Police in Pakistan have found themselves in an unprecedented situation since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year. Under-resourced and poorly trained, they have struggled to ensure compliance with public health restrictions—such as lockdowns and social distancing—against a backdrop of Pakistan’s overarching governance challenges. With only outdated legal frameworks and conventional training and education to rely on, the police have largely responded to violations with corporal punishment, detentions, and arrests—actions that have been reported by the media and widely condemned.

A police officer searches a voter during a repeat of the parliamentary election in Karachi, Pakistan, May 19, 2013. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)
A police officer searches a voter during a repeat of the parliamentary election in Karachi, Pakistan, May 19, 2013. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)

This situation is not unique to Pakistan. Police have been thrust into the spotlight around the world as they assume the role of first responders to the pandemic. This role has increasingly brought police officers into contact with citizens in politically charged environments that are supercharged by the twin public health and economic crises. In this atmosphere, a “soft policing” approach that prioritizes community engagement, empathy and compassion, rather than the traditional “militarized” approach typically adopted by police departments, is needed. Traditionally, public health emergency (PHE) preparedness plans have excluded law enforcement agencies and the security sector despite the fact that the police are first responders during such emergencies. This is partly due to valid concerns about securitizing public health. As a consequence of such exclusion and the disconnect between law enforcement and the public health sector, police have little guidance to rely on when responding to a pandemic.

Police officers also face personal health risks due to their proximity to infected persons and spaces and the fact that much of the constabulary lives in congested areas that lack proper health and sanitation facilities. At the time of writing, at least 17 Pakistani police officers had died of COVID-19 and at least 935 police officers and officials had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease, across the country’s four provinces—Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa—according to data provided by provincial police departments.

Challenges

Standard operating procedures. One of the primary challenges facing the police in Pakistan is a lack of standard operating procedures (SOPs) designed for officers in the field, especially those on patrol and in police stations who have received substandard education and training.

Traditionally, in South Asia, restrictions on public assembly—such as those seen during the pandemic—have been enforced through legal frameworks that criminalize violations (such as Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, a colonial-era law inherited by Pakistan from the British). Such violations have been policed through corporal punishment that employs a disproportionate use of force, batons and stun guns. Although police departments have issued guidance on how to maintain public order and ensure citizens’ well-being during the current pandemic, reports of malpractice on the part of the police reveal a lack of preparedness for PHEs, in general, and the manifestation of a militarized, zero-tolerance policing approach, in particular, instead of empathy and compassion—or a “soft policing” approach.

Police-community relations. Influential groups have on several occasions successfully challenged the authority of the police. Some clerics, for example, have opposed the state’s containment measures, especially the restrictions initially imposed on religious congregations. The police have struggled to prevent worshipers from gathering at mosques. Similarly, the police had to shut crowded markets in Karachi when shopkeepers failed to enforce safety measures suggested by the government after gradually reopening the economy in May.

The police have an important role to play in public health messaging. However, because of a lack of resources being invested in communication, especially social media, police departments have yet to design appropriate strategies to address public concerns during PHEs when civilians are more likely to turn to the police for information and assistance. This has further diminished the public’s trust in the police.

Interagency coordination. There has traditionally been interagency conflict among the Police Services of Pakistan (PSP), the civil bureaucracy (Public Administrative Service [PAS]), and elected parliamentarians. The police have routinely demanded operational autonomy and lamented “political interference” in police work and practice. The PAS and parliamentarians, on the other hand, use police excesses to justify their involvement and oversight of the PSP. This institutional conflict exists across all three tiers of government: district, provincial, and federal. The struggle for control over the PSP impedes various initiatives toward police reform.

The current pandemic, however, has compelled the PSP, PAS and politicians to work together to stem the spread of the outbreak. Besides enforcing containment measures and raising awareness about the pandemic, the police are now also providing security to health care workers and assisting other agencies with the collection of data, testing, tracing, and quarantining of infected persons.

Police welfare and well-being. Despite some improvements in interagency coordination, police leadership has struggled to get funds from the federal government for police welfare during the pandemic. Although some provincial governments have agreed to provide financial support, a concerted effort to support the police is missing at the national level. This risks depletion of police resources and can exacerbate feelings of job insecurity, delay the provision of personal protective equipment to police officers, and possibly result in malpractice on the part of the police. In the event that COVID-19 infections continue to spread, the police will find themselves physically, mentally, and financially strained.

Opportunities

The challenges described above provide an overview of how the police are being tested by the pandemic in Pakistan. They also reveal opportunities for organizational learning.

Although official SOPs and guidelines were absent at the onset of the pandemic, the structures upon which the police could engage with the public health sector were already in place. Law enforcement and the public health sector have had a working relationship since 2012 when police teams were assigned to protect health workers during the polio vaccination campaign in the wake of attacks by militants. (Pakistan has cancelled the polio immunization campaign as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.) Unfortunately, there is no evidence-based documentation of the experiential learning by police officers deployed with these teams.

The pandemic provides an opportunity for law enforcement agencies to build a knowledge base that draws upon both the experiential learning of officers in the field and public perceptions of the police during a PHE. This data can help design evidence-based policies for the police to enhance their public health function and response to future PHEs.

Learning from the pandemic also provides an opportunity for the police to bridge the gap between institutions and strengthen interagency coordination. For example, as discussed above, coordination among district administrations, health authorities, and the security sector is necessary for a holistic response to a PHE. However, a lack of trust, competition, and scapegoating impede the implementation of such a response. Strengthening police partnerships with the bureaucracy and elected representatives will be essential for responding to any post-pandemic socioeconomic crisis.

Furthermore, the police must seize this opportunity to improve their communication strategies and practices to ensure compliance with government guidelines and better police-community relations. This requires not just allocating resources for responding to public complaints, but also moving beyond counterterrorism policing—a style of policing that has dominated police policy and practice over the last few decades—toward community policing. Community policing demands a “soft policing” approach that is a shift from current militarized practices.

It is too early to tell whether policing styles in Pakistan will change as a result of this pandemic, but strong public condemnations of police excesses over the past few years have intensified calls for reforms. The pandemic provides an opportunity for police organizations to move in the direction of “serving the public” instead of defending it through the use of force. Such a shift could improve public perceptions of the police.

Recommendations

Based on the analysis above, police leadership should consider the following recommendations to improve their response to the ongoing pandemic and better prepare for future PHEs.

Training courses and modules should be designed to prepare officers for future PHEs. Compassion, empathy and service-oriented goals and concepts should be woven into these modules and lesson plans.

Investments must be made in transparent, accountable and flexible communication strategies. These strategies should prioritize improvements in online communication whereby the police inform affected communities about how to respond during a PHE and in its aftermath, rather than “calling out” or publicly shaming violators on social media.

Furthermore, the police should start a conversation on the well-being and welfare of its officers and employees that not only includes financial compensation and job security, but also prioritizes mental health.

Interagency cooperation, which is necessary for a holistic response to a PHE, also needs to be improved. Such cooperation and collaboration should allow the participation of both government and nongovernmental agencies that respond to the socioeconomic consequences of a PHE, such as an increase in the number of cases of domestic violence.

Last, but not least, this is an excellent opportunity for the police to create an evidence base of their response to the current pandemic. This should be consulted, reviewed and evaluated once the pandemic is over to improve police practice, training, and policies. This evidence base should be accessible to academics and policymakers.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the challenges facing the police in Pakistan, it can also serve as an opportunity for the police to evaluate their role during a health crisis and develop strategies to respond better to future PHEs. This is also an opportunity for introspection on the overall policing approach and for paying attention to areas that require improvement.

Adnan Rafiq is USIP’s country director based in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Zoha Waseem is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Institute for Global City Policing, University College London, in London, the United Kingdom.

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