In the 1920s, the iconic Hollywood comedy film series Keystone Kops spoofed clumsy policemen in shabby uniforms and became emblematic of an American public’s growing frustration with their police.
Kops’ comic appeal lay precisely in portraying policemen as being prone to bungling: Two cops collide, allowing the criminal to make good his escape. The broader message was about how, in day-to-day policing, reckless zeal would get the better of sound judgment.
Police bungling isn’t always this innocuous. Whether it is the video of a white New York policeman’s stranglehold on an unarmed black man or the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, in Ferguson, policing in the United States seems to be undergoing a crisis again. In July 1967, US President Lyndon Johnson set up an 11-member national advisory commission on civil disorders to “explain the riots”. The report’s conclusion was scathing: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
This isn’t just a US problem. From Ferguson to Forbesganj in Bihar (where a policeman repeatedly stomped on the corpse of a Muslim man), police and minorities have shared a rather problematic relationship.
In India, the relationship between Muslims, the country’s largest minority, and the police represents a structural parallel of the African-American community’s distrust of the police. Like Keystone Kops, Indian cinema too has responded to this problem, with films, such as Parzania and Sheher Mein Curfew etc. They serve to point to a strong body of public opinion that the country’s main law-enforcing agency is seen as failing its minorities.
Muslims widely hold the police to be biased against them. To many, the war on terror has looked like a war on the community itself. During riots, Muslims frequently complain that police action is disproportionately harsh on them. Quite simply, policing in our country leaves much to be desired.
Civil rights activists who sympathise with the minorities tend to wrongly believe that the consequences of this trust deficit are just limited to social alienation of Muslims and often ignore serious security implications.
Policing that doesn’t enjoy the confidence of a large section of the public only undermines the police’s job. If the police are seen as being unfair, then the public is more likely to sympathise with the accused. It is a painful reality that an entire Muslim neighbourhood in Delhi sympathised with alleged terrorists despite a policeman losing his life while trying to capture them. Credibility, therefore, is vital for effective policing.
Underdogs, such as minorities, always need our unflinching support. But in this zeal, the police point of view is unfortunately not adequately heard. We can’t solve this problem without listening to the police and their side of the story.
The solutions to such conflicts have to come from our Constitution, which guarantees not just equality but special protection to minorities. Minority rights are not an exception, but an inseparable part of our secularism. It is critical for the police to have this conceptual clarity.
What do these entail in specific terms? Having an ethnically diverse police force and constant community-police dialogue are some steps worth taking.
There is a crying need for police reforms. Many reform commissions — beginning with the National Police Commission (NPC) of 1979 — have largely gone ignored. This led two former director-generals of police in 1996 to file a PIL in the Supreme Court, asking it to order state governments to implement the NPC recommendations.
The court delivering its verdict in the Prakash Singh case in 2006 reckoned that police reforms are a must. Only accountability can lead to a rights-respecting police force, which will ultimately lead to more effective policing through better credibility.