Police Reforms in India: Need for a New Police Law

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India’s police continue to be governed by an archaic and colonial police law passed in 1861.

Police is a state subject and hence, it is the responsibility of the state to provide for a better police service. However, most states follow either the 1861 Act or Acts which are based heavily on this Act.

The 1861 Act is out of sync with India’s constitutional and criminal law framework. The police so established is subservient to political masters and lacks accountability, and as a result, the police is repressive and faced with complaints like corruption, abuse of power etc. which has led people to lose their faith in them.

The need for reform has long been recognised. In 1977, the Central Government appointed the National Police Commission (NPC) to address this issue. The NPC concluded that amending the 1861 Act itself is not enough, and gave eight reports and a model police act, but the recommendations have not been implemented. In 1996, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed in the Supreme Court to order the implementation of the NPC recommendations. The Court ordered the implementation of seven directives and also recommended passing a new police legislation, however, till date, not even a single state or the Centre have complied fully with the SC directives.

“In spite of the formation of several Commissions and committees and the various models, the Centre is yet to repeal the 1861 Act, and implement a new police legislation more suitable for the modern setting.”

The mandate of a Police Act is to define how the police should be governed, to set standards for delivery of services and delineate an accountability mechanism. For meeting these requirements, it is crucial to curb the faults existing in the present police system.

A major cause of poor policing is the high level of political interference, which takes many forms, such as interference in arrest and investigation and arbitrary decisions on transfers and postings etc. This negatively impacts the functioning of the police, and hence, strict safeguards are required to protect against this interference. In a democracy, the elected government is the guardian of public interest and hence, matters of public safety affect the policies and decisions of the executive. However, for efficient policing, the supervision must not extend to the point of becoming interference. The police laws need to delineate the powers of the Minister and the DGP. Establishment of a State Security Commission for providing guidance to the police and protecting the appointment of the DGP from political interference would be steps in this regard.

To improve service delivery and efficiency of police stations, they need to be better equipped with adequate manpower, infrastructure and facilities. Governments can achieve this by prescribing minimum standards for police stations in their respective jurisdictions. Public confidence in the police depends on how accessible, friendly and helpful police stations are. The Police Act must also include an independent mechanism to deal with complaints against police officers, to prevent impunity and restore public confidence. This is to provide an accessible local mechanism to handle complaints. They should be designed as a quasi-judicial body at a local level closest to communities to check police abuse and recommend punitive steps against errant officers, among other functions.

The Police Act must also rule out provisions that damage the accountability of the police. One such provision is the appointment of Special Police Officers or SPOs. According to the 1861 Act, SPOs were appointed by the Magistrate, and once appointed, enjoyed the same powers, privileges and penalties as ordinary police officers. SPOs have been retained in State Police Acts, but the minimal checks and balances have been left out. The legal framework of SPOs is fundamentally flawed and shortfalls in manpower should be taken up formally. SPOs should not be legislated in State Police Acts, but if they are, the minimal checks and balances should be retained.

“The new police laws include provisions inconsistent with criminal law and procedure. Provisions, for example, on regulating public assemblies and special security zones, bestow unchecked discretion on the police and could create unjustified restrictions on constitutional rights.”

Under the 1861 Police Act, the district Superintendent of Police was authorised to “direct the conduct of all assemblies and processions” and even withhold permission or prescribe conditions for such assembly to take place in the interest of maintaining peace. These inconsistencies should be corrected to bring it in line with the Constitution. However, the states have not done so and have instead expanded the discretion of the district police chief.

The concept of Special Security Zones (SSZ) was introduced in the Model Police Act 2006 to “deal with problems of public order and security of state” and has since been incorporated into several other new state Police Laws. It allows for parallel structures to exist within a police force and function outside democratic accountability mechanisms. The mandate of police legislations is to regulate policing, define a new vision for itself and principles of police organisation and governance; it must not go beyond this remit to vest extraordinary powers on the police or create obligations for the public. The police alone are neither equipped nor suited to respond to the challenge.

Lastly, police laws continue to protect police officers from prosecution for any act done in good faith or in discharge of public duty without approval from the appropriate government authority. This section is used to prevent and/or stall investigations of even the most serious allegations against police officers. These immunity provisions should be modified by way of limiting their remit and strengthening safeguards.

Modern police laws grounded in democratic principles and standards befitting our constitutional framework and current policing needs are urgently required across India. The Centre must follow an open and consultative legislative process, and the public should be given an opportunity to express their will. The Centre must consult and study the various legislative models proposed and the recommendations of the Commissions appointed for this purpose.