Having gone through media reports on the recent incident at Mukherjee Nagar in North West Delhi, one is compelled to wonder whether the usual talk of police reforms is yet another oxymoron. Normally, a police officer after training is supposed to behave with a certain amount of discretion and sensitivity as he may be quite raw and not as experienced and hardened as some of his colleagues. In the instant case, however, some of the policemen are reported to have conducted themselves in a very unprofessional manner, drawing adverse comment from all sections of society. This takes us to the quality of training and attitude of those graduating from the training schools.

It appears that one of the fundamental schisms which has continued ever since independence is whether the police is a service or a force. The conflict arises from the fact that society has high expectations and considers the police to be a public service organisation, while the State continues to think of the police as not just a service organisation for society but also as an instrument of its sovereign functions like law and order, public order and internal security.

Despite numerous commissions and their recommendations, the police organisation generally has remained as one observes and experiences. Sometimes it appears strange that despite the police being a state subject and each state having a set of its own rules, there is something which binds the police into a homogenous entity as far as methodology of work and attitude towards public are concerned.

In this context, Home Ministry’s renewed efforts at giving a push to police reforms would be welcomed by one and all. To begin with, a countrywide competition to adjudge the best police station is being initiated. Police stations would be competing with each other on the basis of seven parameters which include crime prevention, pro-active policing along with public perception and feedback. Some of these have been included perhaps for the first time and would give an impetus to policemen to take into account attitudes of citizens towards the police and policing in general. It is hoped that such competitions would generate a lot of enthusiasm, bring in much required fresh air into police stations and lead to the desired course correction.

Undoubtedly, some of these parameters are extremely important and may be even fundamental to providing good governance to the public. In today’s media-driven world, public perception is vital to the credibility of any organisation and the police in particular, as even a small incident like the one mentioned, can become stigmatic and spoil hard earned reputations. At the same time, we must give deeper thought to the fact that despite orders of the Supreme Court, there appears to be an inherent reluctance in implementing police reforms in a meaningful manner.

While the array of police reforms implemented so far, to modernise communication networks, mobility, IT applications and weaponry etc, have only touched metropolitan areas and a few fortunate district headquarters, large segments of our population continue to be under-policed with departments unable to provide even basics in certain areas. Visible implementation of such infrastructural reforms, even in a limited manner, has besides giving a modern and contemporary look resulted in a quantum jump in efficiency and effectiveness of the police besides leading to a perception of being progressive amongst the public. But unless we address the core issues, no amount of modern infrastructure will be able to bring in fundamental changes towards the working methodology of police all over the country

The police and the public enjoy an ambivalent relationship with each other. Even when the police personnel are friendly, have a positive attitude and the police station looks modern and inviting, people become apprehensive the moment they hear of police procedures and courts. As police are to the criminal justice system almost all its actions have to be placed before judicial officers, as required by the Code of Criminal Procedure and the various state police rules.

As the number of cases goes up, not only does workload of investigating officers increase, it adds to delays and pendency in courts resulting in an increase in the time spent on each case before final disposal. Such increased workloads and delays deny justice to people on one hand; on the other they propel the stressed and overworked police officers towards rudeness and offensive behavior. The common man suffers, for justice delayed is justice denied.

The Code of Criminal Procedure currently in vogue is basically a document of 1898 vintage. Some amendments have been made from time to time but the basic structure remains more or less the same. In fact, most of the aberrations in the working of the police have their origins in this Code.

As such, besides improving and modernising training and other infrastructural needs as per current and future projections, real reform would be ushered in only when such administrative changes are coupled with changes in the requisite police and court procedures. Today a citizen is more concerned with the police paperwork and court procedures as he may have to make several visits to the police station and later to the courts. Such time-consuming and complicated procedures bring in a lot of negativity in police-public relations. Besides, these have almost no bearing on establishment-related reforms of fixity of tenures and constitution of Security Commissions at the state or national levels. In the current dispensation of the procedures there is hardly any emphasis on expediting delivery of justice to the common man, which in fact should be the top priority. In order to address all such issues in a comprehensive manner, roughly 20 years ago the Ministry of Home Affairs had constituted a committee to go into various aspects of the criminal justice system. This committee had submitted a very comprehensive and a meaningful report. The recommendations were not only to expedite the delivery of justice, but also emphasised need for greater involvement of judicial officers at the time of trial to ascertain the truth.

At present we follow the adversarial system, which no doubt gives a very fair trial. In the inquisitorial system, which is followed in most of the European countries including France and Germany, the supervision of investigation is done more closely by judicial officers. It had been recommended that in our prevailing social conditions an adversarial system with certain good features of inquisitorial system could be adopted. Changes in the basic approach to investigation were also suggested. An important recommendation was to introduce a provision in the Code where any court, at any stage of inquiry or trial, would have powers to issue directions to the investigating officer to make further investigation or to direct the supervisory officer to take appropriate action for more pointed investigation so as to assist the court in the search of truth. Some changes in the nature of burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt were also suggested. For some reason, this very useful report was shelved after the change of government in 2004.

Ultimately for the benefit of the common man, it would be of utmost importance to deal with criminals effectively and speedily by expeditious delivery of justice. Accordingly, the police reforms should be two-tiered. One at the level of the organization and the establishment besides training and secondly at the procedural level entailing a comprehensive review of the code of criminal procedure and state police rules. In the current scenario simply increasing the number of investigators or the number of courts may not suffice as the need of the hour is to introduce comprehensive reforms in the criminal justice system.