Police are central to maintaining law and order in a country. They are the first point of contact when something illegal happens and often embody the practical application of laws. Victims also turn to the police at desperate times seeking assistance, understanding and protection. In these instances, the humanity of the law enforcement system is partly measured by police action. Police investigate crimes, arrest suspects and ensure the safety of the whole of society. It is therefore imperative that the best and brightest be recruited, trained and deployed by the police force. However, Sri Lanka’s Government is attempting to veer off in a different direction, one that could have dangerous consequences.
The Cabinet last week approved a proposal by State Minister of Defence Chamal Rajapaksa seeking to establish a mechanism to reinstate policemen who had been issued orders to vacate their posts. This will include the Special Task Force (STF) as well. The justification given is that training new recruits would be both expensive and time consuming and therefore recalling policemen who have been ordered to vacate their posts was a reasonable stop-gap measure. Those who wish to re-enter the service can submit their applications to a special committee to be appointed by the Police Department and if the committee approves their re-entry, they will be returned to the Police and STF.
Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardana justifying the move, told reporters that only officials with “mild misdemeanours” would be allowed to return but this is still against the best interests of the public. Gunawardana also admitted that over 5,000 officers could be eligible to return under this measure.
This is a terrible move for multiple reasons. Firstly, there have been numerous instances where police have received a bad rap for having rotten apples among their midst. Any policemen who has been removed would have been indicted, had a hearing held to investigate the allegations against them and had the chance to appeal that decision. If they have chosen not to do so, or if the appeal was overturned, then they were removed. It is then in the best interest of the public that such errant policemen remain outside the police force.
There is nothing more demoralising than having a wrongdoer reinstated in the force. This would essentially stop any reforms within the force and send a cold signal to honourable policemen that their contribution is devalued and dismissed. How is it then possible to encourage officials to carry out their duties? In addition, how would these policemen be reinstated? Will they be returned to the same posts that they previously occupied? What happens to the arrears in pay and perks? New issues will be created in the hierarchy of the police force as well.
Even though the Cabinet paper offers a cursory nod to transparency by saying a committee will be appointed by the Police Department, in reality there will be no oversight by an independent body nor access given to the media. The criteria under which policemen may be accepted back into the force, where they will be stationed and what status they will receive will all be decided behind closed doors. There will be no mechanism in place to monitor them and ensure that they do not return to their wayward habits. What is more likely is that ex-policemen will be picked and appointed on political expediency, further politicising the police force. The Government has a sovereign duty to protect the public and promote law and order. It is now on the path to doing the opposite.