Police officers, Sri Lanka

I have often been critical of the Sri Lankan police, so much so that, when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights and chaired a committee to make suggestions as to police reform, senior police officers would accuse me of being biased about the army. Certainly I made no bones about the fact that I felt the human rights record of the forces was generally admirable, whereas I could not say the same about the police.

The senior officers who served on the committee however explained to me that one of the reasons for this was the enormous demands made in recent years on the police, without adequate resources being made available. They too felt that the service they had been proud to join had declined over the years, not through its own fault but because of pressures that had mounted, for political as well as social reasons. They talked of the professional training they had received, the various courses they had followed that had honed their skills, and the systems that had been in place to ensure merit based career development. As a simple example of what they had suffered, they noted that the training period for Sub-Inspectors, the rank at which officers joined, had been ruthlessly cut, and was down to just a few months. Contrariwise, even in the midst of the war, the training period for officer cadets had been increased from two to two and a half years.

The arguments of these senior police officers were convincing and I could understand why they insisted that it was not only human rights training policemen needed, not only language training – both of which those of us from outside the system had stressed – but also professional training, in investigation, in interrogation and in prosecution. After all a young policeman faced with criminal activity who cannot investigate systematically and interrogate incisively will take easy if improper options. This is a universal phenomenon, and the only answer is better training as well as greater accountability.

Still, while understanding the reasons for abuses that had occurred, and providing appropriate remedies, we also had to accept that we should have done better in stopping them. Though statistics indicated that more inquiries and disciplinary procedures had been initiated than I had assumed, actual convictions were few. And it seemed to me that there were far too many instances in which investigations were still proceeding, with little sign of a conclusion.

I should add that the police officers with whom we worked, in particular those in authority at the Police Training School at Katukurunda, were universally positive about the actions that were needed, and we did indeed initiate some action, most notably a trainer training programme which involved role plays and simulations rather than the lectures that clearly would serve little purpose. But with the election season setting in, and the abolition of a dedicated Ministry, things slowed down. They did not however stop altogether, for recently I was told that the idea of a Police Academy, which I had long pushed on the lines of the Sri Lanka Military Academy that has produced such efficient and rounded army officers, may soon become a reality.

The police beating of Rodney King, Los Angeles 3 March 1991

Of course I am aware that there are problems with the police in any country, and that some of the more sanctimonious pronouncements we hear from officials of other countries are just gobbledegook. I remember a US team being slightly startled when I drew parallels between allegations of police brutality in Sri Lanka and what had happened to Rodney King in Los Angeles, a black man beaten up by white policemen. One bright young spark chirped up that the policemen involved had been prosecuted, but did not argue further when I noted that they had been acquitted despite the clear visual evidence of what they had done.

Still, I was of the view that, even if there were no conceptual differences, we were substantially worse than some of the countries that preached at us as far as the police were concerned – while being much better as far as the other forces are concerned, as is clear from the much greater care we took with regard to civilians than others engaged in wars against terror.

UK Riots 2011

I was therefore quite startled to be sent, by a former Human Rights Consultant, an extract from an article in the Guardian that highlighted a reason for resentment against the police, in the context of the recent riots in Britain. It said that ‘One journalist wrote that he was surprised how many people in Tottenham knew of and were critical of the IPCC (the Independent Police Complaints Commission), but there should be nothing surprising about this. When you look at the figures for deaths in police custody (at least 333 since 1998 and not a single conviction of any police officer for any of them), then the IPCC and the courts are seen by many, quite reasonably, to be protecting the police rather than the people.’ (There is a context to London’s riots that can’t be ignored by Nina Power)

Gethin Chamberlain - Guardian UK

I know better now than to believe everything I read in the Guardian, so it is possible that these figures are as preposterous as those Gethin Chamberlain made up with regard to women with throats cut near Manik Farm. The figure he cited was eleven, which was not an exaggeration, it was simply conjured up out of nothing. But, assuming that the Guardian would be more circumspect about an obvious falsehood affecting a British institution, which they would not dare to treat with the contempt they evinced for Sri Lankans, the chances are that there were indeed over 300 deaths in police custody over the last 12 years.

This is something to regret. But also regrettable is the appalling hypocrisy that permits British officials to attack us for what the British have made a regular practice. One knew about the enormity of abuse in India, and what happened here with the appalling Dowbiggin. But I had really thought the situation had improved in Britain, with greater accountability. To read that there was not a single conviction of any police officer for any death in custody is deeply upsetting.

Daily News 13 August 2011