The police we have and where it came from: An Analysis

The police we have and where it came from: An Analysis


By Uladzimir Dzenisevich and Maja Daruwala

Across the world, the agency of state that is written about more often than others and commented on is the police.

The police are where victims of crime seek justice. Equally, we recognise that the police force is, in many ways, the face of the state and when the police do not perform to expectations the institution becomes a major source for discontent and strife.

It is, therefore, disturbing to note that no country's police force has escaped criticism. Police forces of the Unites States of America, Australia, the United Kingdom and other Western countries, usually held up as examples of good policing, have faced accusations of racism, corruption, cover-ups and unprofessionalism. The protests of black communities in the USA against police mistreatment have made headlines around the world, and American police continue hitting new lows in its attitude toward non-white minorities.

The conflicts between people in the Western countries and their police may seem familiar to the Global South. However, root causes of poor policing are different in developed and developing countries.

Western countries have a police force adapted and grown out of a cultural continuum. In contrast countries of the Commonwealth, now independent for decades, face the challenge of a style of policing thrust on them by their former imperial masters – not a home grown variety. The task of adapting a policing style inherited from empires by democracies with aspiring, huge and diverse populations is difficult.

The origins of colonial policing in the Commonwealth can be traced back to Royal Irish Constabulary founded in 1822. As Georgina Sinclair points out, the new police force was “outwardly militaristic, and was involved more in dealing with political protest than the prevention and detection of crime”. She further contends that

“Irish Constabulary seemed to be a more 'practical prototype' for policing indigenous populations who, in the main, required a coercive arm. In Ireland, it was argued that there was always the potential for social and political conflict; this necessitated a police force that could perform two roles. The 'semi-military' role effectively entailed a military style uniform <…> and necessitated the use of military weaponry: typically, carbines with sword bayonets, revolvers, shotguns, repeater rifles and, later on, grenades and automatic weapons for special duties”.

This militaristic model in turn demanded a particular style of governance, thus reinforcing the authoritarian nature of the colonial regime. Consequently, when London was faced with inevitable resistance to the colonial administration in different parts of the Empire, it looked no further than to Royal Irish Constabulary for inspiration. Britain used the Irish model to establish police forces in colonies, with necessary adaption to local contexts, which, however, often resulted in more harsh and militaristic law enforcement agencies.

No better example can be found than India. As Sinclair argues, the Indian police was “certainly the first and largest colonial-style police force to be shaped by the [Royal Irish Constabulary]”.

The Indian Constitution will turn 67 in a few weeks. However, Indian police laws are based on a British model created 155 years ago and have changed little.  India’s current police law came into force some four years after an uprising against its colonial masters in 1857 that was brutally repressed.

It was designed for foreign conquerors to rule over a native population.

Discipline was strict and militaristic. Hierarchy was reinforced by race. Typically, white men demanded unquestioned obedience from all below. Grudging trust was given to 'mixed' races in the lower supervisory ranks, and the dark natives, who were in the largest numbers, were put on a tight leash. To do this, the colonial masters had to create an esprit de corps that held together through wrong or right. Isolating the natives from the community at large ensured discipline and loyalty in the lower ranks. They were granted powers that would not be questioned when abused and benefits that separated them from the masses (like better housing). They were posted far from their villages and communities. This built mutual suspicion between the police and the masses.

This discipline, isolation and the segregation served colonial interests well. It sustained control through command and not constitutionalism.

The Indian variant of colonial police force became “'the dominant influence on police development” and the template for law and order in many colonies of the British Empire, including most of Africa. With imperialist interests in mind, this design was meant to control rather than protect, and suppress rather than support local populations.

Out of this suffocating scenario was born India’s and other Commonwealth countries’ post-independence police, an institution trying to shed its colonial past and change from a force apart to a facility and resource for the population.

Governments across the post-colonial world are trying to come to terms with what ‘new policing' should look like. How can it guarantee the principles of equity and equality, accountability, transparency, participation, respect for diversity, the accommodation of dissent, protection of individual and group rights, and encouragement of human potential?

Seminal initiatives come from the former colonies themselves. Countries like Kenya and South Africa have used their independence as an opportunity to change their models of policing and break free from colonial policing laws. Although, translating vision to reality in both cases has been tough at times, the foundation for change was put in place and transformation of the police is inevitable.

The Commonwealth Human Right Initiative (CHRI) has stayed on the frontline of this debate, engaging with local partners and shaping the conversation about the police reform. As the colonial model of policing was shaped in India, CHRI is in unique position to offer expertise and experience of reforming this long outdated law enforcement system. Most recently, CHRI, together with Tanganyika Law Society (TLS) and Commission for Human Rights and Good Governance (CHRAGG), researched and developed a position paper that argues for a well-defined relationship between the police and the political executive in Tanzania and suggests models and strategies to do this, drawing on legal formulations and experiences from multiple jurisdictions.

These small, and perhaps cumbersome, steps will no doubt go a long way in rooting out the wrongs colonial policing has planted across the Commonwealth.