Extending KP reforms to other provinces without understanding its flaws could be a costly mistake

Extending KP reforms to other provinces without understanding its flaws could be a costly mistake
PM Imran Khan is taking KP-style police reforms to other provinces but there is a dire need to appraise the current reforms and their performance before they are replicated in other provinces. Let’s not forget, most of what we know about the reforms comes from the KP Police itself or the KP government. It’s not surprising they both are all praises for each other and strong PTI’s presence on social media has taken them places but the ground reality is a far cry from the hype.

The cornerstone of KP Police reforms was to make the police politically independent so they can perform their duties on merit and with fairness without the undue external influence. The same trajectory is now being envisioned with Punjab Police reforms and likewise, other IGPs are also asked to replicate KP Police reforms.

However, as someone who has extensive real-life exposure to KP Police reforms, this could be a costly mistake. The bitter truth, without mincing words, is that this model has failed in KP.

Also read: PTI claims it reformed KP police. Really?

If PTI is really serious about police reforms, it needs to be honest with itself and come to terms with reality. Yes, KP Police reforms were initiated with great intentions, but no, the reforms have fallen apart, particularly after the departure of IGP Nassir Durrani and lack of interest on part of KP government to oversee them.

It is OK to accept failures now and fix direction than to build a new generation of reforms based on misconceptions and carry that burden forever. Let’s not forget, PTI has five more years ahead of them. If they can truly deliver, what happened in the past doesn’t matter.

The first step in taking police reforms further is to scrutinize the current KP reforms in good faith and take lessons. The most important lesson that can be learned is that police can almost never be fixed internally by themselves, the so-called self-accountability model. There are several reasons that have emerged.

The first reason is that most police officers are often in denial about the extent of problems in their organization. They have acclimated to the system so much, perhaps given up as well; they don’t pick issues with some of the fundamental problems and deficiencies. They have made peace with them. But Police can never be fixed without addressing these fundamentals: for example lack of integrity, lack of investigations, lack of procedures, no paper trail and more importantly the absence of well-defined accountability process over non-compliance of these issues.

This, in fact, is one of the major problems in police force that all of the above issues are considered too ‘minor’ to be worthy of punishments, which are at the heart of law enforcement. They try to fix other things, without fixing the basics, which can almost never bear real fruit.

Secondly, when senior officers take charge, they tend to start with the assumption that they are the good guys and off the hook and the reforms start to focus only on lower staff. This is wrong because senior officers are as much responsible for police failures as anybody else, perhaps more so because they share greater responsibility and powers. The fact that they essentially get exempted from accountability breaks down the entire reforms.

Thirdly, implementing rule of law is by no means an easy task and it requires a tough mindset, attitude, and courage on part of officers. The bitter truth is that many police officers have lost it due to living in the culture of obedience to elites and absence of precedence for decades. It is wrong assumption that if they are given total freedom, they will do their job right and on merit, particularly against the elites.

KP Police reforms are essentially excessive advertisement of elimination of political interference but I can’t emphasize this enough that even if there is no direct external pressure on them, they still bow to the will of elites and can’t act against them. This is why it is so important that we learn lessons and adopt reforms strategy accordingly.

So what is the right approach?

If the government is serious about police reforms, the political leadership needs to make a strategic shift and take charge itself, not lease out the task to police officers. Allow me to be brutally straightforward here. We can’t fall for this time and time again that there are good police officers who would really do their job right if they are free from any interference – unfortunately, there are none, that’s just the bitter truth. Even if one finds one such, he will be surrounded by five others staffers who will create hurdles in his path.

To put this in a slightly different way, there is little to no chance for any ordinary person in Pakistan to go to police station and get justice against an elite without pressure from social media or involvement of senior government officials, no matter how good the police officer at hand is and that’s the biggest challenge!

This is what’s broken, this is what needs to be fixed, and this is why we need police reforms.

How do I know this? Because my family has been working extensively with KP Police for past three years including countless senior officers ranging from several SPs, several SSPs, three CCPOs, multiple DIGs and two IGPs including the most popular Nassir Durrani himself. The now ex-IGP is arguably one of the best police officers that there is to it but we still couldn’t get justice when the case was brought to his attention. This was because we are ordinary and our rivals were VIP. I have written a book on our ordeal.

There is a dire need to adjust the strategy. The political leadership needs to take ownership, directly understand the problems that people are facing and find ways to fix them working with police. But these should be solved in a systematic way, not through personal assurance or taking anyone’s word for it like they did in KP Police reforms.

As an example, one of the most common problems people face with police is that they don’t even register their FIRs against stronger rivals or dilute them to weaken the case so they can’t pursue it and create countless hurdles in the path. The political leadership needs to take ownership of these problems and find solutions in collaboration with police and track them how they are being implemented.

And since we are at it, have these problems been addressed in KP Police reforms? No.

There are other key KP Police initiatives, which though look great on surface, have proven ineffective in reality. One such glittering initiative is the elimination of political interference itself, which has failed to turn things around.

Consider abandoning the political non-interference “slogan”

Eliminating political interference seemed like a great initiative in KP at the time but it has proved counterproductive for a number of reasons. The political leadership was fixated too much to appear clean and “not interfering” and as such dropped oversight as well and the reforms became orphaned.

Let’s not forget why we were trying to fix police: it is notorious for corrupt practices. In hindsight, is it really the best strategy to leave such an organization on its own and expect they will turn themselves around? Even if one IGP was great, the institution was still filled with the same old people and people don’t easily change their ways that easily unless there is strict accountability, which there was none.

Government oversight is a must for police reforms but pursuing the no-political-interference heavy agenda confused the matters as to who is the real in-charge and government stayed away. It helped derail the reforms.

The elimination of undue political interference is indeed a good step but it shouldn’t compromise government oversight. But, unfortunately, this approach has come to mean that the government should stay as far away from police as possible. This is a flawed approach.

There should be no doubt that a democratically elected government is the superior body and should be in charge to oversee reforms, improve them iteratively and address failures that occur. This is their mandate and this is why we elect them to power in a democracy to run the government.

This, in fact, was also the understanding when KP Police reforms were initiated. The then IGP Nassir Durrani had stated that while police will be independent, the government has the right to question them if they were not doing their job right. But these questions never got asked because the government was too content with the buzz the non-interference generated and never even felt the need to do a health check.

The depoliticizing of police was supposed to stop the use of police for political gains but this strategy itself has become a tool for political advertisement where there are no real changes on the ground.

The complete lack of oversight over five long years has resulted in enormous slack to the point the reforms whatever they were when started have completely melted away.

Another key issue is that PTI-led Police reforms made it look like as if political interference was the only problem that was dragging the down police. The reality is that cases, where wrongful political interference occurs, is a tiny fraction but police still falter in all other cases on daily basis which are completely overlooked in reforms.

We have to recognize that the responsibility, ultimately, lies with the elected government to run the departments under their direct control properly and exercise their powers justly to produce good results. Choosing not to exercise their powers and sit on the sidelines is not exactly the solution and could potentially make things worse for a department like police where corrupt practices are the norm, not an exception.

Implement chain of accountability

There is a trend in the country that whenever police wrongdoings are found, the lowest police staff is awarded punishments. The seniors are always off the hook, who in most cases are well aware of what their subordinate staff was up to but they refuse to take corrective action. It is time to recognize this is flawed and merely cosmetic accountability.

When lower staff does something wrong and a complainant knocks at the doors of their senior officers for justice, they also look the other way – they become part of the problem. This, in fact, is a bigger issue because lower staff may come under pressure pursuing a case against an elite party but high-ranking officers should have the ability to deal with it, take corrective action and lead by example – except that they don’t.

There are, however, no consequences for the senior officers even when complainant brings these problems directly into their notice and submits applications. The question is why would they do things any different if they know they will not be held accountable anyway?

Miracles can happen if a proper chain of accountability is followed. We constantly hear about ruthless accountability from PTI and that high-level corruption will be eradicated in 90 days but how can it be eradicated when nobody wants to punish the high-level people?

The whole chain of accountability is by-passed because of the reluctance of the executive branch to make their own VIPs accountable - the senior police officers.

It is rather ironic that the government being in such a high authority often lacks the nerves to take disciplinary action against senior police officers but then they expect a typical investigation officer, which is merely an ASI to lock horns with potentially the mightiest of VIPs and make them accountable. Is this even fair?

Massive transformation in police can happen and very quickly if a proper chain of accountability is followed. This way accountability reaches all corners and has multiple layers. The only thing it requires is a strong commitment from the government.

The writer is an engineer and author of a book on KP Police reforms. He tweets at @shazadk