“If we cannot trust the police, who can we trust?”
I often get invited to speak on ethical issues by all manner of professional organisations both here at home and abroad.
I enjoy enormously every opportunity I get to speak to the police in particular because I get the sense that they do care about what we think of them.
They are keen on exploring ways of meeting our high expectations of them.
It is good to see that the police are moving with the times, and that they are open to new ideas.
I usually address them on the importance of mutual trust as a prerequisite for successful policing.
We sometimes find ourselves in an identity crisis, and for the police in particular, it is important that they know who they really are.
They have all been sworn as police officers and invested with powers to enforce the law and maintain public order.
They are not above the law and subject to it like all the rest of us.
They are answerable if they overstep their legal rights or powers.
Not only that, but they are required to be strictly impartial in applying the law and to put aside their racial or religious biases when they deal with the public in the course of their work.
They have to bear in mind that they are creatures of the law and their job is to uphold the law and not subvert it, however great the temptation may be.
The system within which they operate cannot really succeed without public support, and it is a fragile commodity.
Much depends on public perceptions of police behaviour.
If police officers are seen to be negligent, aggressive or dishonest, then they will be denied this vital ingredient for success.
They are either respected or feared.
How they choose to be treated is entirely a matter for them to decide.
It is important for them to maintain the highest ethical and moral standards in carrying out their duties, especially in handling cases leading to possible prosecution.
The methods used in gathering evidence are often the subject of public complaints.
So is police brutality. Many of these allegations may be discounted because they have no basis in fact, but the police must make a conscious effort to manage their work better by keeping strictly to the established legal framework.
No part of the public service is more prone to abuse of power than the police force or service as we nowadays prefer to call it.
The nature of police work, involving as it does the exercise of wide-ranging authority and discretionary powers, often without anyone being called to account for breaches of rules and procedures, encourages the police culture of impunity.
This breeds corruption and from evidence on public record, every level of the police service is affected by bribery and corrupt practices.
It is only fair to say that for every ‘bent copper’, there are thousands of policemen and women who have never crossed the thin blue line.
They carry out their work with honour, integrity and efficiency.
While corruption everywhere is difficult enough to detect, prove and prosecute successfully, it is even more so in the case of the police because of the use of discretionary powers without accountability.
There is nothing wrong with using these powers as long as their application can be justified, and legally defensible.
In other words, they have to be accountable for all of their actions.
If rules and established procedures are respected more in the breach than the observance, then all is lost.
Police silence can then be bought for the right price, a practice that is much in vogue in our country today.
A corruption-free regime cannot be sustained in the absence of a clear, comprehensive top-level policy direction that is supported by appropriate internal mechanisms for dealing with unethical conduct.
The Inspector-General of Police must take the lead and personal interest in ensuring that such mechanisms and strategies as are in place are effective and meet the needs of an organisation operating under constant public scrutiny.
He must make it clear to his people that policing is a public duty, in the public interest, and corruption erodes and distorts the police ethical value systems.
Once corruption becomes a way of police life, Malaysians will be deprived of their right to effective and efficient policing with all that this implies.
When that happens, citizens will be bound to ask, “If we cannot trust the police, who can we trust?”
Just as we have a right to police protection from criminal elements, the police too expect our support in discharging their difficult, and often dangerous, work.
Effective policing is a joint effort. We get the police we deserve.
**Tunku Abdul Aziz Tunku Ibrahim served as a member of the Royal Commission (2004-5) set up to enquire into the police service. He is a regular commentator on contemporary policing.