Monday, October 25, 2010

The Police Force: Its business and relation to power and justice

"I think a police force is the best institutionalization of what just war should be about. But then the arresting agent is not the same as the judging agent. In war, those two are the same. I am extraordinarily sympathetic with the police in this country, because we take them from a social class usually just above criminal class, put them in the most complex social situations, and then we blame them for becoming hardened. Give me a break. What we need to do is to ask ourselves, "What kind of social cooperation do we need that can make it possible for people to be called to the police function of the state in a manner that they will have some confidence that they will never have to kill anyone?""
(Sojourners' Interview with Stanley Hauerwas. Emphasis added)

Hauerwas was referring to his home country, America. What kind of social coorperation for Malaysia? I don't know. But this I can share with you.

In some cases, under the directive of politically motivated rulers, police officers are commanded to arrest citizens whose peaceful demonstration threatens the rulers' position. Are these officers doing the right thing? Are they doing the good thing?

These officers are paid to carry out orders. But if this is the only principle that guides the police force, then the officers are not that different from thugs or mercenaries. Both groups are guided by the same principle.

The vocation of police officer, like every other jobs, is not merely to earn a living. Some think that the duty of the police force is to keep the society in order. But that is missing the point. An orderly society without justice is an authoritarian state. And an orderly society is not necessarily peaceful and harmonious.

The primal allegiance of the police force is therefore not to keep order but to reduce and prevent injustice by taking the country's law as a guide.

However the law by itself is not an arbiter for the good. What is legal could be non-good while what is illegal could be good. It falls on the police officer to see through each matter by themselves, guided by their moral commitment. If their moral commitment is only to their own stomach, then the higher an officer's rank, the more bloated the officer's stomach.

In other words, the police is in the moral business. That means every police officers need to grapple with their cases through the ethical and moral categories.

The subtle encounter between the thug in the police force with the police officer in the mob portrays the struggle between legality and morality in the movie Infernal Affairs.

Therefore the office of the law enforcer must not be perceived as one which anyone with a SPM certificate ('O' Level) can apply to be a Constable. Such trivial procedural recruitment of police officer, accompanied with the access to firearm, poses tremendous danger to the society. The murder case committed by police officers though C4 explosives is telling.

Rulers need subordinates who are easily manipulated, who lack moral capacity, to run errands for them. At times, arresting dissenting peaceful voices. At times, murder. All the time, silencing any possible threat to their throne. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the application to be a police officer is not that difficult. Rulers need such manpower.

The moral capacity of the police officers has something to tell us about the moral capacity of the rulers, their superiors. It's all moral business.

By the way, have you watch Children of Men?

Theodore: Julian? I haven't seen you in twenty years. You look good. The picture the police have of you doesn't do you justice.

Julian: What do the police know about justice?


Steven Sim said...

the police office should not only be guided by the whims and fancies of rulers, but rather but the Constitution (in Msia for example) and laws. Police officers "are only legitimated to intervene in ... contexts where there is a prior legal restraint". And such restraint should also be their restraint to a large extend. And the restraint is usually the law of the land. That's the best way we know so far from arbitrary policing and police serving political interest of the rulers.

But on the other hand, I believe the task of the police is to keep peace and order more than to reduce injustice. This is very pragmatic to me, because in Malaysia, our police KPI is to reduce injustice/crime. The next thing you know, trigger happy cops. And you close 50 case with the death of some unknown foreign migrant worker caught stealing neighbourhood shoes.

Of course, moral judgement is inevitable, whether it is to reduce crime or to keep peace and order; and to say police should not judge is naive if not outright evil. A non judgemental police will ultimately be gestapo or brown shirts SA. The question is always what ethics are built into the police force as a whole and into the society from which such force emerged.

Steven Sim

Steven Sim said...

And on the other hand, a police force which do not readily recognize the legitimacy of the ruler of the day may risk staging a coup against democratically elected government.

Steven Sim

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Steven,

Yes, the police should be guided by the Constitution. I agree that it is the best way to prevent arbitrary policing.

I do not see keeping peace as the same or the corollary of keeping order.

Peace in society is not only the social sense of being free from fear and suspicious of public safety, but involved a level of trust in the policing.

Keeping society in order as I understand it is preventing any disorder which includes massive uprising of the people, or revolution for the removal of the corrupt government. At its extreme, we have a "police-state."

The problem with Malaysia's police force KPI is that they have not gone far enough, hence "triggered happy cops."

If the society is to achieve peace (as understood above), then KPI provides a good guide. However, the problem is not with KPI itself but how it is instituted by the authority. I think KPI of policing has to be set not by the rulers but by an independent agency, which no less funded by the state, represented by the people. A royal commission is an example. The government needs an independent checking agent to ensure its own efficiency.

A coup by itself is not a bad thing. It depends on whether does the coup has the moral capacity to lead the coup and to govern the society, not to mention to earn public trust in the first place.