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Pakistan needs police reform

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This tragic, horrible, horrible issue has opened a very narrow window in which something can change

On September 10thth, anger erupted on social media across Pakistan in response to the tragic atrocity that occurred the day before: the gang rape of a woman on the Lahore highway in front of her children. The mother and her children had been stranded on the highway since last midnight and had asked for help. In the days since then, the deepest cracks in Pakistan’s polarized social discourse have emerged, as they are always in times of crisis. It is instructive that the purpose of this article be briefly about what the different camps are.

The biggest and perhaps most irreconcilable divide is between those who have blamed the woman for exposing her to such sensitivity and those who are horrified by the guilt of the victims. These two camps are quite nicely separated along demographic lines, with many religious clerics expressing tacit support for – or tacit approval of – the previous camp, and members of civil society were almost unanimous in their support for the latter. As for the government itself, the situation is more murky.

While many politicians have thrown out the opportunity to condemn the incident and all forms of victim guilt, many have chosen to take a somewhat bizarre ‘middle ground’ approach which is something to the effect of: “rapists should held accountable, but the woman should also have been more careful. ‘Of course, this attitude, backed by many in the political current, has been pushed as the culprit of the victims disguised with a thin sheen of apparent objectivity.

Among those who rightly condemn the guilt of the victims, there is a further divide: in the days after a sub-group loudly supported the hashtag #hangtherapists, which has gained considerable support on social media. Others in the camp have been cautious with this approach, arguing that it only perpetuates a cycle of violence and prevents Pakistani society from questioning the more structural problems that lead to rape so widespread in Pakistan.

Within this last subgroup is a further division about the best way to pursue institutional and structural reform. Some have argued that police officers who took more than 90 minutes to respond to a distress call should be held accountable through a repeat of criminal negligence. Others have begged the government to make sensitivity and rapid response training mandatory for all police officers. Most agree that CCPO Umar Shaikh should resign over his comments blaming the victims and be replaced by female leadership or those who are more sensitive to women’s concerns.

Looking at this general extent of the land of Pakistani political discourse is essential; demonstrates that with this level of disagreement on deeper issues very little will be done to ensure that such a thing never happens again. Even if rapists are hanged or imprisoned, and the CCPO in question is promoted or fired, these micro-decisions will have a negligible impact on the safety of women in Pakistani public spaces. And yet, a more structural reform such as empathy training or education has drawn contempt for Pakistan’s most conservative neighborhoods and is likely to be unachievable in any case: even if you are sensitive to a woman’s situation in a particular incident, your sense of brotherhood with your police colleagues will make it very difficult for you to take decisive action.

Clearly, Pakistan is now looking for reform that happens upstream of all these issues, can be accepted by most people in a highly polarized environment, and avoids internal accountability problems.

There is such a reform that has revolutionized police in other parts of the world. The Pakistan Police and all its constituent departments need to be made such that we can always hear and see what they do and what they do not do.

For starters, the audio of every single call to police helplines should be recorded and stored, and easily accessible to those who wish to use them through convenient channels. To some extent, this will require a universal helpline instead of different numbers for different departments, as is common in many other countries. Second, a significant number of on-duty police officers must carry body cameras when responding to calls. While this is unlikely to be deployed across the country in the short term, a pilot program in major cities is definitely possible. As with audio recordings, video from these cameras must be recorded and stored for anyone in the public sphere to access and examine.

These two simple reforms – being able to listen and see what our police officers do in this task – are likely to revolutionize policing in Pakistan. Most importantly, such a reform does not depend on viewing written reports written by police officers for the sake of other police officers. Seeing and hearing is believing.

Perhaps most importantly, this reform is likely to receive massive support across the country because its consequences lie outside the specific case of the highway, or even the general epidemic of female insecurity in Pakistan. Over the past decade, Pakistanis across the political spectrum have been horrified by police actions of all kinds, such as extrajudicial killings, extortion and blackmail, the protection of VIPs, and the creation of a general atmosphere of fear and insecurity. Therefore, even those who do not necessarily agree with the specific views of civil society on this case or the position of women in Pakistan en masse are likely to express their almost unanimous support for such a reform.

Pakistan is now deeply divided. And yet this tragic, horrible, horrible issue has opened a very narrow window of opportunity in which something can change. Forcing our police officers to be seen and heard whenever we ask for their help is and should be the first step towards change.



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