The Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundera wants us to be the arbiters of fashion when considering a change of his force’s uniforms. The survey, the police informs us, will focus on public opinion on changing the police uniform as a means of a change of attitude of the public towards the Police.
The current standard police uniform comes after the changes made in 1974 followed by several more additions to the khaki uniforms adopted in the beginning of the 20th century. Those of my vintage will remember our lower-ranking Sri Lankan cops whose uniforms comprised khaki tunics and long expansive below-the-knee shorts. Their long baggy shorts billowed in similarity to masted-sails catching wind and pulling a small ship to port. Regulation khaki hats completed their headgear while navy blue stockings snaked up to their calves. Mercifully in 1974 the uniforms were changed to lighter material shirts and long trousers.
In the Bard’s words: “For the apparel oft proclaims the man,” may hold true even in this day and age. Shakespeare too well appreciated the importance of all external things and outward appearances, as emblematic of the unseen spirit, to embody allusions to the subject of clothes. But one wonders seriously whether the local cops could change their image with simply a change of attire.
That is because 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.
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.
In the appraisal of most, the bad eggs 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 bygone generations 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.
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.
For too long 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 have been 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 marketplaces 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.
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.
For almost five decades or more a succession of police top brass have crafted initiatives aimed at improving community relations, usually coinciding with a public outcry over discourtesy or police brutality. 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. Every police officer must play his or her role with discipline, courtesy, good manners and with proper conduct and accountability. Good work must be rewarded, while erring personnel must be dealt with strictly. A more responsive system of rewards and punishment should be implemented.
Police work is one of the most personal of all public services. It deals with human beings in life and death situations. The cops and the people they serve must be as near as possible, and where possible must know one another. Such understanding can generate the police-citizen cooperation necessary for the involvement of the whole community in community protection.
But if the police brass imagine naively that the image of its rank and file can be boosted by a change of uniform without addressing the more burning issues they will as well be beating futilely against the bars of their cop shop cells.