After the JVP launched its first insurrection in April 1971, attacking – sometimes overrunning and destroying – many police stations countrywide with homemade bombs and commandeered shotguns, a veteran policeman of the day wisely remarked that “the days when a cop, perhaps armed with a baton, went on a bicycle for an inquiry are gone. We will now have to go in strength in a vehicle and carry automatic weapons.’’ These remarks that proved to be prophetic came to mind when Police Spokesman Ajith Rohana went on record last week saying that the police force was “challenged’’ by the incident a few days ago when two policemen on patrol in the dead of night had been set upon by a group who had stripped them naked and killed one of them. The other had fought the gang and fortuitously escaped with his life. Borrowing a sarong from a house in the neighborhood, he had come back to tell the tale. The spokesman admitted that the patrolmen being out at night unarmed was a “mistake.’’ There has been no breakthrough in the case up to now.
Although reports are scanty, the newspapers have said that the policemen had stopped a van for checking when they were set upon. If this is the case, the concerned authorities will have to reckon with the possibility of criminals abroad in the witching hours of the night for nefarious purposes choosing to bump off any policemen attempting to check their vehicles. It is sad but true that not only criminals and gangsters are up to no good on lonely roads in the dead of night. Too often policemen manning checkpoints and checking vehicles are similarly engaged. It is not uncommon for them to stop lorries transporting cattle or timber not just to check the papers and make sure that everything is in order, but to see whether they can make a quick buck off the lorry crew whether they are on legitimate business or not. The police, no doubt, are poorly paid and that encourages corruption. Many people ranging from those crashing a red light, crossing a continuous white line or guilty of more serious offences are all too willing to come to a “settlement’’ with a policeman checking them. No wonder then that there are willing takers when there are so many willing givers.
The police have admitted inadequate supervision being part of the reason for the two policemen set upon at Kurunegala not carrying side-arms. The spokesman has said that disciplinary action will be taken against the concerned officers from the ASP down to the HQI and OIC of the station to which the constables were attached for this failure. The survivor’s explanation that his trigger finger had been disabled by an accident as the reason he did not carry a firearm would also be checked, the spokesman has said. No doubt the gravity of the incident that has occurred will encourage all policemen to be careful in the future. Unfortunately it is a fact of life that the guard goes up when something like this happens; thereafter precautions are forgotten for the sake of convenience. The IGP and his senior officers, we are sure, will be all too aware of this reality and will hopefully ensure that this is not the case. Criminals too will now think of bumping off policemen trying to check them unless those responsible for last Tuesday’s crime are swiftly brought to book. Given both recent and not so recent history, if the culprits are arrested it will not be surprising that they are shot dead “trying to escape!’’ Also, it is puzzling why the victims at Kurunegala were stripped naked. Was it to humiliate them or were there wheels within wheels? Hopefully the answers will be forthcoming soon.
There have been recent incidents of armed bank robberies, often by criminals riding motorbikes wearing what are called “full face helmets.’’ These help the robbers to prevent identification. The presence of CCTV cameras for security purposes in many places is no doubt of great assistance to law enforcement; but there have been instances of such equipment being disabled especially where there have been `inside’ jobs. Readers may remember that this was the case in the robbery at the Colombo Museum some months ago. Technical capability now available enabling the checking of mobile phones has also been of great help in solving many crimes. Yet the conviction rate of criminals (or suspects) brought before court in this country is dismally low. The reason for this is most likely the lack of competence of prosecuting policemen particularly to wrap up all loose ends in a case before taking it to courts. For more serious cases, the assistance of the Attorney General’s department is available. But getting such help is a protracted process. There is also the ever-present problem of most people being unwilling to come forward as witnesses due to the rasthiadu that is almost inevitable when a matter ends up in the courts.
We have previously made the point in this column that a disproportionate share of the manpower of the police department is deployed in providing security to politicians. With the exponential increase in the number of ministers, deputies, monitors and whoever, the number of policemen needed to provide them security increases by leaps and bounds. Literally thousands of men serve the Presidential and Ministerial Security Divisions of the Police. While our leaders undoubtedly need to be protected, whether the degree of protection offered and the number of men thrown into that effort to the detriments of regular police work exceeds the actual need requires some serious reflection. These numbers rose due to the LTTE and JVP threats of yesteryear that are now no more. There was a newspaper report yesterday that a UPFA woman parliamentarian was employing the policemen assigned to protect her for domestic work in her home. They have complained that they’ve been asked to do chores including cooking, washing kitchen utensils etc. and even work on her paddy fields! Hopefully, the complainants will be withdrawn from that MP’s security detail but their replacements would also risk similar travail unless the publicity the whole business has attracted will shame the lady concerned into not repeating that performance.