LAHORE - Surely, police reforms will be the subject of debate during the upcoming general elections, particularly in the Punjab province. Therefore, both the ruling PML-N and opposition parties are often seen at loggerhead over this issue of public importance.

The provincial government claims some key reforms in policing in recent years but the opposition blames the rulers for destroying the institutions especially the Punjab police. Following the Model Town tragedy, the country’s biggest child sex abuse scandal in district Kasur further exposed the system in place last year.

This year, however, the government has successfully introduced some fundamental changes at grass root level – ranging from the establishment of Front Desks to Dolphin Squads, and integrated command, control, and communication center to the high-tech nerve-centers in Lahore.

In their campaign manifesto, the ruling party had pledged police reforms in the biggest Punjab province but that’s still remains a slogan to a great extent.

The PML-N leaders are taken to task by their opponents including Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chief Imran Khan on account of bad police performance. The criticism is well-founded since the rulers have badly failed to reform the corruption-riddled law enforcing agency. Since 1985 to-date, Sharif brothers are in power for the 6th term in the Punjab province where police department has been struggling to create its soft image.

The mess-up in the police has raised many eyebrows. From fake police encounters to killings in custody and rampant corruption to misuse of powers still remains the hallmark of the country’s largest law-enforcing agency – the Punjab Police. CM Shehbaz Sharif, a couple of years ago, had promised establishment of 100 Model Police Stations in 36 districts of the province. Unfortunately, the government has failed to fulfill its promise since model police stations are operational nowhere. What to say about the change in Thana culture in the Punjab province, where the police killed as many as 245 alleged criminals in staged encounters during the first 10 months of this year.

According to a police report released in September, as many as 1,906 prostitution, gambling, and narcotics dens are actively operating in the provincial metropolis alone. The calculation suggests mushroom growth of criminal dens during the last eight years. In 2008, the whole Punjab province had been housing only 792 prostitution, gambling, and narcotics dens. Now, the Lahore city alone houses no less than 1900 such nests of criminals.

Out of total 792 dens at least 299 were related to gambling, 350 of narcotics dens, and 143 were brothels, according to the “Black Book” prepared by the Home Department in 2007 with the field support of the Special Branch.

Again, the data also exposes the “police culture” in the biggest province where the business of narcotics, prostitution, and gambling flourished alarmingly during the last eight years. This situation should be an eye opener for those who are in the government in Punjab since 2008. The scenario also depicts the gloomy picture of the province where the PML-N had promised police reforms during election campaigns in 2008 and then in 20013.

Interestingly, the criticism from Opposition parties paved the way for immediate reforms in policing in recent years. The harsher PTI chief Imran Khan grilled the government over policing in the Punjab province, the quicker the rulers pumped billions of rupees into police pocket. Shehbaz Sharif-led government allocated Rs145 billion for fiscal year 2016-17 under the head of law and order.

Authorities plan spending 44 billion rupees on the Punjab Safe City Authority. Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Multan, and Bahawalpur are part of this project. A high-tech surveillance system called Punjab Police Integrated Command, Control and Communication Center or PPIC3 was recently launched in Lahore. This nerve-center is being completed with an estimated cost of Rs 13 billion in the first phase.

Some 374 police stations have been linked up with the online system throughout the province so far. The establishment of Front Desks has ushered in a new era of public service and will go a long way in improving police perception. The project is a practical manifestation of the provincial government’s vision for improved service delivery and provides equal access and respect to all irrespective of their social status, an access which is easy, immediate and direct.

According to a government official, the establishment of front desks was aimed at winning over public trust and satisfaction through prompt and timely redressal of public complaints by incorporating automated technology solutions for enhanced police accessibility, accelerated processes, and continuous monitoring.

The system also features an in-built analysis of complaints statistics thereby enabling the central police office and the inspector general of police to monitor the working of the field officers.

Lahore capital city police officer Muhammad Amin Wains says his department is moving towards “paper-less” policing and the establishment of front desks has changed the face of the provincial police.

At least 202 front desks are made operational in 13 districts of the Punjab province to facilitate the visitors and complainants. The process to establish such desks in the rest of districts is likely to be completed during the current financial year. Once the project is launched in all police stations of the province, it would start a new era and will be an important step to make the police a public friendly institution.

At these front desks, well-dressed and young officers treat the complainants like the guys we see in offices of multinational companies. They immediately report complaints through a centralised online system. The visitors are given a few services on-the-spot like registration and verification of private persons and official documents. The complainants are handed over electronic-receipts. The senior officers monitor the whole system from different systems and locations.

Police circles believe the concept of Front Desks is the brainchild of provincial police officer Mushtaq Ahmed Sukhera. The department on the directions of the inspector general of police, last year, introduced computerised complaint handling centers at 10 police stations of Lahore as an experiment. One year later, the scheme was renamed as Front Desks and extended to more than 200 police stations of the province.

IGP Mushtaq Ahmed Sukhera will stand retire most probably in April next year. Insiders say the police chief wants to introduce some key changes in the police structure before leaving the powerful post. Therefore, the police department has already approved the establishment of Dolphin Force for another five big cities of the Punjab province to counter street criminals. One hopes, the police department will continue implementation on the policies of the IGP even after his retirement.

Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif will have to introduce more reforms in the police so that corruption could be eliminated from the department and criminals from the society. There must be model police stations with dedicated staff and well-trained investigators to hunt down organized gangs of criminals.  The CM will have to fulfill all his promises during the next year since the time is running out for the next general election.