In Pakistan’s struggle against violent extremism, Pakistan police officers have sacrificed their lives to save the lives of those around them. Heroic acts by the police have occurred in Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi, the cities impacted most by the spread of terrorism from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. In Pakistan’s cities, police are responsible for confronting the threat from extremists groups.

Empowering the Pakistan Police

In Pakistan’s struggle against violent extremism, Pakistan police officers have sacrificed their lives to save the lives of those around them. Heroic acts by the police have occurred in Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi, the cities impacted most by the spread of terrorism from the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. In Pakistan’s cities, police are responsible for confronting the threat from extremists groups.

Yet, acts of heroism have done little to alter the fact that most Pakistanis fear the police and seek their assistance as a last resort. Widespread corruption, highhandedness, and abusive behavior have soured police-community relations. Police stations resemble fortresses. Policemen routinely demand bribes, refuse to register cases, and, in the case of female crime victims, engage in harassment or worse. Forced confessions obtained by giving prisoners the ‘third degree’ are common in a judicial system with little capacity for evidence-based prosecutions.

The origins of abusive police behavior are rooted in Pakistan’s colonial past. Police in three of the country’s four provinces still operate under an 1861 police law that was enacted following a major insurrection against British rule in 1857. Dating from the colonial era, the law provides for a police force that relies upon fear, intimidation, and knee-jerk violence to protect the state. Missing from the 1861 act is any thought of the police protecting the people, providing services or promoting good relations with the community. Beyond the archaic legal framework, Pakistan’s police suffer from a long list of contemporary problems. The rank and file of Pakistan’s 624,400 member police institutions are poorly educated, ill trained, badly equipped, underpaid and work under inhumane conditions. Most of the nation’s police stations are in dilapidated buildings and some are in tents and makeshift structures. Police are expected to work long hours seven days a week and often go months, if not years, without time off. Perhaps not surprisingly, patrolmen who are abused by the system and their supervisors treat the public in kind.

Fortunately, Pakistan’s senior police service boasts a core group of talented officers who recognize that improvements in police-public relations are essential to halting the spread of extremist violence. These officers have studied in U.S. and European universities, many have served at senior levels in United Nations police missions, and all are articulate and clear in their understanding that increasing public support for the police is essential in countering terrorist groups. In recent conversations in Islamabad and Lahore, more than 50 senior police officials described actions they had taken that improved police-community relations and brought increased public support.

Actions taken by these innovative officers included remodeling the entrances to police stations in their districts to make them more welcoming, installing closed circuit television cameras to monitor complaint desks and building holding cells to prevent abuse, creating public committees to monitor police conduct and review public complaints, expediting the processing of minor transactions like reporting stolen property or lost documents, and establishing a television channel to inform the public about police activities in the context of news reports on local affairs. Sadly, these officers also reported that their reforms were terminated when they were transferred to a new assignment.

How could the international community support Pakistan’s efforts to Institutionalize these initiatives?

Robert Perito is director for Security Sector Governance Center at USIP.

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