By Lakshita Handa
The legal and institutional framework governing police matters in India was inherited from the British, and had been established by the latter to stifle the freedom movement. However, even after 75 years of Independence, the police force and its corresponding legal framework has not undergone reforms to reflect the democratic aspirations of the people of India.
The current legal framework, comprising the Police Act 1861 and other state specific laws, is deficient in establishing an accountable police force. While multiple reform proposals have been recognised by the Government of India and the Supreme Court, such reform has not been achieved or implemented to the desired extent.
Prime minister Narendra Modi has in the past called for making the police a SMART force i.e., Strict and Sensitive, Modern and Mobile, Alert and Accountable, Reliable and Responsive, Tech Savvy and Trained. Various studies indicate that when police officers treat citizens with dignity, allow them an equal voice in interactions and are guided by considerations of transparency and accountability, it strengthens people’s compliance with laws, ameliorating conditions for commission of crimes.
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On the other hand, distrust in police officers as well as reports of corruption and police abuse undermine faith in the force and cause citizens to question the legitimacy of justice institutions.
Since policing is a State subject under the Constitution, states have been entrusted with the power to enact their own legislations governing the police. Most States have continued to legitimise the status quo by following the 1861 Act and showcasing political indifference towards calls for police reforms. For instance, the Model Police Act, 2006, born out of recommendations from the Police Act Drafting Committee, and the Supreme Court’s directives in the Prakash Singh judgement, has still not been uniformly implemented across states, with certain state Acts being in blatant disregard of the apex court’s directives.
The Police Act 1861 is deficient on multiple accounts. Section 3 of the Act vests the superintendence of the police in the state government. Similarly, Section 23 of the Act places a duty on every police officer to promptly obey and execute all orders and warrants lawfully issued to him by a competent authority, thereby making the officer subservient to those wielding political power in the state or occupying higher ranks. These political affiliations prevent the police from discharging their functions independently. It also interferes with the exercise of democratic freedoms by those who form the political opposition in a particular state.
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The Act is silent on matters concerning transfer and promotion of police officers due to which officers who resist political interference are often transferred to remote locations or their promotions are wrongfully withheld. Further, the list of duties to be discharged by police officers enlisted under Section 23 is rudimentary and does not recognise a role of the police in upholding human rights, reducing opportunities for the commission of crimes or promoting amity in the society.
On the institutional front, State Police Complaints Authorities (SPCAs), constituted to investigate complaints of misconduct against police officers, have proved woefully ineffective in establishing external accountability. Despite the requirement of setting up such bodies at the district level, most states have set up single-tier bodies in the capital, overburdening the Commission and deterring complainants from reporting misconduct. In most states, the complaints authority lacks the power to monitor departmental inquiries, and very few states provide for stringent time limits within which the authorities must complete their inquiry.
Police reforms are crucial to hold the structure of the criminal justice system together. The 1861 Act must be amended, in accordance with the Supreme Court’s directives and the Model Police Act, 2006. Since the appointment of the director general of police, i.e., the chief of the police in a state, is pivotal to the police’s administration, there is a need to devise a transparent and merit based procedure for such appointments. Further, providing a minimum tenure for posts like the director general of police, and other officers, along with clear legal provisions governing transfers and promotions, may insulate the police’s functioning from political interference.
A new Act must also lay down a legally binding charter of duties to be observed by the police in their discharge of duties. Provisions on sensitising police officers towards vulnerable sections of the society should also be incorporated to make the force more responsive to the needs of minority communities.
Additionally, SPCAs must be constituted and operated so that they have the necessary power to independently investigate allegations of police misconduct. They are currently constituted by serving police officers and civil servants, which undermines the independence of these bodies. To promote accessibility, such authorities should also be established at the district level within each state.
While re-imaging a police force which performs its functions without fear or favour is a long haul, it is about time that positive steps are taken in the right direction to initiate this change.
The author is Research fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy