Why We Can’t Let Sleeping Cops Lie

Policemen snoozing on the job must be held accountable, but we must recognise that their behaviour is a manifestation of legislative and administrative somnolence.

Screen grab of an India Today news report on UP policemen who were caught sleeping while on duty.

Screen grab of an India Today news report on UP policemen who were caught sleeping while on duty.

On August 2, new reports about UP policemen caught napping on duty began to do the rounds. The reports were presented as exposes and reality checks – and they were. For on-duty cops to be napping is of course negligent and warrants action, especially in light of the recent gang rape in Bulandshahr. Outrage from the media and the public is also understandable. However, suspension and other forms of punishment for individual policemen are not long-term solutions. There is a systemic rot at play here that has long needed official attention. The actions of the policemen are manifestations of legislative and administrative somnolence.

The police establishment presents a complexity: it is a vital institution and also very easy to hold in contempt. The self-righteous smugness, excessive violence, rampant corruption at all levels, complicity in heinous political crimes, seeming lack of basic etiquette and, yes, the sleeping, are all valid reasons to be skeptical of the police and are mostly what they are associated with. As a whole, though, the police are a heterogeneous entity. It is unfair to paint them all with the same critical brush and many of the vices exhibited by the police force can themselves be traced to the failures of the larger machinery.

To get the whole picture, it is important to look at not only those laws that are enforced by the police and the manner of enforcement, but also the rules that govern them. These rules fall under the colonial Indian Police Act, 1861.

A startling survey

In 2014, the Bureau of Police Research and Development and Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad, conducted a study – National requirement of manpower for 8-hour-shifts in police stations – which, at the outset, stated:

Policing is a relentless activity, requiring efficient service delivery round-the-clock. This inevitably throws up the need for availability of staff on a 24×7 basis. The Indian Police Act of 1861, in keeping with the objective of the then-rulers to have an economical police force, mandated an ‘always on duty’ work regime for police officers. In effect, however, it meant an intermittent 24-hour duty schedule. The workload was also not too heavy, expected standards of policing were not too exacting and sense of accountability to the people was almost non-existent, in those days. The ever-increasing workload, emerging job requirements as well as the environment of policing have since changed the scenario dramatically. But, the ‘always on duty’ dictum of the ante-diluvian Police Act of 1861 still continues to govern the working hour regime of police personnel in the country. That the police station staff in India have unduly long and irregular working hours in a widely perceived phenomenon. The need for shift working in police stations has also been widely recognised as a much awaited reform in police functioning.

The study surveyed 12,156 police station staff, 1,003 SHOs and 962 supervisory officers from 319 police districts in India, covering 23 states and two union territories. Police stations were classified as metropolitan, urban, urban-rural, rural, crime, traffic, women, tribal and others.

The findings were astounding. The study found that 90% of all police staff, across criteria, worked over eight hours a day. It said that, according to 68% SHOs and 76% supervisory officers, staff members of their police stations had to be on duty 11 hours or more per day; 27.7% SHOs and 30.4% supervisors said their staff had over 14-hour work days.

Nearly 74% of police station staff could not avail weekly-offs even once a month and over 80% of staff were found to be commonly recalled to duty during their off time to deal with, among other things, “VIP bandobasts”.

The study alluded to “undue physical strain leading to cumulative physical as well as mental fatigue for personnel”. Almost 3/4th of all respondents claimed that they were dealing with health issues caused by the work environment and long hours. Eighty percent of the study’s sample size claimed the duty regime hindered their personal and family needs, social life and commitments. The study further stated that this “… takes a toll on the morale, motivation and self-esteem of staff. The overall frustration manifests itself in the offensive conduct and behaviour in the public by many of them, which leads to erosion of societal image of the police and alienation of the public”.

Attempted interventions 

Police reforms arsimply not a priority. It would perhaps appall even the British that Indian police personnel are still governed by their 155-year-old law. Matters are made worse by the fact that although there have been repeated demands for change, these have been ignored:

In 1996, two former director generals of police moved the Supreme Court to direct the Centre and the states to address police reforms (Prakash Singh and Ors. v. Union of India and Ors). The petition argued that the problems with police functioning take root in the Indian Police Act as the structure and organisation of the police has remained unchanged. In its 2006 judgment, the court noted that the petition referred to a research paper which said that “excessive control of the political executive over the police has the inherent danger of making the police a tool for subverting the process of law, prompting the growth of authoritarianism and shaking the very foundations of democracy”.

It further said, referring to another case (Vineet Narain and Ors. v. Union of India and Anr., 1997): “The Court expressed its shock that in some States the tenure of a Superintendent of Police is for a few months and transfers are made for whimsical reasons which has not only a demoralising effect on the police force but is also alien to the envisaged constitutional machinery. It was observed that apart from demoralising the police force, it has also the adverse effect of politicising the personnel…”

The apex court took the state of things to task, calling for the “preparation of a model police act by the Centre and new police acts by the State Governments”. It issued notices to the Centre, state governments and union territories to comply with seven remedial directives by December 31, 2006 and file affidavits of compliance by January 3, 2007 – an interim measure until proper legislation was negotiated.

It noted the input of the National Police Commission (NPC), formed in 1977, which had said that “the investigation task should be beyond any intervention by the executive or non-executive”. The judgment stated that the recommendations of the NPC were not implemented, much like similar proposals from the National Human Rights Commission, Law Commission, Ribeiro Committee, Padmanabhaiah Committee and the Malimath Committee.

The urgency displayed by these committees, and the Supreme Court, for reform is still lost on the central and state governments. The issue has been raked up numerous times, going back decades. This indicates that it is not a question of how agreeable a particular government is to the idea of police reforms but rather a larger, deliberate inertia that cuts across party lines. The police establishment is left with a hopeless organisational structure, with each limb tied to other institutions’ often conflicting agendas.

Resentment at a social level

The sight of a policeman never seems like good news, unless one is in imminent trouble. There is a certain civilian tendency to either typecast the police as intrusive or accuse it of inertia and dereliction of duty. Police personnel have hectic lives. A lot of them deal with criminals (of all varieties) on a daily basis. It is an occupational requirement to be hard-nosed. Putting their lives in danger, dealing with the internal politics of the establishment and never-ending duty are all taxing enough. To then face flak for becoming something their jobs have turned them into shows a lack of empathy. In the eyes of citizens, they can never get it right.

The issue of leadership is key. The function of the police is to enforce the law. They do not create laws. Once a law is cleared, however problematic, it has to be seen through by the police. They had no part in the making of the law, but will be seen as representing it, right or wrong. When the other branches of government display incoherence or deliberate ambiguity, it is the police that often appears weak or malicious to the public; the interests of governments are often mistaken for that of the police.

Corruption is central to the public perception of policemen at every level. The economic aspect of the job only aids the situation. Police work is round-the-clock and salaries are not proportionate to the nature of work, especially at the lower rungs. This serves, not as a justification, but as a big contributing factor to the solicitation and acceptance of bribes.

There is also an individual entitlement in the manner in which many people respond to police personnel. Some people are deeply outraged on being questioned by a constable. The people who complain when their cars are ‘needlessly’ stopped or feel compromised when a policeman speaks to them in a blunt way are the same people who want uncompromising toughness on rape, fraud, drunk driving and murder. But they want the cop to automatically make the distinction between criminals and themselves.

There will always exist a mutual perception gap between civil society and the men in khaki. A policeman sleeping on the job must certainly be held accountable, but society mustn’t lose sight of the archaic police law and the need for urgent revision. Analysts, Supreme Court benches and the policemen themselves have called for change. So why are our politicians sleeping on the job?

Samar is a freelance journalist and musician.