By Lakmal Harischandra –
As the protests against the racist killing of black George Floyd are taking momentum in the US, the subject of police brutality is coming to the public fore, casting doubt on the role of the Police as peace officers and their impartiality. In Sri Lanka too, the unacceptable conduct of some rogue sections of the Police forces are being highlighted in the social media in the form of corruption as well as brutality. A Young autistic Muslim boy of 14 years Tariq Ahamed was recently seen to be tortured inhumanely in broad day light by Police officers in Aluthgama, which has earned public wrath. An inquiry into this has been ordered. Judging by the past conduct of some sections of the Police in Sri Lanka, in dealing with racially sensitive issues, this could be reflecting systemic racism in the Police force.
Recently, Trump’s National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, when asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper, whether he thinks “systemic racism” is a problem in law enforcement agencies in the US; he responded: “I don’t think there is systemic racism. I think 99.9 percent of our law enforcement officers are great Americans. But … there’s a few bad apples.”. It is like an Airline authority being asked about the capability of pilots and the he answers,’99.9% of them land safely in the runaway; there are of course ‘few bad apples’ who land in mountains! Is it acceptable?
Apart from the punch here, in the US, this response ignores the well-documented bias in favour of alt-right extremist ideology and secondly, the institutions in place produce racially disparate effects on minority populations – in his discussion of individual officers, which is the nature of systemic racism in the US. The history of racism and white supremacist membership in law enforcement agencies is long and well-documented. In 2015 and 2016, the San Francisco police department attempted to fire at least 17 officers after investigations revealed they were sending racist text messages. The Ku Klux Klan historically – and even in recent years – has had ties to local law enforcement.
Further, the failure of US police units to discipline police officers over allegations of excessive use of force and/or for racist behaviour or actions is part and parcel of the systemic issues protesters have demonstrated over for many years and in recent days. The white officer charged with George Floyd’s murder, Derek Chauvin, was the subject of at least 17 misconduct complaints prior to Floyd’s death, almost all of which resulted in no discipline and the rest of which concluded with only a letter placed in his file. Disciplinary systems that struggle to hold officers to account for other offenses will similarly fail to remove racist police officers, undermining public trust in entire departments.
But the term “systemic racism” does not mean that individuals who operate within the system are generally racists. Instead, it means the institutions we have in place produce racially disparate effects on minority populations. The evidence of links to explicit white supremacist groups is surely only the tip of a racist iceberg. Other forms of racism that affect all our institutions – without sparing law enforcement agencies – include explicit and implicit racial bias. O’Brien’s comments in the above CNN interview leave no assurance that he has a command of the facts or if he does that he is willing to acknowledge or seriously grapple with them.
For decades, anti-government and white-supremacist groups in US have been attempting to recruit police officers into their ranks. Vida B Johnson, an assistant professor of law at Georgetown University says “Police forces are becoming more interested in talking about implicit bias – the unconscious, racial biases we carry with us as Americans. But people aren’t really addressing the explicit biases that are present on police forces.” According to Johnson’s research, there have been at least 100 different scandals, in more than 40 different states, involving police officers who have sent racist emails and text messages, or made racist comments on social media, since the 1990s. As Brian Levin, a former NYPD officer who directs the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism in California says, ‘while not every police officer who is tied to a white supremacist group will necessarily act out their beliefs violently, the presence of even a single radicalised officer can terrorise a community. Even if the number of officers is numerically small, because of the intense risks posed of having a ticking time bomb like that in a department, that’s a big deal’.
In UK too, black people in Britain are still being dehumanised by the media, disproportionately imprisoned, harassed by the Police and dying in police custody, and now also dying disproportionately of Covid-19. The Lammy Review (2017), a probe into the outcomes for Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the justice system, laid bare some truths that Black people have known for decades: the system is rigged.Black people are more likely to be arrested and sent to prison than their white counterparts in Britain – and twice as likely to die in police custody.Thus, Police brutality and bias against the blacks and minorities are blatant and carried out with impunity, not just in US but elsewhere too.
In Sri Lanka, what happened to Tariq also reflected Police brutality with the added racist attitude of the JMO being deplorable. The racist incident was highlighted on FB, with pictures of injuries on his back , then tweeted initially by Ali Zahir Moulana and then condemned by many including Sangakkara, Namal Rajapaksa, De Harsha De Silva and Dr Nalin Jayatissa. A Police investigation is underway due to public pressure, after being sidelined by the Police putting he blame on the father of this disabled child. The news of the brutal assault by police on Thariq Ahamed, a 14 year old autistic boy of Dharga Town, Aluthgama is shocking and the prejudice that ensued after by the Police and the JMO needs to be exposed.
According to the tweet, Thariq was diagnosed with autism since he was 4 and his development has been hindered by it since. Today, he has the capacity of a 6 year old child. On the 25th of May, while curfew was imposed, Thariq had wandered out of his house on his bicycle and had ventured by the Ambagaha Junction in Dharga Town where there was a police checkpoint manned by 6-7 policemen. He was first stopped and accosted by a policeman in civvies, and pushed violently off his bicycle. As he was pulled to his feet, another 5 policemen walked up and started brutally assaulting him, including slapping him across the face and blows to his head and torso. He was then dragged across the road towards the checkpoint and a nearby petrol station where another 2 civilians who stopped in a three-wheeler also joined the police in assaulting him. All the while he was sobbing unintelligibly, given his circumstances which further infuriated the police. His hands were. then tied behind his back as he was trying to struggle free, and then tied against a post under a tree, by the checkpoint. Father who later arrived at the scene was verbally abused and out of fear of reprisal from the police, was apprehensive to take Thariq to hospital that day as he was threatened by the police.
With no action being taken by the Police against its errant officers, and with social media exposure, it was brought to the attention of the Deputy Inspector General of the Kalutara district, who then passed along instructions for the boy to be medically examined and then take action accordingly. The Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) at the Nagoda Hospital in Kalutara. upon examining the boy, reportedly has turned racist asking the Policeman who brought him “why did you bring him here? He should be sent to Angoda. His kind (Muslims) are the reason why we are all wearing masks today. He deserved this and they should all be punished. I will show them.” Fortunately when referred to the consultant psychiatrist who happened to be the doctor who Thariq has been seeing for years, this disabled boy was released. Thankfully, due to social media pressure and public exposure, Police inquiry has been instituted, the outcome of which is yet to be seen.
Thariq is just one such incident, highlighted with racial profiling by the despicable JMO. Impunity for Police apathy and brutality has been a regular feature in Sri Lanka too. While voices are being raised against police brutality and racial profiling in the US, and for those persecuted in America, it is unto us to peacefully raise our voices against injustice, inequality and violence in our land too including the brutality and injustice of the law enforcement authorities too. If fence is eating the crops, to whom shall we complain? Says a local adage.
There is a serious lack of accountability for Police abuses. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented an appalling variety of torture methods used by the police, including severe beatings; electric shocks; use of stress positions, including suspending detainees from ropes and iron bars in painful positions; the rubbing of chili paste over the body, including the genitals; and disorienting detainees by rotating them while they are suspended from a pole, a torture technique known as a dharmachakra. The problem of torture is not new and has been well documented for decades. But the common excuse offered in Sri Lanka was the general collapse of law and order stemming from the armed conflicts that wracked the nation for nearly 30 years. With the end of the war, that excuse no longer explains this scourge. Serious shortcomings in the enforcement of the law have meant that few of the victims harmed by police have received justice or meaningful redress. As of 2007, the UN special rapporteur on torture found only four convictions since the passage of the Convention Against Torture Act.
In a case of pot calling the kettle black, the US State Department’s human rights report for 2017 said Sri Lanka’s military and police harassed civilians with impunity although civilian authorities generally maintained control over the security forces. There is a clear breakdown of discipline at all layers of the police establishment. As this breakdown continues it is very likely that more such impunity and abuses will take place in the days ahead. There is nothing to indicate that this serious criminal behaviour of the police officers involved in these killings have been taken note of by the higher police authorities and that any preventive measures have been discussed or adopted. What is really demonstrated in the Sri Lankan situation is that ill-educated lower ranking police officers are being unleashed particularly on the poorer sections of the population to act in any barbaric manner they wished in carrying out arrests. Even in 1983 anti-Tamil communal violence, and anti-Muslim communal violence in Aluthgama, Digana and Minuwangoda, the impartiality of the Police was called into question. Some of them were reportedly seen to be conniving as well. There are also signs that Police officers too are getting indoctrinated with far right ideas like Islamophobia and ultra Sinhala nationalism.
The impact of impunity has spread into all areas of life. The reason that impunity in Sri Lanka occurs to this extent is due to the virtual collapse of two institutions: the police and the prosecution branch, which functions under the Attorney General. The failure of the supervisory functions of high-ranking police officers is due to the influence exercised over the leadership of the police force by the political authorities. The perception of a lack of independence of the judiciary was in danger of becoming widespread and that it was extremely harmful to respect for the rule of law by ordinary citizens.
Thus, Sri Lanka should not take the cases like Tariq’s lightly; as it is reflective of greater dimensions of impunity, non-accountability of the law enforcement authorities which will ultimately lead to public erosion of confidence in the law and order which will have an adverse impact on democracy. This includes the racism inherent in State officers as a whole for example JMO’s attitude in Tariq’s case. Systemic racism and Police abuses and brutality should thus be dealt with in accordance with the law. Otherwise, Sri Lanka’s descent to a failed state status cannot be prevented.