Help! Our police needs help

Published: February 15, 2011

Our police have an image problem.

There he stands; his black uniform stretched across a protruding belly, he has a certain fondness for chai and ‘pieces of paper with pictures of the Quaid’. This is the image that comes to mind when one thinks of a Pakistani policeman.

In the pre-Musharraf era, crime was a major problem. Mustering the political will to clean up the police force was hard because the political elite found it useful to make alliances with certain police departments.

Two important things have changed since then. Firstly, another threat has emerged, the militant threat, which attacks not only the common man but also the political elite. The army cannot fight this threat alone especially in cities where this job falls to the police.

Secondly, the upper echelons of the judiciary are at their most independent since Pakistan’s history. This means that reformists have tremendous leverage because they already have a foundation to build on. Honest police officials know that if any political pressure is applied to them they can let the word slip to the media and have the higher judiciary protect them. And the fact is, if you want to improve the police force’s competency you have to get rid of all the worms, including those that use political influence.

The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) has recently published a report authored by Hassan Abbas on police reforms in Pakistan.  Sadly, police reform does not get much attention in our country, partly because the media usually focuses on real time events as opposed to analysis of structural problems. Some of these problems are:

  • The image problem

Regular fitness checks (like those in the army) can help. I don’t want the police to become an army unit but I do want to see visual evidence of physical prowess.

  • Lack of coordination

Currently, there are 19 departments working under the federal government. Besides having a very complicated chain of command, there is almost zero coordination between them. In the past, intelligence agencies have tried to make the police release militants they have captured. The Police Service of Pakistan (PSP) which is hired through a separate process and has more flexibility in postings and transfers, breeds resentment because of its elitism.

  • Overworked and underpaid

An ordinary police officer works 16-18 hours a day which is bordering on inhumane. Last year, police in Quetta protested for a pay rise. Why does the police force of the largest, most insurgency-driven province in Pakistan feel its needs aren’t taken care of?

  • Technological disadvantages

Pakistan has five forensic labs in the whole country but more than 20 nuclear labs (does this represent misplaced priorities?). The USIP report quotes journalist Saleem Safi as saying,

“While there are around 170,000 police officials in Punjab, there are only 82,000 weapons and 5,000 bulletproof vests for the officers.”

There are very few terrorism and counterinsurgency experts in the force. Perhaps the US should help with technology transfer?

What else can be done

What we need is a witness protection program so people feel comfortable stepping forward and testifying when they witness a crime. I find it astounding that the Sipah-e-Sahaba militant Malik Ishaq, whose police charge sheet includes at least 70 murders, has never had a conviction that has stuck.

Secondly, the USIP report recommends removing the 2004 amendments to the Police Order Act 2002. This includes reintroducing oversight of the police by public representatives at various levels and streamlining the mechanism for registering complaints. These reforms were put in the initial law but were taken out to accommodate the PML-Q’s feudalism.

These reforms have nothing to do with idealistic change but are a pure survival strategy. The time for police reform is now. Never again will there be a greater opportunity to make changes to the current system because the police’s inefficiency is a threat to the political and defense establishment of Pakistan.

Honouring our heroes: The story of the police is not just one of negativity. As the USIP report notes “courageous police officers like Malik Saad and Safwat Ghayur who sacrificed their lives while leading from the front have inspired many young police officers in Pakistan.”

Many have lost their lives protecting market places, security installations, processions and people.  In fact, Adil Najam’s blog Pakistaniat named a Pakistani policeman ‘person of the year’ in 2009.


Asad Badruddin

A student of economics and international relations at Tufts University in Boston who hails from Karachi. He blogs at

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Tanzeel

    Somehow this picture has overshadowed your article, I wonder what the hell this Rikshaw is doing in the Arabian Sea, coming from Mumbai ? If yes then our police man is efficient enough to punish him then and there. We can’t tolerate Indian Agents using sea routes to mess up with financial hub of Pakistan.Recommend

  • parvez

    If our police were depoliticised (today almost an impossibility) and allowed to do their job, more that half the problems faced would get solvedRecommend

  • Let us not digress

    dude first of all, the first mental image is actually a word – tulla
    secondly great piece..Recommend

  • Selina Gilani – Relationship

    Salaries are very low. Policemen have to survive in very low income in which circumstances they have to bribes.Recommend

  • Nadir El-Edroos

    Every government, whether military or civil use the police as their arm to victimize apponents. When opposition parties take out rallys the police are ordered to contain them. When martial law is imposed and protests take place its the police that are told to crack them down and hold people under house arrest not the Army. The police in the sub-continent is derived from the British colonial apparatus where its job has been to maintain the power of the rulers. It must be made independent and place the protection of the people and the law at its core. The police is stuck in a vicious cycle of low pay, poor privledges, social disgust and demoralization that fuels corruption and incompetence. Wider society has a role to play in breaking this cycle, where everyone complains about an incompetent police, but have no qualms making a phone call or two when the are stopped for driving without a license or being issued a traffic ticket. Recommend

  • Hassan Abbas

    Thanks Asad for your valuable commentary on my report on police reforms in Pakistan. The ideas and issues you have raised are all very relevant and worth pursing.Recommend

  • Ahmed Ilyas

    I think its a perfect punishment for driving a Rickshaw into the sea….Recommend