A policing system is a monolithic system, which runs on the basis of control from the top to the bottom. It is a strict system of command and the control, and the actions of the officers of the lower ranks are entirely in the hands of the officers of higher ranks. The system works on the basis of command responsibility, which is a doctrine of accountability of superior officers regarding all other who act under their direction and command. This system can function only to the extent that the principle of command responsibility is respected and maintained within the organisation.
However, it is well known that there has been a serious crisis of command responsibility under the executive presidential system. The nature of the executive presidential system, as it evolved in Sri Lanka, was that the President could put his finger and meddle anywhere without reference to officers holding superior positions in any public institutions, including that of the police. It meant that the President, or those acting under his name, could directly give orders and get things done through any officer they wanted, without needing to consult or even inform the superior officers. This created a chaotic situation within every public constitution in Sri Lanka, including that of the policing system.
One of the earliest known instances of the President directly interfering with the policing system was when President JR Jayewardene kept then DIG Udugampola in the Presidential Palace itself; the DIG would give orders to other officers without any reference to the IGP or any other fellow DIG. Initially, when this arbitrary situation emerged, there were reports of conflict among the ranking police officers. However, in time, the practice became common and the system became resigned to it.
Mr. Basil Fernando
The gradual evolution of the new situation degenerated further when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, took virtual command of the policing service also. As a “state within the state” gradually developed during those years, respect for the internal organisational structure came to be disregarded. The extent to which politicians interfered with the system came to be known as politicisation.
Although direct interferences with the system came to an end with the electoral changes in 2015, the impact of the disruptions within the system still remain a major problem to be addressed.
In reconstructing the policing system on the basis of the principle that officers at the top will take responsibility for everything that happens within the organisation, one of the matters that needs to be addressed is the recreation of the image of superior officers as those who are beyond any blame.
For the country’s premier law enforcement agency to perform its function – of ensuring enforcement of the law within the entire country – it is essential that the police officers themselves begin to recognise their organisation as one within which the law is held with the utmost and ultimate respect. If the police officers themselves lose faith in their organisation and its leaders, it is not possible for this organisation to perform its primary function of upholding the rule of law.
That there is a crisis in relation to upholding the rule of law in Sri Lanka is something acknowledged by everyone. Often the blame for this is placed on the former regime, which was one that had no respect for the rule of law. However, the people’s 2015 electoral interventions, aimed to bring an end to that period, also had great expectation that the prevailing lawlessness would be brought to an end.
If this aspiration is to be fulfilled, there needs to be genuine and serious efforts on the part of superior police officers not only to be but also to appear to be persons without any blame. This means the higher-ranking officers should offer themselves as an example of persons with utmost respect for the rule of law. It is only then that these superior officers can be perceived in that light, and the rest of the officers can fall in line. Restoring of the rule of law within Sri Lanka implies, first of all, ensuring subservience to the rule of law by all officers who belong to the policing system.
It is from this point of view that the IGP and his deputies should seriously scrutinise the circumstances under which even some of its topmost officers have degenerated into being criminals. It should be a matter of intense soul searching and such soul searching should be initiated by the Inspector General of Police himself. It is his duty to inculcate a policy of zero tolerance to crime within the policing system. Such a policy cannot merely be taught by instructions, it can only be taught by setting impeccable example.
Though this can be said easily, everyone knows that doing it is not going to be easy, given that tolerance for crime has spread to the very top of the organisation. The Inspector General of police will need the cooperation of all high-ranking officers of the organisation if he does want to inculcate the spirit of zero tolerance to crime within the policing system. Gaining of such cooperation should begin with the initiation of a series of discussions within the top ranks of the police on the issue and coming to a common understanding of the past history involving degeneration within the system which led to this situation of topmost officers engaging in the most serious crimes such as murder. It is only through a process of internal discussion that genuine contrition about past practices can be generated. Once there is a serious acknowledgement of the problem at the very top, and a genuine regret about the past, instructions can be given in detail to lower ranking officers about the need to get back to the fundamental ideas of policing. If there is an obvious change of heart within the policing system on this issue it will become an inspiration for the rest of the population in their pursuit of making Sri Lanka a country that seeks to establish and uphold the rule of law.
By Mr. Basil Fernando