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Sankar Sen

Accountability means answerability for the proper performance of the assigned job. It means, as emphasised by the National Police Commission in its report (Eighth Report of the National Police Commission, page 1). more than mere responsibility to discharge the duties involved in a job, but includes the responsibility of doing so in a manner to the satisfaction of the party for whose benefit the responsibilities are being discharged. In a democratic society, the police remains ultimately accountable for its performance to the people. It has also a proximate responsibility to the law of the land which in essence expresses the will of the people. In every stage of their activity the police should be governed and judged by the provisions of law. Protection of the basic rights of the people and compliance with law are the twin pillars of good policing in a liberal democratic society'. The relationship of the police to law is, therefore, instrumental as well as professional. It is a tool in their hands for initiating action against the law-breaking members of the community, it also defines the standards of performance by the police themselves in the execution of their public duties.

Law gives powers to the police to exercise force for the purpose of peace-keeping. Indeed, the mandate of the police to use force to curb greater violence and disorder raises the key issue that the police themselves should not indulge in abuse or misuse of force. Exercise of police powers must be subjected to checks and balances. Indeed, no state body with the possible exception of the armed forces stand on a routine basis between the protection and endangerment of human rights.

However, checks and balances on police power, if they are to serve the intended purposes, must be reliable as well as effective in their nature and operation. They must also be perceived as such by the members of the community.

Checks and regulations of police misconduct can be internal as well as external. Many senior police officers as well as experts like David Bayley feel that internal control is to be preferred to the external processes. Bayley has argued in his book. Pattern of PolicingA Comparative International Analysis, that internal regulation can be more thorough, effective and efficient than external supervision. A determined police can hide many things from external supervision and can make it haphazard and ineffective. However, external control is needed whenever it is felt that the police force on its own cannot control itself internally. Experience of dealing with police misconduct in different parts of the world shows that exclusive reliance on police self-regulation may not be sufficient. Capacity of the police to regulate itself is limited. And further police self-regulation, howsoever well-meaning, does not carry conviction with the people. And that is the reason why civilian oversight of the police has emerged as one of the legitimate means by state authorities to exercise checks on police powers. Public demand for civilian oversight has acquired edge because of the widely held perception that police supervisors often tend to gloss over the misdeeds of their subordinate staff.

Turning to the evolution of civilian oversight bodies in democratic countries, it is seen that the 1980s represented, to quote Dr. David Bayley, "a watershed period with respect to the moral dimension of policing". During those years civilian review bodies were created in many countries. In sum, the police lost their monopoly in determining whether the police officers were treating their citizens right.


The record of experience with civilian oversight in various forms indicates that some important considerations have to be kept in mind if the system is to operate successfully and effectively. It has to be kept in mind that the goal is not primarily the punishment of the police but the goal is to restore public confidence in the police as well as to ensure police compliance with rules and regulations. There is very little point in talking in terms of only punishing the aberrant officers unless there are efforts for systemic changes and efforts in the police to persuade the officers, particularly street-level officers, of the need to change existing practices.

Independent Investigative Capacity

Any civilian oversight body in order to be effective should have an independent investigative capacity. If an independent investigation can be launched from the moment a serious complaint is received, it will reassure the citizens who may otherwise feel that the police may seek to cover up serious transgressions. However, independent investigation should be taken up only in respect of very important cases. Other cases should be dealt by mediation, conciliation and internal police investigation. In the investigation set-up there must not only be police officers or ex-police officers, but investigators with different backgrounds like lawyers, academics and doctors, who cannot be charged with pro-police sympathies. This does not mean that the police investigators are to be excluded. The Australian Law Reforms Commission stated in its report that in complaints which involve serious criminal charges, investigation can be carried out best by experienced police personnel.

Civilian oversight has offered a separate means by which grievances can be made against the police, and investigation can be monitored and conducted by independent investigators and some independent assessment can be made of the results of the investigation. The crucial element here is the induction of a third non-police party in the resolution of the grievances against the police, and it offers fresh and new ways of resolving these grievances. Further, a functional complaints system enables the socially weak and marginalised groups to articulate their grievances. It thus gives an opportunity to the common citizens to influence the course of police policy, procedures and practices. It can foster communing  policing by including the genuine grievances of those citizens who are removed from society's institutions.


Experience in different countries shows that attempts to set up civilian oversight mechanisms have met with stiff police opposition and resistance. There is always police opposition stemming from the perceived threat to police professionalism and also from the feeling that jurisdiction over the discipline of the members of the police force belongs "'exclusively to the command structure". Police unions in countries like the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have argued that the lay involvement would result in a lack of appreciation of the police work and the problems faced by the police including the occupational hazards of vindictive and vexatious complaints. In the United Kingdom when the Police Complaints Board (PCB) was established by the Police Act of 1976, Sir Robert Mark, the well-known Commissioner of London Metropolitan Police resigned in protest. In Victoria (Australia) the Police Complaints Authority, which was set up in July 1986, had to face strong opposition from the Police Association which sought an injunction from the Supreme Court in Australia to prevent the Authority from initiating enquiries in relation to the police conduct. The Australian Supreme Court in the wellknown case (Servy Vs McCrohan) overruled the objection. The government, however sided with the police, and abolished the Police Complaints Authority in 1989 and replaced it by ombudsman to oversee police internal investigation into the complaints.

In Canada, the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force Complaints Act, 1984, set up in Toronto the Civilian Board of Enquiry comprising members appointed from amongst the distinguished citizens and police officers who must not be either serving police officers or nominated by the Police Association. The Police Association challenged the validity of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Act and went to the extent of partial withdrawal from service demanding the repeal of the Act. In Canada, the police officers tried to criticize the Civilian Review Board as 'Kangaroo Courts' in which the few basic rights of the police officers and investigators were honoured. While the merits of some of these criticisms can be questioned, they go to indicate the type of opposition that is encountered by the external review mechanisms. For its own success it is necessary for the outside agency to strive sincerely and continually to persuade the police to understand the wider implications of proper handling of the complaints and make them realise that in their own interest they should consider review by external mechanisms as beneficial. Indeed, willing compliance is always preferable to exacted deterrence. The Metropolitan Toronto Police Act, 1984 was repealed. A new Police Service Act, 1989 was enacted which expanded the jurisdiction of the Public Complaints Commissioner on a mandatory basis throughout the province. The Toronto complaints system had been the catalyst for civilianisation of the police complaints procedures throughout Canada. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police amended its Act to create a Public Complaints Commission to provide transparency in the investigation of allegations of misconduct on the part of the members of the RCMP.

Despite initial opposition police leaders in many countries have gradually veered round to the view that civilian control mechanism ultimately helps the police in many ways. It helps the police managers to improve service delivery by identifying the weaknesses in their programmes and take steps to be more responsive to the expectations of the communities. This is particularly important in, to quote the Chief of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, J PR. Murray, a "demand-driven" organisation like the police. Civilian oversight can also identify policies, guidelines and regulations and even legislative requirements which may be contributing factors in events leading to public complaints against the police.

However, functioning of Civilian Review bodies has not always been acclaimed by the complainants themselves. In a major study evaluating the work done by the Police Complaints Authority in the UK, Maguire and Corbett pointed out that the system failed to command public confidence because in most of the cases allegations against the police remained unsubstantiated. Substantiation rate has always appeared to the outsiders far too low to constitute an effective deterrent. This happens because obtaining evidence against the malpractice of the police is difficult. Very often, malpractice occurs in police territory and the police officers who break the law always have the opportunity to hide the misconduct from the civilian witnesses. There is also a code of silence among the police officers. Maguire study also showed that some of the complainants were making their first complaints against the police in their lives and "felt that it is like walking upto a six-feet man". They expected some kind of relief or an assurance that steps would be taken to prevent such recurrence.

Why Police Resort to Shortcut Methods?

Now the question arises as to why the police resort to shortcut and illegal methods in the performance of their duties. Maurice Punch in a perceptive study called "Conduct Unbecoming" has stated that the roots of police deviance are deep-seated and multi­dimensional. Its stems from, as seen in various countries of the world, ambiguous legislation, vulnerability to legal sanctions, occupational culture and a desire to produce quick results. In countries like India, the public expect the police to take laws in their hands because of the working of the criminal justice system at a snail's pace. There is demand for ruthless counter-measures in spite of the price to be paid in terms of human rights. It is the responsibility of the police leaders to resist such pressures and check drifts of this kind. They have to keep in mind that in any democratic society order maintained by repression is the worst form of disorder. It establishes a linkage between social order and atrocity.

National Human Rights Commission

In India, the National Human Rights Commission since its inception has been receiving a large number of complaints against the police. Some of the complaints have been found to be frivolous but there is substance in many of the complaints. In a number of cases the Commission has awarded compensation to the victims and suggested disciplinary action against the errant police officers. The Commission, however, has strongly felt that punishment or disciplinary action against the errant police officials will not be adequate unless there is a systemic change. For this purpose, the Commission strongly recommended the insulation of the police from extraneous pressure and influence. In its submission before the Supreme Court in the Writ Petition (Writ Petition No. 310 of 1996, Prakash Singh and others Vs Union of India), the Commission referred to the doctrine of constabulary independence in the U.K. and endorsed the observations of the Royal Commission of Police, 1962 and Lord Denning regarding constables' responsibility and answerability to law alone. The Commission referred to the observation of Sir Robert Mark, a well-known Commissioner of London Metropolitan Police, that the police in Great Britain is answerable to law and this makes them "the least powerful, the most accountable and the most acceptable police in the world". Police in democratic society should be low in authority and high in accountability'. The Commission also endorsed the recommendation of the National Police Commission for the constitution of a State Security Commission to oversee police work and insulate the police from unnecessary and avoidable interference.

The State Security Commission will have representatives from cross-sections of the society and the accountability' of the police to the people will be brought through this mechanism. Further, accountability will be ensured when people become aware of their rights and are willing to exercise them through available mechanisms and agencies. Awareness does not mean only awareness of rights but also awareness of the problems and constraints within which the police have to function.

The National Human Rights Commission further pointed out in its submission before the Apex Court that altogether the "rule of law in modern India, the frame upon which justice hangs, has been undermined by the rule of politics. Supervision in the name of democracy has eroded the foundations on which impartiality depends in the criminal justice system". For better accountability of the police, the Commission suggested the formation of District Complaints Authority' to examine complaints from the public of police excesses, arbitrary arrests and detentions and make recommendations to the government and the State or National Human Rights Commission and institution of lay-visitors for visiting jails and police lock-ups.

In the ultimate analysis, essential features of democratic policing are responsiveness and accountability. A democratic police force, to quote Dr. Bayley, '"responds the needs of individuals and private groups as well as the needs of the government. It is accountable to multiple audience and multiple mechanisms". Strengthening of these mechanisms will strengthen the quality of democratic policing.

"Views and opinions expressed in the articles and notes published in this web site are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Association of Retired Senior IPS Officers".




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Last modified: January 20, 2004