Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
The unseemly tug-of-war between the Inspector General of Police (IGP) and the National Police Commission, with the IGP openly balking to carry out directions of the NPC, must be deplored quite categorically.
Putting the credibility of ‘independent commissions’ at risk
Indeed, the manner of both parties being summoned by the Speaker to resolve these issues unfortunately reminds one of two erring schoolchildren being summoned to the Principal’s office. The fracas plays itself out in the open, diminishing the credibility of the much vaunted concept of ‘independent commissions’ that the Government speaks of with pride as having ‘restored’ through the 19th Amendment.
Aberrant tendencies of the incumbent in the office of IGP has attracted much scorn and ridicule in the media. Those eccentricities are quite evident and present a whole set of different problems including questions raised about the appointments process in the first instance and as to whether the criteria adopted by the Constitutional Council was sufficiently rigorous when recommending the appointment. We have the undoubtedly bizarre spectacle of even Ministers in the Government calling for action to be taken against the incumbent IGP.
Certainly there is little point in boasting about the 19th Amendment on the one hand and then skillfully devising a process whereby ‘useful’ people are situated in high positions such as the IGP or the Attorney General or justices of the superior courts. If that is the case, then it is far better to have the open and ugly reality of a blatantly politicized process (as was the case under the Rajapaksa Presidency) rather than to have a silly charade that mocks our collective intelligence.
Systemic problems in question
As has been previously commented on in these column spaces, the Removal of Officers (Procedure) Act No 5 of 2002 at the time, enacted as a supplementary law to the 17th Amendment, prescribes a separate safeguard for the removal of the IGP, placing this on par with appellate court judges. The reason for this legislation at the time was to place the office of the IGP above political pressure and to afford its office bearers security of tenure. But what worth are such commendable protections when an incumbent in office behaves in a manner that brings that office into disrepute? Indeed this same logic goes for other such appointees as well, including judges.
But in a larger sense, this fracas speaks to more than personality clashes or for that matter, the heedless ‘persona’ of the incumbent. The vexed pulling at different sides of the rope by the IGP and the NPC is due to systemic contradictions rather than merely personality driven. It is reflective of the fundamental problem in having an ‘independent’ supervisory body that is tasked to put matters right in the police force but yet has no control over its head. There is an obvious tension in the reconciling of these roles that must be recognized and addressed if these issues are not to surface again and again.
The NPC itself must be structurally strengthened. Importantly, it must be enabled to overcome resistance from the institutional hierarchy of the police through built in controls in its mandate. Granted, grasping this crown of very prickly thorns is not an easy task by any means. In fact as we may well remember, when the first NPC was established under the 17th Amendment, its exercise of disciplinary control over the police resulted in clear hostility on the part of the then IGP as he considered that the creation of the NPC had imposed an unwarranted fetter on his powers. Ministers of the day said that the ‘independence of the NPC’ was not needed and some went so far as to claim that the IGP should be involved in the decision-making processes of the NPC.
Usefulness of comparative processes
Clearly there is a problem here that must be addressed. Perhaps it would be instructive to go back to the drawing board as it were and look at the reports of several highly skilled committees and commissions that examined some of these issues in meticulous detail. These include the Soertsz Commission of 1946, the Basnayake Commission of 1970 and the Jayalath Committee of 1995. The recommendations in these reports are particularly helpful as the members of these bodies considered relevant questions of power and accountability with clarity, persuasively arguing the case as to why independently enforceable control of the police is needed, not mere cosmetic ally weak ‘supervision’ as such
Moreover, the NPC’s public complaints procedure is a vital part of its mandate but remains largely underutilized. Similar procedures in other countries require that quick responses need to be manifested in terms of not only documentation but also the ensuring of medical attention and victim protection. It also calls for strict monitoring of indictments filed or action otherwise taken in law against police officers who commit offences.
Meanwhile, looking at developments in other countries may be useful, if only to reassure ourselves that these problems are not unique to this land. For example, earlier this year, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) replaced the United Kingdom’s Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) amid rising public fury over botched investigations into police misconduct. In particular, the inability to hold proper inquiries into the deaths of several men in custody provoked calls to reform the IPCC. It had also been said that the IPCC had lost the confidence of many within the police itself who had been calling for stronger accountability as well as speedy resolving of complaints against individual police officers. The new office has been empowered to launch its own independent investigations into cases of police misconduct though some critics have questioned this as a superficial ‘branding’ exercise without actual substantive changes in the accountability body.
Breaking a vicious cycle
Where Sri Lanka is concerned, the NPC must no longer be cribbed, cabined and confined in fulfilling its constitutional duty. A deliberate and considered exercise of reform must be embarked on and this should be thrown open to the public for constructive suggestions and recommendations if the objective and end result is to break this vicious cycle that we find ourselves trapped in.
As for the IGP, the incumbent must be reined in through appropriate statutory measures if needs be. But from a wider perspective, there must be lessons learnt for the future in regard to appointment processes to these high public offices, if the 19th Amendment is to retain a modicum of public credibility.
Public quarreling over matters of such high gravity must cease forthwith.