Principles of morality are relative in nature. With the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is pertinent for police officers to acknowledge this, because in a pluralistic society, relative morality plays an important role.
During the pandemic, misguided and insensitive policing added to the woes of the common people, besides the loss of life.
Émile Durkheim’s theory on policing focuses more on the moral meaning of policing and the contribution that policing makes to social values, which adds to the social order and plays a role in defining the standards for good and evil.
Policing and Society's Moral Conscience
Justice Devan Ramachandran, in an order from September 2021, said that the use of abusive and derogatory language by police officers is contrary to the constitutional morality and conscience of our country. This underlined that moral ties contribute to social order and the police help us distinguish between good and evil.
The Jayaraj-Bennix case in Tamil Nadu brought to the fore the brutal case of custodial torture. Similarly, the news of the US police using deadly force against George Floyd was horrifying. Four officers involved in Floyd’s detainment and death were quickly fired from the Minneapolis Police Department, and an officer was charged with murder and manslaughter.
The concept of rule of law and the administration of justice has been known to exist in India ever since the Vedas came to be recognised. The role of the police was to stop crime in order to ensure safety. Be that as may, such incidents point to a dire need to divert from the traditional role of policing and consider why police officers resort to such behaviours as they make snap decisions, and what changes are needed to sensitise them.
During COVID, Four Out of Five Police Personnel Worked Over 11 Hours a Day
According to the Status of Policing In India Report 2020-2021 published by the Centre of the study of Developing Societies (CSDS), four out of five police personnel during the pandemic worked for more than 11 hours in a day.
In the 2019 report, the key findings were that about 80 per cent of police personnel work for more than eight hours per day, while on average, it is 14 hours per day. Adding to this, one in two personnel work overtime regularly, and shockingly, eight out of 10 personnel do not get paid for the overtime work.
Long duty hours and low remuneration adversely affects individuals' mental health. Recently, the Maharashtra government reduced the working hours from 12 to eight for all women police personnel below the rank of ASI to help them balance their professional and personal life.
As per the interview of a woman police personnel, this move was to drive home the fact that work-life balance is important to perform one’s duty effectively. Although this is a step in the right direction, it is still just the tip of the iceberg.
Stressful Work Environment
According to the aforementioned 2019 report, 41 per cent of police personnel claimed that they faced pressure at work due to direct/indirect orders from senior officers, politicians, media and the public.
As many as 13% officers also pointed towards pressures from the internal workings of the police, including heavy workload.
As per Egon Bittner’s theory of policing, in some instances, police personnel do act by coercion. But in order to adhere to standards of morality while making snap decisions, one needs to have mental clarity, which can not proceed from a work environment that has long hours and is highly pressurised.
Police personnel also face a significantly higher risk of experiencing dangerous situations as compared to civilians, and coupled with zero work-life balance and long working hours, this further affects their mental health. In a recent instance, a special sub inspector committed suicide, due to stressful work environment. In another case, a police constable shot himself outside the Delhi High Court in broad daylight.
Police personnel come across abuse, rape victims, murder scenes, day in and day out. A police officer does put on a bulletproof jacket sometimes, but there is no shield when it comes to his mental health.
Tackling these Challenges
To tackle these challenges, lessons can be taken from the Australian Federal Police, who have created a 24-hour assistance programme that provides its police personnel with a direct connection to mental health practitioners. It focuses on major trauma and PTSD experienced on the job.
Furthermore, there are instances of violence by police personnel that are often seen as police brutality, while in reality, it is a case of 'suicide by cop', wherein wherein an individual, bent on killing themselves, forces the police to use deadly force. To prevent “suicide by cop”, The Police Executive Research Forum came up with a training guide for the same.
Shift rotation also relaxes the burden on police personnel and limits their working hours. Harvard's year-long study on the Philadelphia Police Department recommended a forward-clock rotation and a four-day-on on and three-day-off policy for police shifts.
This resulted in 40% reduction in accidents, and twice as many officers reported having no problems with daytime fatigue and higher job satisfaction.
These methods are adopted by other police departments across the globe. Instead of a straitjacket formula, focusing on sensitising police officers on mental health, encouraging staff rotation, and training them to deal with complicated situations can change the nature of the relationship of the police with the citizens of India.
The Way Forward
The transformation in policing will begin when the deep-rooted and wrongly nurtured mechanism that gives police personel invisible shield and unfettered authority is eradicated.
Most opinions on policing are based on two extremities -- they are either external to the policing structure, such as reported crime rates, or are based on injustices suffered due to the actions of police personnel.
We need to find a middle ground that separates the biases of these two extremities and create a space for a more humane approach towards understanding why unfortunate instances occur at the hands of police personnel and how to best equip them to tackle the same.
Definitions are Important
“Moral individuality”, as per Durkheim’s theory, can be achieved only when freedom and equality is not only recognised by policing but also adopted in the way that it chooses to function. There is a pressing need, according to Durkheim, for social institutions to bind society not only with their relations with the society but also by the definitions that said institutions give of unacceptable behaviour.
However, to define these unacceptable behaviours for the society, institutions need to first internally define behaviours that they wish to project. The same applies to policing.
(Sajid Sheikh and Shriya Mokta are Assistant Professors at Maharashtra National Law University Mumbai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)