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Association of Retired Senior IPS Officers (ARSIPSO)

This is with reference to my letter No. ARSIPSO/GS-BSD-4/2023 dated. 10/08/2023 on the 4th B.S. Das Memorial Lecture, which had to be rescheduled for unavoidable reasons.

The 4th B.S.Das Memorial Lecture to be delivered by Shri Anil Kumar Sinha, IAS (Retd.), on the subject Disaster Management: Creating Safer Communities, has now been rescheduled for October 14, 2023 as per the following:

Conference Room No. 2, India International Centre, Max Mueller Marg, New Delhi, October 14, 2023 (Saturday)



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COMPLAINTS AGAINST THE POLICE & CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT BODIES

 
 

 

Sankar Sen, IPS (Retd.)
sankarsen_ips@yahoo.com
Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences
Former Director General, National Human Rights Commission
Former Director, National Police Academy

In any society some kinds of complaints against the police are unavoidable. The confrontational nature of police work adds to the risk of complaints. There are disparities of power, which characterize the relations between the citizens and the police. The police wield the coercive authority of the state and can, and at times do, misuse the authority and harass and humiliate the citizens.

It is a fact that large number of complaints against the police goes unreported. It is also true that a large number of complaints reported to the police go unregistered. This phenomenon is known as “dark figures of crime”. Many citizens do not complain because of reasons of cost, convenience and fear of recrimination. To many complainants police environment is intimidating.

Sometimes the police also summarily decide that a complaint is a minor one and no further action is called for. In 1991 Christopher Commission (set up after the Rodney King incident) did an audit of 5 years of complaints process by the police department of Los Angeles and found to its horror hundreds of complaints had been written off the police books and many more complaints were rejected at the intake level. Similarly in Australia Fitzerald Enquiry (1989) found evidence of Queensland Police actually obstructing persons who tried to report against the police officers. It discovered them against us syndrome, an attribute of police mind which feels affronted by the impertinence of a civilian making a complaint and goes to classify him as a trouble maker or anti-police. In India also by any conservative estimate complaints registered by the police must be one-tenth of actual complaints reported. There is massive burking of crime and complaints against the police. The National Human Rights Commission set up to prevent violation of human rights by the public servants receives largest number of complaints against the police and these include arbitrary arrests, false cases and custodial violence.

Verbel Abuse
Verbal abuse is the commonest form of complaint made against the police. In USA also verbal abuse by the police is widely prevalent. It includes racial slurs, threats as well as other forms of discourtesy. Tangential to other forms of police misbehavior are discriminatory complaints. Minority communities often feel that the police are prejudiced and partial. In USA racial discrimination by the police or allegations of it fuelled the movement to introduce Civilian Oversight mechanisms and this appears to be an important factor in the development of such schemes elsewhere in the world. Ironically, citizens complain least to the police when public confidence in the police is low, in other words, at a time when there is greater need for complaints to be analyzed systematically to redress the injustices suffered by the citizens.

For dealing with complaints some advocate a fire brigade approach. But complaints in many instances are symptomatic of pervasive organizational problems, which require careful responses by the organization concerned. It is also necessary to view the complaints not as threats to specific policies or individual officers but as opportunities for reexamination of organizational polices and practices which will be of benefit to the police and the public.

There is also widespread public perception that police supervisors often wink at excesses of the subordinates, and internal control mechanisms of the police does not work. Andrew Goldsmith, a well-known police scholar, writes that, history of police has shown repeatedly inadequacy of excessive reliance of police self regulation. The trend towards external regulation of police activity has emerged from repeated episodes of police failure to respond adequately to the various forms of police misconduct.

This is the reason why civilian oversight bodies in many democratic countries have emerged as one of the legitimate means to exercise check on abuse of police power. Civilian oversight involves people outside the police gaining access to police processes in order to hold law enforcement accountable for its actions, policies and priorities. It is argued that civilian review bodies will conduct investigation more thoroughly and objectively and this will lead to a larger number of substantiated complaints and greater number of disciplinary action against errant officers. It has been found that civil oversight bodies, if they function properly can make a contribution to the process of police accountability. In Queensland, Australian Criminal Justice Commission, a powerful oversight body, set up in 1990s brought about significant reduction in the incidence of police corruption as well as misuse of force by institutionalizing vigorous independent investigation of complaints against the police and making policy recommendations and suggesting systemic changes. In India the National Human Rights Commission has been able to intervene effectively and expose many cases of police misconduct and provide relief to the victims. The number of complaints against the police before the National and State level Commission has shot up exponentially. However, it has always been found difficult to sustain and substantiate complaints against the police. There is always power and capability of the police in various ways to neutralize the complainants. There is also reluctance on the part of senior officers to seriously investigate complaints against the subordinates because of the fear of the adverse effect on staff relations and force morale.

In Queensland, Australia, the number of complaints against the police went up by 500 per cent in the first five years after the formation of Criminal Justice Commission. Then it started to decline. Similarly, creation of civilian review procedures in a large number of American cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, produced an increase in the number of complaints followed by significant reduction. Initially increase in complaints could be due to confidence in access to complaints process and eventual decline could be interpreted as evidence of civilian review ultimately functioning as an effective deterrent against police misconduct.

Unfortunately many of the oversight bodies are not able to function properly because they are not endowed with sufficient resources. In India many of State Human Rights Commissions are not able to function effectively because of inadequacy of necessary resources.

Again the prime object of the oversight body should not only be to enquire into the complaints against the police and recommend action against the defaulting officers but also to highlight systemic inadequacies and recommend changes in policies and procedures. The National Human Rights Commission enquires not only cases of violation of human rights by the police, it has also strongly advocated systemic reforms in the police by pressing for implementation of the recommendations of the National Police Commission for structural reforms in Indian police, so that it cannot be misused by the party in power to further its own ends.

It is also necessary for the Civilian Review System to promote informal resolution as a means of dealing with many civilian complaints. This is being done in many democratic countries and it has been found that informal resolution strategies like letters of apology, supervised reconciliation meetings between the complainant and the arraigned police officers produce higher levels of complainants satisfaction. They also reduced time and cost to deal with the case. Though there is no provision for informal resolution in the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993, it has been found that resort to informal resolutions attempted at times by the officers of the Commission yielded more satisfactory outcome. However, cases where citizens allege serious misconduct or desire more stringent punishment have to be subjected to fuller investigation.

There has invariably been very strong police objection to the civilian review. External scrutiny of any kind is repugnant to many police officers who feel that such scrutiny undermines police morale and effectiveness. In countries like Canada and Australia, Civilian Oversight Bodies have been criticized by the police as Kangaroo Courts in which the basic rights of the police officer under investigation were not observed. However, despite anecdotal evidence, available research does not support the conclusion that the civilian oversight has an adverse impact on police morale. Civilian oversight does not weaken but really strengthen the police. Repressive police forces are weak police forces, though they operate under the illusion of strength. Strong police forces, on the other hand, operate with consent of the citizens they serve. Civilian oversight allows the police to win and maintain a higher standing with the public. In building a strong police organization fear is not an alternative to consent.



The views and facts stated above are entirely the responsibility of the author and do not reflect the views of this Association in any manner.

 
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