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Citizen-Friendly Police?:CHANGING FROWNS TO SMILES, By Dharmendra Nath, 30 Jan, 2013 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 30 January 2013

Citizen-Friendly Police?


By Dharmendra Nath


The police in a modern State is for society’s protection and safeguarding the public in pursuit of its legitimate interests. Yet in our country, there is a widespread impression that the State uses the police more against the citizens than for them. People still find it hard to forget the Emergency misuse of police for arrests and family planning sterilizations. Today, public-private participation may be the flavour of the moment but police-people participation is such a no-no. Why? Does our Government ever think of it?

The reality is that images of police-public interface are almost entirely dominated by a laathi (stick) and tear gas wielding police. There are no friendly smiles anywhere when the police is around, only frowns, fights and much worse. It reaches a breaking point when there are allegations of fake encounters, custodial deaths and hostile retribution. Why should the picture be so bleak?

For an answer there is need to look beyond the individual. Occasionally, an individual may be at fault – and there is no dearth of well-motivated staff either – but more often it is the system which is to blame. We suffer from a systemic failure on the police front.

On the one hand, we recently saw massive protests against the mishandling of the Delhi gang rape case and police lethargy and on the other subsequent police overreaction against the protesting public. Sadly, the law is being used against the people leaving the criminals in the background. It only shows that the police is slow where public interest is involved and over active where it involves State authorities. Is this not a perfectly colonial mind set? Whose interest should the police be serving?

The weighty police reforms and the Supreme Court’s directions to the Government of 2006 is best avoided here, as it may imply ruffling too many egos and dislodging powerful vested interests. Instead, let us confine ourselves to more mundane procedural matters, which if attended, can still heal a lot of public grievance.

Prompt medical treatment of an accident/crime victim is still an unresolved problem. If one picks up a victim and drops him at the nearest hospital door one is more likely than not to run into trouble with the police. Its questioning and investigation will probably start with that person and all sorts of demands will make his life miserable. Maybe he is a helpful angel, but the police may in the end even nail him with the offence if it sees no other way out! That is a fearful prospect and it deters many law-abiding citizens from answering the call of duty and extending the help they would otherwise willingly extend. The fault is systemic. Even supervisory officers of the police are unlikely to fault their subordinates with this approach.

There should be some provision in the law and procedure for protecting the privacy of the helpful person and honouring his freedom not to get involved any further with subsequent police investigation and court prosecution. In its absence, wonder how many out of lakhs of those participating in candle-light protest march in favour of the recent Delhi rape victims would have mustered the courage to pick them up and take them to a hospital on that fateful night.

There are helpful court rulings to ensure prompt medical attention once the victim reaches the hospital but the problem of legal/police wrangle in reaching them to the hospital still remains. If this problem is overcome there will be much greater cooperation of the public with the police and victims of accidents and crime will also get prompt relief.

If there can be an Amnesty scheme for Black money people as an exception, why not a small exception to the general rule for these emergency cases? The fall out will be tremendous. The police will immediately acquire a friendly face.

Secondly, is the issue of police power of arrest. That is another systemic dispensation. Many times it is exercised arbitrarily. The police calls people for questioning and then they suddenly get arrested. This comes as a shock to the people involved causing much disruption in their lives. Why can’t this power be subjected to judicial scrutiny before it is exercised as a matter of due care and precaution? Power to arrest without a warrant is a colonial vestige. If an offence is made out after questioning by all means let the police secure a warrant of arrest for that person from the concerned judicial authority after presenting the case instead of springing a surprise.

This is crucial since many offences differ only in shades of gravity. There is a thin line dividing cases of 279 IPC from those of 304 and 304A IPC. So is it in many cases of 379, 392 and 395 IPC and 323 – 326 IPC. A little twist and the nature of the offence and its gravity change. The accused may become liable to arrest without a warrant, which otherwise should not be. The police image with the public will get an upgrade if this element of possible arbitrariness is removed. Every arrest should be post judicial scrutiny. Of course, there will be exceptions, for example in cases where the object clearly is to prevent occurrence of a crime. Legal educator Prof Madhava Menon has been pleading for it for a long time. But who listens?

As it is, there is judicial scrutiny of every arrest when the accused is produced before a judicial magistrate within 24 hours of arrest but many times the police deliberately makes the arrest on Fridays after closure of courts. As a result the accused is unable to present his case properly before the magistrate. If judicial scrutiny precedes arrest it would avoid harassment.

Thirdly, the issue of lodging a First Information Report (FIR) with the police is a continuing running sore point spoiling police–public relations. Reporting of any crime to the police is a big hassle. There are agitations, gheraos and approaches to higher ups to get a FIR registered. Many times in a vengeful mood the police implicates the complainant itself in the alleged crime. The police discourage registering of FIRs firstly, to reduce their workload and secondly, to show a better performance by a statistical interpretation. But this is counterproductive and its gain will never match the loss of trust with the people, whom they are meant to serve. It spoils the relationship of the police with the people ab initio.

Suppressing a FIR is totally unfair and hiding behind the defence of scrutiny before registering it is equally unfair. Matters don’t improve by suppressing the mere registration of crime. Let facts not be suppressed. Also, nothing prevents us from taking appropriate action in cases of false and misleading FIRs. So, why demur? So long as the police shirk registration FIRs police-people rapprochement will remain an empty dream.   

These procedural changes can make all the difference to the way the police is viewed by the society even if we do not dislodge the powers-that-be from their controlling positions in safe commanding ivory towers. ---INFA                                                  

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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