July issue 2016
The Thana Disconnect
The state has certain responsibilities towards its citizens, which it fulfils through public institutions. For health, there are hospitals. For education, schools, colleges and universities. And for internal security, there is the police. Here in the Punjab, they are found to be everywhere: outside schools and churches, hospitals and mosques, on main roads and in side alleys.
The police play a vital role in the everyday life of an ordinary citizen in the Punjab. And yet, there is a major disconnect between both parties to this social contract. Where the citizens should have faith in the institution, they instead have fear. “The problem is of trust,” says a government official who is closely connected to the Punjab Police. He agrees to speak freely about the institution, on condition of anonymity. “The public here in the Punjab, calculates the cost of going to the police, and in most cases, prefers not to.”
This opportunity cost includes repeated visits to the station, being made to wait unnecessarily, inability to explain to, or be understood by, the officer, and of course, bribing your way through to the top officer of the station. None of this guarantees anything will happen. “So either they stay away, or make a few calls so that they can bypass the system and get to the top cop,” says the official. This further weakens an already weak system.
As things go, the interaction between the police and the citizen can be broken up into two major parts: Pre-First Information Report (FIR) and post-FIR. As anybody who has ever dealt with the police will know, getting an FIR registered is a major breakthrough and in many cases police officials try their level best not to let that happen. Once the FIR is registered, there’s no going back. And as it turns out, there is a reason for the police’s lack of will in registering an FIR. More on that later.
First, there is the matter of cognisable and non-cognisable offences. An FIR can only be registered on the former. In numerous cases, there is no possibility of an FIR being registered. Or in cut and dry cases, such as a lost wallet or passport, the FIR is literally the beginning and end of the case.
For non-cognisable offences, the police needs to ‘empathise’ says our source. That, in some cases, is enough to satisfy the complainant. However, as one police official told me, “When people come to the station, they already have a solution in mind, and anything less than that does not work for them.” Hence, citizens look to exaggerate their complaints to ensure that the FIR is registered. At the same time, the reasons given in the FIR are completely false/fabricated altogether, with the FIR being used as a manipulative tool for some other reason. But more often that not, the majority chooses to stay away from the police station altogether.
In their defence, the police also have an opportunity cost of aggressively pursuing a case. First and foremost is the fact that due to the tedious and lengthy process involved, it keeps them away from following other cases. Secondly, when the police get caught in cases that involve ‘unequal’ parties (where, for example, one is from an influential political party etc), if they take the wrong side, they could find themselves without a job. These two reasons play a vital role in ensuring that the Punjab Police plays a dirty, middle-man role most of the time, settling cases outside of the courts.
The overall effect of this disconnect between the two institutions and the opportunity costs on both sides is that crime in Pakistan is under-reported. This works in favour of the police as the crime rate is the key indicator of their performance: it’s in their best interest to keep it as low as possible. However, if the situation is made conducive for greater reporting of crime, the crime rate will register a rise, which will not go down well either with the police or with the government in power. The media will also go crazy, when in fact what you will be getting is a much fairer picture of the situation.
Most experts agree that while the reported crime rate should be a fair reflection of what the real situation is, for it to be the key indicator of police performance is ridiculous. Instead, arrests and recoveries, or logical conclusions to cases should be the barometer of the success of the local police. But that’s a different conversation altogether.
For now, let us park an assumption: the number of registered cases at the moment reflects the current status of crime in our society. What other barometers are required? Clearly, what percentage of these cases have been successfully handled and brought to a logical conclusion. Also, as the crime rate soars, it will bring greater pressure on not only the structure of the police institution, but also raise questions regarding its efficiency. “We’re looking at a three-tier ratio — number of cases/police officer/month — combined with a success or failure ratio. This would be very telling.”
The other area which will come under the spotlight is specialisation. Different types of cases require different kinds of specialisations, for example, murder and kidnapping are two completely different cases, each requiring its own set of skills. Does the police force, in its current state, possess these skills? Apparently, one is asking for too much, as most cops don’t even have the basic training to use the weapons they carry — let alone conduct complex murder investigations.
With the case so heavily tilted in favour of crime not being reported, imagine if a mechanism were introduced which would make doing exactly that easy. Imagine if you could walk into a police station and, without having to bribe your way through, fill out a complaint form which would then be logged into a database somewhere. Imagine that this would allow you, the complainant, as well as the police system to follow it up thoroughly.
Known as the Complaint Management System (CMS) this mechanism is currently in the pipeline in the Punjab. It looks to move away from the pervasive thana culture and create a system which is not only easy, but also creates checks and balances that can be followed internally.
No wonder it’s facing such stiff opposition. For instance, if a citizen lodges a complaint, the SHO will have 72 hours to either escalate it into an FIR or dismiss it. And obviously, all of this will be on record, and can eventually be used for/against him. Just as the police force has realised that life is easier without the FIR, they have also understood that the CMS is not in their interest. Hence the opposition.
The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. He is the current managing editor of MIT Technology Review Pakistan, a bi-monthly science and technology magazine.