Community Police, No Substitute?

By N. Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 23 2021
Focus Community Police, No Substitute?

By N. Sathiya Moorthy

For Tamil groups campaigning on their political agenda in the US, the UK and Canada, and those that have been left behind, a recent announcement of Northern Province’s new Governor, Jeevan Thyagarajah, should have raised eyebrows. But going by the limited news coverage and even less Tamil reaction (non-existent just now), Governor Thyagarajah’s declaration to set up what he calls ‘community police stations’ across the Northern Province should have come up as old wine in new bottle. 

The Government of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now Prime Minister, had toyed with the idea in post-war talks with the TNA. It was attributed to then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, now President, as an alternative to the Police powers sought by the TNA, along with Land powers, as core issues that needed addressing. 

War crimes, was not on the TNA agenda or that of any other Tamil group. Once the TNA suddenly invented that idea, at the instance of the West that an Alliance team is now visiting, the talks got derailed. It has not resumed close to a decade later. Had it not been for the UNHRC route, the talks were getting bogged down on Police powers though there were those in the top who were not unwilling to consider a solution at least half-acceptable to the Tamils, it was said.

Governor Thyagarajah’s announcement has come a few weeks before the new Constitution draft, promised by the Government for the year-end. The question thus arises if his is a kite-flying for the Government, or if it’s going to form a part of the draft, when put out. Either way, it’s not acceptable to the Tamils, who are even more divided now than any time in the post-war past. 

The question thus remains if the Government could bulldoze ‘community policing’ as its preferred solution to the question of ‘Police powers’ for the Tamils. Even then, Governor Thyagarajah’s announcement covers only his Northern jurisdiction. Though both North and the East come under the care of a single Senior Deputy Inspector-General Jagath Palihakkara, they may require a similar gubernatorial declaration from the Eastern Governor to operationalise it in the Province. 

It is an academic discussion, into which the Tamils won’t even venture into, lest they should get caught in the nuances, leaving ideology and original ideas behind. That may also be one reason that they have ignored Governor Thyagarajah’s announcement just now. 

Nab and keep, or what

A month or so before now, the Governor had indicated what was coming. He had said that neither the Armed Forces, nor the Police could handle crime in Jaffna and elsewhere in the North, and hence the idea of community policing – of authorised people nabbing criminals in the neighbourhood. He did not answer the more pertinent parts of his own proposal as to what would happen to those thus nabbed.

It is a basic premise in criminal jurisprudence that no person’s life, liberty or movement can be curtailed by any other, including the State, without due authorisation by a law, passed by Parliament –- and cleared by the Judiciary when challenged in part or full. With limited information available, it has to be assumed that Parliament will be asked to pass a new law.

The alternative would be to authorise the so-called community police to just ‘nab’ the so-called criminals and detain them in the police stations, the Governor says, will be opened across the North. Without legal authority, it could well tantamount to ‘abduction’ and ‘illegal restraining’ of citizens by such others. Leave aside the policy framework, the politics involved and all, how does it appeal to a human rights activist like Thyagarajah to peddle it around in the first place?

When first mooted, the community police idea was said to have been borrowed from the American county police system. There are then the regular Police in individual States of the US, with the federal FBI at the apex, each with clear jurisdiction and duties, depending on capabilities initially conferred on them under the law and strengthened or weakened from time to time. 

In Sri Lanka, there is already a unified Police Force for the nation, and all specialised agencies that are equivalent to the FBI in the US form a part of that monolith. To that extent there may be lesser confusion. But in the division of labour between community police and regular Police, there is going to be teething problems that are hard to avert. 

Maybe, by dusting up an old proposal, the Government hopes to tell the US that it was only following the American model. The unasked question then could be this: Why does the US have county police if it does not produce results? The simple assumption for further peddling is that white-collar crimes, for instance, have become too complicated, too sophisticated and too international for a provincial police force in Sri Lanka to pursue to desirable conclusions. 

For the Tamils, Police powers are all about their political powers, their calling-card to tell the world that they belong, and belong here. It is not about what would happen to the Police powers if given to Provinces. Nothing of the kind as the Government had argued in the past, of provincial police detaining/arresting federal officials and Ministers, going all the way up to the Prime Minister, and the President, is going to happen. 

That was an unconvincing argument that did not wash even for a day, so to say. If a provincial police arrests a federal constitutional authority, supposedly at the instance of the elected local administration, it is sowing the first seeds of rebellion. The same could happen at the federal level itself. It was even attempted when Sirimavo Bandaranaike was (‘Executive’) Prime Minister in the early sixties. The English language has a term to describe it: coup d’etat. 

Thyagarajah’s proposition is flawed even more in practical terms on another count. In seeking to market the idea of community police early on, he has said talented youth would be recruited to fill the vacancies that would be created. What is the ‘talent’ he – sorry, the Government – is looking at? Is it anything equal to the Policemen on the nation’s streets, anything more, or is it going to be less? 

Then the question is if the community police personnel are going to be weaponised, or would they have to manage with their bare hands, or at best a baton or a longer stick? Are they going to be trained, who is going to coordinate, guide and supervise their work in the early weeks, months and years? It will have to be invariably serving Police regulars. 

At least as far as serving Police personnel are concerned, there has been an eternal shortage of men, and that is also said to be among the causes for poor law and order situation in the North, especially. If men are going to be re-drafted as officers-in-charge of community police stations, what is it going to do to the numbers in the existing force? Once coming to occupy more supervisory positions, would the force be keen to surrender them when the community police, throws up its own supervisory staff?

Paramilitaries, all?

There is an even more critical aspect to the whole thing, when it comes to implementation – and not the basic idea, where the differences are going to be unbridgeable, if it is to be considered as a substitute for ‘Police Powers’ for the Provinces? Already, the Government camp in the Northern Province in divided in multiple ways, with each one wanting to peddle petty influence all across. 

Assuming that these factions and parties begin taking an interest in identifying those ‘talented youth’ wanted for community police stations, the result could be disastrous and worse. Given the Governor’s own assessment, based on which he has advised/cautioned politicians in the North to sever links with criminal gangs, he should well be aware of the possibility of some of them seeing value in the ‘talent’ of such gangs, to ensure that members thereof are recruited into the ‘community police’ force. 

That could take the North back to the war era days of competitive paramilitaries, including what the LTTE, too, was. Should they have the hidden blessings of the regular Police Force, the North would have had it worse than any time in the post-war past, including the irregular gangs that operate in Jaffna and suburbs in particular. 

In such a scenario, the emergence of some ‘community police stations’ as an officially-recognised base of some of these gangs and their political mentors should not be ruled out. Similar is the case of ex-LTTE cadres, whom Governor Thyagarajah says are also members of such gangs. This is not to mention the lack of clarity if these police stations will be manned only by Tamil youth, or if southern Sinhala people, too, would be ‘imported’ into the North, as in the case of regular Police personnel – which have also been among the traditional Tamil grouses. 

No substitute

One thing is clear. Whether or not the Tamil polity has reacted to the Governor’s announcements thus far, they are going to surely react if the ‘initiative’ (?) is to be packaged in the Government’s offer of ‘Police powers’ for the Tamils, or at least the Tamil-majority North.   

Given that the Tamils now have the West, starting with the US, firmly on their side than at any time in the past, the question of their settling for anything less than real Police Powers (which may be negotiable) does not at all arise – a new Constitution draft or not. They too need to know, with war crimes probe and UNHRC, they don’t get anything. Without the same, they may get something closer to what they had been negotiating with the Mahinda regime in its time!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. 

email: [email protected])

By N. Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 23 2021

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