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ADB Review [ May 2005 ]
Tackling the problems besetting the Bangladeshi police services means overcoming a long history and great shortage of funding
By Eric Van Zant, (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ashraful Huda, Inspector General of Police in Bangladesh, would be pleased if his country could provide one police officer for every 1,000 citizens, as compared with about one per 1,200 people now.
But even that modest wish would still leave this crowded and impoverished country well short of policing levels seen in neighboring India and Pakistan, and many other countries.
“We can possibly reach one to 1,000. I would be the happiest man if we can achieve that. But look at the world—in India or Pakistan, the ratio is one to 600 or 700,” he says.
The problems besetting the Bangladeshi police are many, but can be loosely grouped under two general headings: funding and history. The shortage of manpower illustrates the first, and the country’s Police Act embodies the second. The Act keeps in place a system instituted in 1861 by the colonial British throughout South Asia.
Among the issues faced by Bangladeshi police reformers are poor working conditions; long hours; outdated training; corruption; abuse of power; fractured police-public relations; low human security in Bangladesh; and poor access to justice for women, the poor, and the vulnerable; and many more.
“A policeman should be a symbol of security and the police station a symbol of safety. But, unfortunately, it is not the case in Bangladesh,” says A.S.M. Shahjahan, retired Inspector General of Police, who had also served as an advisor in a nonparty caretaker government.
Sustained Reform Requires Money
Reforming the organization, now almost a century and a half old, is not an easy task at all, he says. “It will need more money and without continuous allocation of adequate funds, sustainable reform cannot be achieved.”
In 1861, the British colonial Government was concerned mainly with keeping locals under tight control, according to Muhammad Shoaib Suddle, Director General of Pakistan’s National Police Bureau. His country replaced the same colonial police act with the Police Order in 2002.
“The police [force] was designed to be a public-frightening organization, not a public-friendly agency. Service to the people was not an objective of its design.” The main concern then, he says, was landrevenue collection and maintenance of law and order.
According to Mr. Suddle, the basic difference between colonial police and police meant for a free country is crucial. The former was meant to raise a semimilitarized, semiliterate, underpaid body of men for maintaining order by overawing an often-turbulent and hostile population. The latter creates professionals tasked to prevent and detect crime in plural, multiethnic, and socially conscious communities, through just and impartial enforcement of laws. The former knew how to rule, the latter knows how to serve.
The 1861 law emulated the law governing the Irish constabulary—Ireland was then also under British rule—and made the police an instrument at the hands of the executive government.
In Bangladesh, says Mr. Shahjahan, using the structures of the Police Act, “successive governments required police to perform functions that have for decades earned them hostility from the community.”
A widening gap of mistrust and suspicion is the result. Cultural values have been embedded in police forces that will take years of reform to root out.
Start at the Lower Levels
It is important to begin at the lower levels of the force, says Mr. Shahjahan. “Primarily you need operational independence—no external pressure,” he says, allowing police to operate without interference, external influence, and inappropriate intervention. “Secondarily, it is necessary that financial constraints are removed and work conditions improved.”
A police officer in Bangladesh is regularly required to work 13 or 14 hours a day, often with no weekly holiday. Stations have inadequate transport for officers’ needs, and there are almost no facilities for forensic investigation of crimes.
“No police station can run on the money given by the government. Police stations are not totally covered (by the funding),” he says. Just providing basic equipment for forensic analysis, he says, could see a substantial decrease in alleged police excesses, which are sometimes used to extract confessions in the absence of evidence based on forensic support.
With a total annual budget of just Bangladesh taka (Tk)1,120 crore ($177.8 million), the Bangladesh police force is indeed severely underfunded. Per capita expenditure on police services in Bangladesh is only Tk80 ($1.40). And because funds are insufficient, it becomes necessary for police to resort to alternative funding in order to function, says Mr. Shahjahan. “They have deviated from the core functions of the prevention and detection of crime.”
Since Bangladesh split from Pakistan in 1971, more than six committees and commissions were formed to diagnose and treat the country’s ailing police system, but there was little active follow-through. “Indifference, vested interests, and scarce resources were at the root of ignoring the reform agenda when it came to turning the ideas into concrete action,” Mr. Shahjahan says.
Another Attempt at Reform
In January this year, however, another solid effort to address the problems got under way with a $13 million program styled as Strengthening Bangladesh Police Project. Launched under the Ministry of Home Affairs in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme and funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, it will help improve performance and professionalism at all levels of the police force.
The program will put in place better human resource management and introduce better merit-based recruitment, institutionalize training and evaluation, and increase female recruits.
Additionally, it will focus on strategy and oversight, with police officers’ core functions clearly established and widely known, crime prevention targeted, clear performance targets established and monitored, and anticorruption and complaints against police made more robust and accessible.
The force will also seek to improve its relationship with the media, an area close to Mr. Huda’s heart. “The press can play a very big role in bridging the relations between the police and the public,” he says. The press can misrepresent police views, he says, but also points out that it is worth the effort to bridge the gap.
Undoing the inefficiencies of the Bangladesh police will take many years. Before the Strengthening Bangladesh Police Project started, an assessment team concluded that reform of the Bangladesh police would take at least 9 years, and identified weak management, corruption, lack of strategic planning and public confidence, limited training, and widespread abuse of authority as the problems.
But, whatever the case, says Mr. Shahjahan, the problems are known and so are the solutions. The most difficult process is getting action, he says. “Ancient evils, like age-old vested interests, do not yield to easy conquest.”