It is critical to understand that, in general, the police in India work under incomprehensible pressure, are poorly paid, have generally terrible living conditions and, worst of all, are usually beholden to corrupt and venal superiors. To be sure, many policemen, like the rest of us, carry prejudices—hidden and not-so-hidden—which make their performance uneven and unfair. But, as individuals, each of them is no worse or better than any of us.
Now, addressing prejudice is a long and painstaking road—each of us needs to confront our own prejudices (and, we all have them), address them as best we can, and continuously put the word out in our families and wherever we have any influence that there is really no fundamental difference between people, and that we are all citizens and one under the law. This effort can never stop.
In parallel, we have to work on the institutional side. The Model Police Act of 2006 was circulated to all the states; that very year, 17 states passed new laws or amended their existing laws in light of this new model law. There have been further evolutions since then, but many of its fundamental principles remain unfulfilled.
Parliamentary Research Services (PRS) Report
Parliamentary Research Services (PRS), a leading NGO in India, put out an excellent report in 2017 on police reforms in India. They articulated six areas where considerable work was still needed—police accountability; the need to separate law and order from investigation; poor working conditions and an overburdened police force; constabulary related issues; police infrastructure; and public-police relations.
An even cursory reading of the media will show “various kinds of complaints against the police including unwarranted arrests, unlawful searches, torture and custodial rapes. To check against such abuse of power, various countries have adopted safeguards, such as accountability of the police to the political executive, internal accountability to senior police officers, and independent police oversight authorities”. Accountability to the political executive can theoretically constrain operational freedom and flexibility, which, in the Indian context, is a serious concern.
Supreme Court Stand
The Supreme Court has observed that there is a need to have an independent complaints authority to inquire into complaints of police misconduct; the Model Police Act, 2006 requires each state to set up an authority (akin to the Civilian Complaint Review Board in New York City) with five members: a retired High Court Judge, a retired police officer of the rank of DGP from another state cadre, a retired officer with public administration experience from another state, a civil society member, and a person with at least 10 years of experience as a judicial officer or lawyer or legal academic. This is already required by law and we need to agitate for it.
Well over 50% of cases filed by the police (nearly 80% in rape cases) end up in acquittals. While there could be many reasons for this, a weak investigation by the police frequently recurs as the cause for cases being thrown out of court limiting the ability of citizens to get justice. [Other constraints, including venality of the judicial system, is another key reason, but that is a different discussion].
Another key recommendation of the Police Reform Act is to separate law and order from investigation—in other words, the police need to have specialised teams for each type of activity.
This requirement leads directly to the third critical issue—the fact that the police force is overburdened and underpaid. India had (in 2017) 131 police officers per 1,00,000 people; that is lower than the sanctioned number (181), and much lower than the number recommended by the UN (222).
Clearly, “an average policeman ends up having an enormous workload and long working hours, which negatively affects his efficiency and performance”. Add to this poor working conditions and compensation, and it is, in fact, creditable that our police are as motivated as they are.
86% of the police force are constables, who have no growth path other than a single promotion (to Head Constable) before they retire. Police infrastructure is perennially underfunded, and, with some notable exceptions, there are few efforts to build public/police relations. There are multiple ways in which these issues can be addressed, and all of the above need to be part of a sustained push for police reforms.