such allegations had been confined to mostly denials and cover-ups.

Now all of a sudden we are being informed of a plethora of cases of cops going bad. Scores of the department’s officers including some of its top brass have been arrested for crimes ranging from contract murder, to bribery and drugs dealing.

And while they continue to thrive, enriched by their drug dealing and protection money, the police seem indifferent if not complicit. In the appraisal of most, they make the lawless workload of corrupt politicians and gang-lords appear an adventure in mutual creativity rather than making them sweat for their filthy lucre.

Such deplorable behaviour, nonchalance, cynicism and often indifference would have been deemed intolerable by zealous officers of a bygone generation who became legends as leaders of anti-crime squads and whose very names instilled fear in the cockles of all cold criminal hearts. Their methods may not always have been orthodox, but they were nonetheless efficacious.

But there it was then, the very proof of the pudding in a robust era of policing when drugs dealers, muggers, snatch thieves, abductors and rapists did not swagger around owning our streets. Gunfights did not break out in broad daylight in densely-populated business areas. We did not walk in fear watching the streets for stray bullets. Criminals did not have the temerity to haughtily thumb their snoots at even the lowest-ranking cop let alone dare assault any uniformed police officer.

Admittedly too, there have been times in the recent past when police action, or rather, inaction has manifested a murky side that has reached beyond the rumblings of disgruntled personnel and into the darker parts of the nation’s soul.  Sadly, several senior law-enforcement administrators have clearly displayed that they lack both the eminence of mind and plain guts so needed to protect the population and the good name of their department. Today several weak-willed top brass quiver in their boots when confronted with certain legislative lunatics and comply with carrying out their often illegal orders.
It is scarcely a secret that certain politicians and police personnel are working hand-in-glove with big-time criminal syndicates which appear hell-bent on driving legitimate small-time entrepreneurs out of business. Surely, a classic example of how organized crime is turning our market places into bloody  battlefields.

On the other hand, the emergence of recurrent political meddling in the law-enforcement process is another infernal aspect which has contributed liberally to the significant increase in crime and obstruction of justice and must be summarily dealt with. No one could dismiss the truism that in the recent past, politicization has provoked a rolling of many distinguished heads within the department, following insidious witch-hunts by succeeding governments. Clearly, there have remained a few tenacious survivors among the top echelon who have refused to cow to the demands of political pressure. But lamentably they are few.

Cynics might view the whole exercise in law-enforcement as self-serving and hypocritical, but what it mostly reflects is a sense that the cops are not being afforded the degree of respect that would usually be bestowed on a law-enforcement department by their political masters, the general public and the felons of the underworld.

Some five decades ago, the police was a proud ‘apolitical’ force. No one for a moment doubted then that policing and politics were kept separate.  One of the most enviable aspects of our society during those spacious times was the rule of law and order and an efficient judicial system.  It was an era which inspired confidence in the common man that there was a rule of law in place which was equal to all.

But that was a period in time when officers were gentlemen and only gentlemen were recruited as officers. Even constables then were enlisted from possibly humble, yet respectable families, whose ancestry records were stringently screened to ensure they did not possess even a taint of criminal scandal.

Unsurprisingly, working in law enforcement brings its own array of trials. One of the most challenging gauntlets to run for anyone in such a taxing line of work is to stand up for what is legally right even, if it may not be the most sagacious thing to do. That is because such plucky posture could present an extensive risk in impeding the progression of one’s career.  Being reliably honest and honourable and refusing to dance to the tune of the political piper could prove suicidal to even the most intrepid and trustworthy officers who contrive to carry out their duties without fear or favour.

As Hunter S. Thompson, the famous American author and journalist so pithily put it:  “We cannot expect people to have respect for law and order until we teach respect to those we have entrusted to enforce those laws.” Until the coppers rebuild their woefully horrendous image and re-establish their credibility as fair and fearless enforcers of the law there can be no cause for celebration.