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New Era for Pakistan's Police [2005] ADBLPRes 13 (1 May 2005)

New Era for Pakistan's Police

ADB Review [ May 2005 ]

Working on the principle that justice reform and development are closely linked, Pakistan has made a quantum leap toward reforming its outdated police services

By Eric Van Zant, (
Consultant Writer

Policing the “City of Death” in the mid-1990s was an onerous task. At that time in Karachi, Pakistan, a lethal mix of religious extremism, ethnic rivalry, drug trafficking, and official corruption boiled over in a ferment of murder and violence that earned the city that unenviable epithet.

As law and order deteriorated, foreign investors fled, many local businesses migrated to less violent parts of the country, and development came to a standstill.

The 14-million-strong port city on the Arabian Sea remains a tough place—it is, after all, still a frontline in the war on terror and still riven by ethnic, religious, and political divisions. But observers say the anarchy has abated, investors have begun to return, and international events are once again taking place in its conference halls.

What is more, its experience with near lawlessness has helped drive home an important and emerging view among politicians and development professionals in Pakistan and other Asian countries: that development and access to justice and security are closely linked. Reform of justice systems in Asia’s poorer countries is, in some senses, a prerequisite to development and to fighting poverty.

Gateway to Change

For many people, the police are the first point of contact with any country’s justice system and, as such, reform of the police is a “gateway” to change.

“The thrust of the reform effort has to be establishing a police system that is politically neutral, nonauthoritarian, accountable, and responsive to the community, professionally efficient, and, last but not least, an instrument of the rule of law,” says Muhammad Shoaib Suddle, Director General of Pakistan’s National Police Bureau in Islamabad.

Pakistan has made a “quantum leap” toward that goal with the Police Order of 2002, says Mr. Suddle. It is the culmination of an arduous journey over decades to change an adversarial colonial system that has governed policing throughout the Indian subcontinent since the mid-19th century.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the achievement, and not just to Pakistan. The country’s new, modern laws replace the Police Act of 1861, which many reform experts say was at the heart of policing difficulties in Pakistan—and still hampers reform efforts in other countries of the former Raj, including Bangladesh and India.

Expecting that system to meet the aspirations of a free people was “like expecting a pushchair designed for a toddler to take an adult from one city to another on a steep road. It was not possible without a fundamental restructuring of an organization that was so broken,” says Mr. Suddle.

After the 1857 mutiny on the subcontinent, called the First War of Independence in South Asia, British administrators wanted full control of policing. They created an oppressive colonial force for “keeping the natives on a tight leash, not a politically neutral outfit for fair and just enforcement of law,” Mr. Suddle says. As an instrument of the executive arm of government, it was “public-frightening” not “public-friendly.”

Faced with a deepening crisis within its own organization and among the public, Pakistan’s police system almost ran aground in a storm of postcolonial social change. The police were seen as corrupt, insensitive, and politicized. The situation worsened, and the inherited system almost completely collapsed in recent decades with the emergence of terrorism and transnational crime, such as trade in weapons and drugs. Karachi and other cities in Pakistan descended into chaos.

The new laws move Pakistan police from a concept of “rule” to one of “service.” They put in place a code of conduct for law enforcement officials and make police an instrument of the rule of law. The Police Order seeks to depoliticize the police and transform them into a “people-friendly public service,” says Mr. Suddle.

Too Early to Assess New Police Laws

It is still premature to say to what extent the new laws have changed things for the better, Mr. Suddle says. There have been problems and delays, meaning, in particular, that two major elements of the reforms are not yet in place. “Until they are in place, I am not in a position to say whether things are substantially moving toward the better.”

To insulate the police from political interference, the Police Order aims at establishing politically neutral public safety commissions at the national, provincial, and district levels. They are similar to those introduced in Japan after World War II, which many credit with a rapid change for the better in police behavior there.

Pakistan’s new laws also seek to establish independent and statutory police complaints authorities. “Once a policeman renders himself accountable to the community he serves, his work ethic undergoes a radical change,” according to Mr. Suddle. The measure is expected to have a profound impact on controlling police misconduct and restoring public confidence.

Both measures, he says, are expected to be in place sometime in April 2005.

Getting the Community Involved

The new rules will also usher in community policing in Pakistan by establishing citizen-police liaison committees. The Karachi experience, again, is pointing the way: as conditions deteriorated in the late 1980s, businessmen concerned about their investments approached the governor of the Province of Sindh with a proposal. They offered to act as a bridge between the community and the police. The governor at the time was impressed, gave them space within his own offices, and the businessmen began analyzing the problems. Anyone who walked into the office got an independent hearing.

The model they created, which has already been replicated in several other cities, will be applied in other parts of Pakistan, and Mr. Suddle has recommended it internationally.

Among the other proposed changes, Pakistan has established metropolitan police forces in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, and Quetta. An independent prosecution service that will aid in better performance of the police under the new regime is also being established.

Improving Justice to Fight Poverty

“We are no longer in the 19th century, and unless you can improve the quality of justice, you cannot improve the quality of life,” says Mr. Suddle. There is extensive literature, he says, pointing out the direct relationship between good governance and economic and social development. The police, as part of the subsystem of criminal justice, are integral to overall good governance.

Better criminal justice helps create and sustain the conditions for poverty reduction by improving conditions for employment, social welfare services, and the creation of infrastructure that benefits the poor. Better criminal justice also leads to more equal economic, social, and political justice. And without reasonable levels of law and order, investment—especially foreign investment—will dwindle.

“It is only recently that there has occurred a resurgence of interest in the nexus between sustainable development and quality criminal justice,” points out Mr. Suddle. Western-trained economic planners in developing countries did the region a great disservice by labeling public expenditure on police and criminal justice services as “nondevelopmental.”

Establishing the many provisions of the Police Order will be a difficult challenge, says Mr. Suddle, and it will take many years to instill a new police culture and win public confidence. But by gradually introducing the measures—through establishing centers of excellence where they will be first applied, as is happening in Pakistan’s capital cities—the changes will take hold.

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