Op-ed

Police culture in Pakistan

Shakeel Ahmed Shaheen
The police department’s reputation is very bad in Pakistan. The major reason of its bad reputation is Police behavior with people. Especially in Punjab police is enormously notorious, because of these dirty police system some innocent people also began to take offence. Whether guilty or innocent, the police have the same method to treat. Police and other law enforcement agencies are the subject of considerable condemnation after recent incidents in Quetta and Lahore which are just another shocking reminder of their arrogance and callousness. There is also a consensus amongst observers that these incidents are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ and beneath this lies an elaborate culture of exploitation and violence. The term ‘police culture’ is thus not restricted to working of the police but applies to any department responsible for enforcing law in any capacity.
The police culture, however, consists of elaborate artefacts like prominent uniforms, typical communication styles and excessive display of weapons. This culture is transmitted to the new entrants as ‘the way we do things here’ and becomes part of their belief system. The agencies justify these prominent artefacts on the basis of the conspicuous nature of their responsibilities and to keep the general public at a distance. Their fortress-like closed buildings give an intimidating feeling of strength and dominance, which is enhanced by the presence of armed personnel at the entrances and inside. The police station environment causes fear in any visiting ordinary citizen, which was the original objective. The communications style of ordinary law enforcement personnel is abusive, hard and uncivilized and is instilled in them right at the training school.
Most of these artefacts are unconscious and sometimes a deliberate consequence of the values shared by members of the law enforcement organizations. Being a constitutionally run democratic country, the ‘espoused’ values talk of the police being people-friendly, law-abiding and cooperative but retain the image of a tough, masculine and military-oriented organization. The tough concrete facades are thus justified on the grounds of security and strong image while the military character in dress and behavior is considered essential for maintenance of discipline and camaraderie.

Another core cultural value is emphasis on results and ends at the cost of process and means. Justice and human rights are thus taken as excuses of the lethargic and the cowards. This attitude is reflected in the means employed for performance of the task, which often include coercive and illegal methods. Since there is little focus on sound judgment, creativity and ideas, energies are mostly exhausted in activities like patrolling and picketing. The operational staff is mostly starved of viable options in cases of crises, which are more frequent than ever.
Recent incidents are just one indicator of bad judgment and use of violence by the junior members of the force. Junior staff members are encouraged to be hard taskmasters and minor corruption, infractions and violations are tolerated for the larger interest of the organization so there is always a hidden belief that one can get away with anything. These deep-rooted values are also tolerated by the outside policy makers who prefer order over law and prefer pliant police commanders in place of rule-loving idealists, who are considered unfit to survive in the real world.
Most of the working, operations and documentation follow the archaic language, procedures and methods for solution to problems, and understandably coercion and force are considered vital and inevitable for satisfactory performance. In a time of crisis, most of the commanders thus tend to fall back on the age-old operational methods, which rarely prove effective and often cause embarrassment.
The present behavior of the law enforcement agencies is a direct result of the underlying beliefs and ‘shared assumptions’, which have been perpetuated over decades and attained the status of universal truths. These assumptions worked for their founders and later cognitively transformed through a process of social and internal validation. Some of these beliefs, e.g. gender discrimination, professional inequality, communications, emphasis on retribution, and tolerance for minor corruption are more societal in nature, while others like violence, superiority of state organs, independence and lack of accountability are particular to the security system. These assumptions or beliefs have thus become ‘theories in use’, which guide the behavior and convey the force’s ways to perceive, feel and think about things. It is no surprise that little remorse is felt on the application of violent methods on persons accused of petty crimes who are otherwise considered dispensable.
Softness and politeness is taken as a symbol of weakness and the belief in harshness and impoliteness is pervasive and perpetual. Similarly, too much emphasis on training is perceived as an effort to make the system toothless and ineffective. Any initiative at creating institutional memory and databases is thwarted with disdain, and there is visible hostility towards introduction of new values of openness, public participation and accountability.
Culture is always the greatest hindrance to change and introduction of new ideas in any organization. Our law enforcement agencies are no exception. Earlier reform efforts have either proved futile or even counter-productive due to lack of understanding of the dynamics and symbolism. Our agencies are used to a culture of violence, harassment and impunity and have never been subjected to the accountability and oversight of the general public. It is high time that the ‘police culture’ gives way to the ‘people’s culture’. Let us do away with the relics of the past by adopting a public-friendly approach towards problem solving.

About the author

Mian Bilal

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