At the beginning of this week, almost two dozen police officials including traffic wardens and constables were sacked in Lahore on various charges of corruption and the misuse of power. Fifteen other officers were penalized with demotions. In Kasur on the same day, a young man was allegedly tortured by the police and dumped unconscious on the roadside. Over the years, police brutality and complicity in crimes as severe as rape and custody deaths, have become a serious state issue. Let us understand what the police force really is; it is a reflection and a visible functionary of the state. It is a direct engagement of the citizenry and the state machinery. Quite simply, the police is the state on the streets. So the question is, how do you empower it without making it power-mad? There is a delicate balance between effective policing and upholding democratic principles, and that equilibrium must be sought.

Of course, terrorism is an added problematic in Pakistan, and one in which the police have suffered enormous losses. There is no doubt that the police is on the frontline of our war against militancy. Officers are a regular target of terrorists, especially in cities like Karachi and Peshawar. For this reason, the controversial Protection of Pakistan Ordinance had included the Statutory Regulatory Order (SRO), which authorized the police to take action against terrorists (but this was an example of too much police empowerment). That balance between too much and too little empowerment is tricky. Far too often, there are reports of unfair punitive action being taken against policemen by powerful politicians who cannot tolerate being questioned by law enforcement officials even for violations as simple as speeding on city roads. How then, do we judge the boundaries and extent of police power? On one hand, you find policemen complicit in torture and rape cases. On the other hand, you have the relatives of MNA’s routinely beating up traffic police, and police officers being held responsible for a couple of consumed peacocks at the PM house.

Some checks and balances are crucial for accountability. Real punitive action must be taken against officers as required. At the same time, the ordinary policeman must be dignified with a better salary and better benefits, alongside better police training that puts an enormous focus on patriotism, on ethics and the grave responsibility the officer has to the society he/she protects. This kind of “glorified nationalism” which already exists within the armed forces must extend to the police to motivate officers of every rank and to curb corruption.