Policing terror, but at what cost?

  • Another killing, again the nation is shocked

AT PENPOINT

BY: M.A. NIAZI

The gunning down of Usama Satti by five members of the Islamabad Police Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) has caused outrage throughout the country, not just because the killing was so brutal, but because it had transpired in Islamabad, thus raising questions about the quality of policing in the federal capital at a time when the federal government is facing a threat from the opposition PDM’s protest movement. The overall role of CTDs has to be considered, and governments have to decide whether they are playing a positive role in the War on Terror, or whether they are merely what other police sub-formations seem to have become: sub-gangs within what has become a large gang overall.

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The policemen seem to be settling their defence to the boy not stopping at their checkpost. Unlike the case in Sahiwal, there is no claim that he (at that time the sole occupant) was a terrorism suspect. Just that he was driving away. The shooting that followed, according to the medical report, was apparently from the front, though the policemen claim they fired from behind.

The Sahiwal incident, on 19 January 2019, saw four people killed: the car’s driver, who was suspected as a terrorist, an ISIS member, a couple and their eldest daughter. Two more children were injured by shooting. The car had stopped, and still the shootings took place. It seemed as if the police party attempted to kill off the eyewitnesses, though they did not succeed. A red line, that of not shooting suspects who had placed themselves in custody seems to have crossed.

The government should not be forced into attempting a cost-benefit analysis, where it has to choose between policing the War on Terror and keeping its citizens alive. Too many incidents like the Sahiwal and Islamabad incidents might force the government’s hand. It would be better if the police high command was itself to handle the situation. Obviously, things are not all right.

In the Islamabad incident, another red line that seems to have been crossed is that there was no firing in reply. The police are supposed to consists of civilians, and are not an armed force. Its members might carry arms, but that is because criminals also do. The purpose of carrying weapons is to return fire, not to shoot at someone who does not have a weapon.

There is a broader culture of the police arrogating to itself the role of executioner, a culture that has been encouraged by a series of rulers seeking a quick fix for the problem of crime. The culmination of this was the ‘police encounter’. The encounter, in which the police claims that a suspect’s accomplices attempted to free him, only for him to be killed in the resulting exchange of fire, is depressingly familiar, but it must be noted that the police always justified its firing of its weapons by saying that the others, the criminal, had fired first.

That culture has seen the transformation of the role of the police from that of collecting evidence for the courts to supplanting the courts, from preventing crime to punishing it themselves. Because it exists outside the state system, such a role has been reduced to the police acting as ‘guns for hire’, and there are stories of policemen carrying out encounters on criminals after they have been paid off by victims. One sign has been the use of the police in property disputes. That is another area where the police acts according to an officer’s judgement, not a court’s.

That the police universally comes into conflict with at least some sections of the citizenry is common. The protests in the USA over the killing of George Floyd last year by a two-man team of the Minneapolis police may have been about race, about Black Lives Mattering, but the protests were also about policing. Indeed, one of the most visible signs of racial discrimination in the USA are not about formalized discrimination, but about routine police behavior with black Americans, which is, among other things, degrading. One sign of how much the protests were about policing was the loudness of the demand for defunding the police.

Another example of revulsion against policing came this year in Africa, where the widespread protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad led to shootings on protesters in which three people were killed. The misdeeds alleged against the Squad included shooting suspects in cold blood, arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions ended only after bribes changed hand. Like the BLM protests, the End-SARS protests were prolonged and countrywide.  The principal demand was the disbanding of the SARS, which had been announced before, but had been followed by reformation. Now the protesters were demanding criminal charges instituted against offending policemen.

One element common to the Black Lives Matter protests and the anti-SARs protests was that both indulged in racial profiling. US policemen discriminated against blacks, while Nigerian policemen chose things like clothes and tattoos. Pakistani police have noy gone on a classificatory binge, but they do have the bedrock of pre-Independence policing, in which the Raj blithely classified certain birdardris as ‘criminal castes’, and made assumptions which still persist, about the criminal proclivities of certain biradris.

It perhaps could have been safely predicted that, like the SARS, the CTD was not a very good idea. Two problems arise. The first is that such elite groups emphasize the elements of the group. Just as commandos are supposed to be more soldierly than the average, so are police special squads meant to be more policeman-like than the average for the force. In this case, tragically, it means more trigger-happy than average. Another problem is recruitment. While the formation of the CTDs has meant an increased intake, it is not direct. The CTDs recruit from the district police, though promotions may occur within them. The immediate supervisors in the district police, who may not have the best of human resource anyhow, will fight tooth and nail to keep their best and brightest. Instead, they will ensure that the new formation gets has-beens and no-goodniks. At best, those who have blotted their copybook somehow, but who the supervisor thinks deserves a second chance, will end up in the new formation.

The incidents have been piling up. The occurrence at Islamabad shows that the one at Sahiwal was not an aberration. However, if the CTDs are not examined closely, more indents could occur. The CTDs were formed to handle the War on Terror. This was only natural, for they were meant first to investigate terrorist blasts, though now they have expanded to tracing the activities of the militants.

The government should not be forced into attempting a cost-benefit analysis, where it has to choose between policing the War on Terror and keeping its citizens alive. Too many incidents like the Sahiwal and Islamabad incidents might force the government’s hand. It would be better if the police high command was itself to handle the situation. Obviously, things are not all right.

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