Policing the mobs

Clashes between the rioting crowds and the police have been on the rise for some time with television channels showing almost every day the images of agitated people throwing stones at the policemen, and the policemen mercilessly charging the crowds with batons, firing teargas at them and resorting to aerial firing. The police crackdown on lady health workers, who staged a sit-in on the national highway near Sukkur, and the Khanewal peasants march are two recent instances of violent policing to dispel the protests. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 72 clashes took place between the police and rioting crowds during 2010 in which 34 people died and at least 300 people and 67 policemen suffered injuries. This is an alarming number of casualties in a democratic political system, especially taking into account the fact that most of the victims were unarmed and were raising their legitimate grievances and sufferings from extreme distress, like extended blackouts, at the hands of the authorities. In a democracy, the police are supposed to assist a public protest and not disturb it; its role is not to stop the people from protesting and not to deprive them of their basic freedoms. The protesters are also supposed to remain peaceful and not to harm other persons and properties. In established democracies, even when crowds get violent and start damaging property, the police act against them with restraint. It has evolved several methods of effectively controlling the unruly crowds through less lethal ways, with less serious injury or loss of life. The underlying idea is that the polices tactics should be proportionate to the level of protest. Unfortunately, our police and other law enforcement agencies like Rangers, which are also employed to maintain public safety in big cities, have not been able to show this moderation and self-control while dealing with the rioting crowds. By acting in a confrontational manner, the police actually start provoking the kind of violent behaviour they are supposed to prevent. There is no denying the fact that in some protests a few people or a group of people want to incite the crowd to violence, but that does not mean that the police officers should treat every protester like criminals or themselves indulge in criminal activities like torturing demonstrators on the streets and ransacking private property. Recently, the footage of a police action against the Khanewal peasants protest on GT Road, on March 28, showed policemen angrily ransacking the vehicles of the agitators in response to the mobs stone-throwing at them. One disturbing development is that the police have increasingly resorted to aerial firing or shooting into mobs to dispel the protests. Almost all instances of protesters deaths have occurred when the police resorted to firing. Usually, the police presented its defence by saying that they only fired in the air to disperse the mob and that the casualties took place, as a result of firing from the crowd. But circumstantial evidence and eyewitness accounts in these cases belie the polices claims. In all these cases, only the protesters died of bullet injuries and no policeman was killed. Had the mob always opened the fire, some policemen would have also died in these violent incidents. The policemen only sustained injuries owing to projectiles thrown by the mob. The fact is when a violent mob pelts the police with stones, causing injuries to a few policemen, who now increasingly use riot gears, they lose control of themselves. In anger, the police use excessive and disproportionate force not only to disperse the mob, but also to take revenge from the rioters. Before the introduction of the Police Order of 2002, in Pakistan, the police were working under the supervision of the executive magistracy and bound by the law to seek a magistrates permission to open fire during a civil disorder. Under the new law, the policemen have become independent of the magistracy, and increasingly became trigger happy, as the frequency of deaths during the demonstrations in the recent years illustrate. Whether the police work under the magistracy or independently, it should not have the right to open fire to control a protesting mob. No loss of property is greater than a humans life. The examples of policing aggressive mobs in other democratic societies show that the police can control these crowds without firing at them and using less lethal means. To achieve this objective, however, a democratic orientation and training of the police in less harmful ways are required. Our police need to learn that there is a range of options available between negotiations with the protesters and shooting at them. One common tactic used by the police in the European countries is a slowly-advancing wall of policemen holding batons and officials on the horses that were trained to deal with such situations. By using shields made of high-tensile plastics the policemen can stand up against the rioters without resorting to firearms. High pressure fire hoses, shotguns firing rubber slugs and "bean bag" flexible baton rounds have also been widely used around the world to control violent protesters. Another available method is the use of decontamination foam to make the ground slippery and to reduce visibility for controlling small to medium-sized crowds. In recent years, another less harmful tactic widely employed for the management of large crowds in the countries like Germany, France, Britain and Canada, is 'kettling, also known as 'containment or 'corralling. In this method, the police officials make large cordons and move to contain a crowd within a limited area for a number of hours. Thus, the protesters are forced to exit or are completely prevented from leaving. This method prevents the large group of protesters breaking into smaller groups that have to be individually chased down, thus requiring the policing to break into multiple clashes. The kettling could also be in a mobile form, in which protestors are encircled by a mobile police cordon while they march. The aim of kettling is to leave would-be violent protesters too exhausted to do anything and return home. In Pakistan, the police face a peculiar situation owing to the free availability of stones with the crowds and frequent blockades of roads and highways. Our police can evolve its own customised response in such situations minus opening the gunfire that in most cases end up in casualties. The use of teargas, rubber bullets and water cannons provide less harmful ways to control the violent crowds, only if the police starts putting some premium on human life. The writer is a freelance columnist.

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