What about police security?
A RELATIVE peace prevails in Karachi these days, with sporadic (rather than incessant) incidents of targeted killings peppering the headlines. But those familiar with the city’s dynamics know that the situation could change overnight.
The political, ethnic, sectarian and extremist elements that made 2011 the second-bloodiest year in the city’s history continue to thrive, and any number of triggers could reignite clashes: upcoming elections, a land-grab in an ethnically volatile area, disagreements over local governance, a terrorist attack. Since political negotiations rather than systemic changes precipitated the drop in violence, continuing news of police officials being targeted bodes poorly for Karachi’s future security.
Last week, this paper reported that Sub-Inspector Asghar Ali Tarar was shot dead in Orangi Town. In the 1990s, he was actively involved in Operation Clean-up; more recently, he had been posted at the anti-terrorist Crime Investigation Department (CID) and the Special Investigation Unit (SIU). As such, it is unclear which group is behind his killing.
According to the Sindh police, over 150 policemen who participated in the Karachi operation have been killed over the past two decades. Police have also been targeted in revenge attacks staged by militant and sectarian groups. Most obviously, in a video claiming responsibility for the November 2010 attack against the CID office, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan identified a hit list of senior police officials — in September last year, the private residence of one named target, SSP Aslam Khan, was attacked by a suicide bomber.
Revenge attacks against police officials are a familiar phenomenon across the globe. Widespread unrest in British cities last summer was described as ‘anti-police’ as many rioters claimed that they were seeking retribution for police brutality and abuse of power on the basis of race. According to a Guardian/ London School of Economics study, most rioters spoke of ‘payback’ and described the disturbances as a long-awaited opportunity to settle scores with police officials who are perceived to behave unjustly. In a city as violent as Karachi, however, the targeting of police officials by multiple actors threatens to derail attempts to restore stability.
Policemen who believe that their involvement in an operation or investigation against militant or criminal outfits could lead to their being targeted will be increasingly reluctant to perform their duties. Given how politicised the workings of the police force already is, a heightened sense of fear among serving officers could lead to a complete paralysis of effective police activity. Already, the trend in Karachi is to rely on the paramilitary Rangers when violence flares — they are more anonymous, frequently rotated, and equipped to conduct surgical strikes in neighbourhoods.
But a shift to a consistent strategy of surgical strikes as opposed to continuous policing is not possible in Karachi. With its volatile mix of ethno-political, sectarian, militant and criminal groups that organise at the hyper-local level, the city’s security can only be managed by an extensive police force that remains immersed in communities. The required level of involvement and exposure means that police officials will always be vulnerable to targeted attacks.
The persistence of revenge attacks also prevents the police from being a neutral actor in the context of urban violence. There have been innumerable instances in which police units have behaved as vigilantes, prioritising score-settling with certain groups over across-the-board law enforcement. This already prevalent trend could become endemic, leading to even more extrajudicial actions and stripping law-enforcing agencies of any remaining credibility.
The fact that all the good ideas to stem Karachi violence are focused on improved policing makes the targeting of policemen even more problematic. There is a move, for example, to create a police central command computer system to collate everything from CCTV footage to criminal records in order to improve evidence gathering and intelligence sharing.
Recent measures to computerise FIRs and daily station diaries are a good first step towards creating an accessible, centralised database of criminal activity. Future plans to digitise criminal records, mug shots and fingerprints are also in the works.
However, these technological advancements are of little use if the police are too scared of revenge attacks to make efficient use of the resources to bring charges against criminals and militants.
The repeated calls for the depoliticisation of the police force are also moot in the face of police targeting. Police officials who feel vulnerable are far more likely to seek the protection of political parties and participate in the city’s unique system of violence, rather than serve to counter it.
Similarly, the Sindh government’s push since November last year for a witness protection programme that aims to improve the conviction rate of criminals and terrorists by 50 per cent will prove less effective if witnesses perceive that those charged with protecting them are unable to protect themselves. (Incidentally, the programme has not yet been legislated as it remains under review by the provincial law department. Such security-related legislation should be passed as promptly as possible in light of recent violence.)
Ultimately, the only way to prevent the targeting of police officials is to emphasise the mechanisms that will improve overall security for ordinary citizens as well. Police officials who work on sensitive cases should be trained on how to remain vigilant while off duty.
They should also receive adequate compensation to shift residences and take other measures to increase anonymity. Most importantly, the perpetrators of targeted attacks against police officials must be routinely apprehended, charged, tried and convicted in courts of law. The possibility of political involvement in target killings of security officials must also be investigated and exposed. After all, without a confident and independent police force, the city has little hope of remaining secure.
The writer is a freelance journalist.