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 Policing citizens: View from within
Policing citizens: View from within


- Muhammad Nurul Huda

The widespread brutalisation of policing, witnessed in the 80s and in the last couple of years, reflects the "crisis of legitimacy" faced by the governments, and the increasing exclusion of substantial sections of the population.

The police have been used to maintain the prevailing order of social relations. In such a role the police have appeared as lackeys of powerful interests, and those in authority have often over-reached themselves. The politically powerful have greater influence over the definition of what is and what is not acceptable.

In a situation like the above, police officers were isolated and insecure, and felt attracted by the structure of a disciplined hierarchical organization. Consequently, police appointees became more authoritarian, dogmatic and conservative than the general population.

They have come to believe that strong policing, like arrest and prosecution, and stricter laws and fines are more effective in reducing crime than soft policing such as prevention, community liaison and a caring approach.

As a result, the police have made themselves a notoriously insular occupational group, and their uniform symbolizes their separateness from the rest of the population.

Many of our policemen are of the view that policing cannot be done according to the book. Such cynicism is also expressed in opposition to police reforms. The "under life" of policing is very different from the official portrayal of a heroic image prompted by the highest motives to protect society from anarchy.

A distinguished academic of US, while confronting the realities of police work, narrated that for the first time in his life he encountered individuals who interpreted kindness as weakness, as an invitation to disrespect or violence.

He also came across men, women and children who, in fear or desperation or excitement, looked to the man behind the uniform and shield for guidance, control and direction.

To this academic, who had always condemned the exercise of authority, the acceptance of himself as an unavoidable symbol of authority came as a bitter lesson. He concluded that maintenance of absolute control of emotions at all times may be the ideal, but hardly has any relation to real-life policing.

Police culture has become a convenient label for a range of negative values, attitudes and practices among police officers. The convenience of the label lies in its condemnatory potential: the police are to blame for the injustice perpetrated in the name of the criminal justice system.

The theory or assumption is that unqualified, unintelligent, rude, brutal, intolerant or insensitive men make their way into police work, where they express their crudeness under colour of the law.

The efforts geared to organizational changes, with the intention of affecting the corrosive police habits without altering the ground reality, are doomed to failure. In other words, without changing the wider social context within which the police operate, their culture is perpetuated and reform undermined.

The police are in a confrontational assignment not because they are enraged, deranged or intoxicated, but as part of the profession that they enter willingly, and with the knowledge that they would be called upon to perform physically engaging tasks. In democratic societies, the law adopts a sceptical stance in relation to the police seeking to draw the line between lawful force and illegal violence.

The police, therefore, can act both legally and ethically while acknowledging that the morality of policing is perpetually in doubt. Sociologically, policing is intrinsically an anomic occupation, for the norms that govern conduct are never clear and the police officer is obliged, proverbially, to sail perpetually and perilously close to the wind.

Policing involves its practitioners in dirty work. Their work entails straying beyond the boundaries of normality, which means creating and maintaining a culture that shields them from the implications of their work.

Police officers at times adopt a fatalistic attitude as a means of coping with a fearful reality. Quite often, the threat they face is to their occupational self-esteem. There arises a need to convince them that their work is worthwhile.

Police officers see themselves as dispensing substantive justice and protecting the innocent in their routine role of exercising discretion. However, criminal justice is procedural, and it is the rights of the accused that need protection.

When the Courts acquit those whom the police regard as obviously culpable, or impose what is perceived to be a lenient sentence, the rationale of the police as servants of justice is challenged and, thus, their sense of occupational self-esteem is undermined.

In an environment characterized by the moral ambiguity of their own role, venality of criminals, tragedy of victims of all kinds of misfortunes, and unrealistic expectations of the criminal justice system, cynicism amongst police officers becomes inevitable.

Policing, in our parlance, is a marginal occupation because officers wield authority over fellow citizens, and this sets them apart. It is marginality which police officers are acutely and inarticulately aware of. This marginality gives rise to insularity and, as a result, police officers find social encounters with non-police friends, acquaintances, neighbours and others fraught with difficulty.

They feel more relaxed with fellow officers, with whom it is unnecessary to maintain appearances. The reality is that the police are set apart by the authority they wield.

Policing is a dangerous occupation, where normal expectation compels the cop to knowingly enter risky situations. The fact that the authority of the police is coercive entails a willingness to impose that authority by force, or to fight. However, the exercise of coercive authority over fellow citizens leaves officers intrinsically vulnerable to complaint and prosecution.

Instead of pathologising the police, the above analysis of the police sub-culture should convince us of the surprising fragility of what appears at first sight to be a robust powerful social institution. Our pragmatic policemen do not mind being at the receiving end because they are aware of their marginal position in the society.

Muhammad Nurul Huda is a columnist contributor to The Daily Star.



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