In the West, these would be Africans, Blacks, and Hispanics. In the Indian case, these are the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes who deserve softer treatment.
Police, anywhere, everywhere, have a tough job to do – drawing a balance between what is lawful and what is unlawful, what is disagreeable and what is humane. Policemen too are humans and products of the society in which they live. Police excesses can, therefore, take place anytime. However, it is the speed with which they are dealt with and the remedial action that is taken to comfort citizens that matters. The recent riots and violence in France point to a situation of imbalance in policing that has valuable lessons for other societies and nations.
Riots first broke out in France on 27 June, after a traffic policeman shot a 17- year-old teenager, Nahel, of African descent, killing him. Born and brought up in France, Nahel was in a rented Mercedes car without the requisite legal papers and failed to obey orders to stop and was shot. Coming on the heels of earlier protests against pension reforms, current riots are indeed a big hit to civil society in France, apart from being a political threat to the French presidency. In 2005, the last time that France was convulsed by such widespread nightly rioting in cities across the country, it took three weeks and the introduction of a state of emergency to restore calm. Actually, the current riots have less to do with Mr Macron, and more with the nature of policing. The issue that is raising most hackles is the loosening in early 2017 of the rules governing the police use of firearms, their use by traffic policemen and the consequent increase in deaths – in 2022, 13 people were killed during traffic checks, a record. There is a perception that youth are getting checked by the traffic police for who they are and not for what they are doing. Not surprisingly, the United Nations human rights office called out France “to seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement.”
It is not that such incidents are unique only to France. Earlier, in May 2020, even in the United States, there had been the case of George Floyd, a Black man, who died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by Minneapolis police officers in an episode that was captured on video, touching off nationwide protests and criticisms of the police. What are the lessons on the subject of policing from the fresh debacle that has besieged France?
Uniformed forces should not be allowed to unionise. In the French case, the police are allowed to form unions and they are like political parties with functional sections. In fact, the right-wing police union expressed its anger when President Macron described Nahel’s killing on the day it took place as “inexplicable, inexcusable,” and has called the protestors “vermin.” Non-unionisation is important to prevent uniformed forces from perceiving themselves as being above civil society – that is indeed imperative in a democracy. Power must devolve from the elected functionaries and should not be absolute in the hands of those who are specifically tasked. There have been instances of police mutinies in India too, as for instance the PAC revolt of 1973 in Western Uttar Pradesh. Around that time in too the police rebelled, but effective handling of the situation by the civil administration headed by the District Magistrate quickly quelled the situation.
Civilian oversight of police actions is necessary in some institutional manner or the other. The institution of the District Magistrate was historically meant to be one such localised mechanism. However, that is being undone with the coming into vogue of the Police Commissioner system.
Traffic management in the cities is a very technical function and has to be clinically efficient, effective and humane. In the long run, this had to be a municipal responsibility – regular police, trained to deal with hardened criminals, cannot do justice to it. Municipalities can create their own police establishments by borrowing forces from the regular police entities on deputation. The regular police must stay in charge of carrying forward the process of investigation and prosecution, but the first point of interface with the urban citizen should not be the regular police. Policing motorists, especially within cities and urban areas requires a sensitivity of approach and attitude that regular policemen cannot normally be expected to bring in without compromising on their life-long professional competencies and learnings. In an age of advanced technology and intelligent data management and analytics, it is only the municipality that can be resilient enough to incorporate in a timely manner the latest equipment, systems and mechanisms.
There is need for speed in addressing police excesses. Whenever there is an evident case of an infraction by any official, action should be taken against that official promptly to convey the responsiveness of the government at the helm. It is, of course, difficult to say what is unjust and what is just, but historically some broad conventions and templates have evolved over the years. The molestation of a woman, the public flogging of a man, unwarranted deaths in police custody etc do attract immediate castigation in the Indian context. In the Minneapolis case, the three officers involved in the death were immediately fired (Chauvin, the key assailant has been sentenced to more than 22 years in prison). In the instant case of France, no immediate action was taken against the erring policeman. It was only two full days after the shooting, when riots broke out, that the public prosecutor put the policeman who shot Nahel under formal investigation for voluntary homicide. Had such a situation occurred in India, senior police officers would have placed the faulting policeman under suspension (perhaps even arrest) within hours of the incident, announced compensation for the family of the dead person, enhanced their vigil against miscreants and pacified citizens.
Police have to be constantly trained and mentored to be gentle in their dealing with urban commuters who are inevitably generally more urbane and better connected socially. There is need for civilised behaviour and restraint. If the police are permitted to shoot on account of traffic violations, as if the violator is a terrorist, then that is carrying policing to another level and will conflict with citizen sentiments and clearly appear to be excessive. This requires continuous mindset training with the help of civil society.
Lastly, there is a greater need for sensitivity when handling the less-privileged communities. In the West these would be Africans, Blacks and Hispanics. In the Indian case, these are the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes who deserve softer treatment. No doubt, there is scope for misuse, but the safeguards that naturally spring from the Prevention of Atrocities against SC and ST Act have helped thus far in protecting them. Other societies, too, would do well to consider a law along these lines to protect their disadvantaged groups from highhandedness from not just the police but other governmental functionaries as well.