We as the public tend to have a rather turbulent relationship with the authorities that govern us – they have been appointed to serve the people and when they are less than satisfactory in the execution of their duties, the ‘people’ are, often reasonably, disgruntled.
This dynamic is most notably seen in the relationship between the public and those appointed to ensure public security, especially the police force. While the military is also appointed the task of security, the police are tasked with engaging the general public day-to-day. In doing so, the police has become demonised in our eyes, partly because there are numerous incidents of police brutality and abuses of power by the police are rampant – this is an undeniable fact, not all police, of course, but some.
We see constant reports of the police using excessive force, acting on their personal biases, and overall failing to serve the people in the ideal way that they are expected to. However at times, it is important to humanise those taking on these roles; while they rightfully should be held at a higher standard by virtue of being granted their powers, they too are human and come with human complexities. What we often fail to see is the other side – due to the uniform they adorn, it is easy for us to look at them as ‘other’ and they are simply the uniform.
And so, while they do indeed have a duty to protect and serve, we should also acknowledge that in doing so, they do adopt risks and put themselves in danger. Sometimes, it’s not just themselves who are at risk, but their family’s lives as well.
We see an example of this reality in a recently-reported incident where a Police Constable was attacked and subsequently killed by a group of civilians. It was further reported that the Police Constable’s wife and another person were also beaten during this incident. The incident took place in Vithrandeniya, Tangalle and it is stated that the civilians entered the Police Constable’s home and attacked him and his family. He was later taken to another location and brutally beaten and the officer succumbed to his wounds following admission to the Tangalle Hospital.
Here we see an example of the dangers that police officers face at the hands of the public and how it is not just one individual who adopts these risks in the name of duty but that their family and their loved ones are also thrust into these situations by extension.
A reminder that they are human
Speaking to Brunch, Police Spokesperson Attorney-at-Law SSP Nihal Thalduwa shared that there were elements of the job that people did not see.
“There is definitely a risk when it comes to working in this field. It is a dangerous task because we are dealing with criminals, we are trying to prevent criminal activity, or further criminal activity in case we are in the middle of a crime that is already being committed, and all of this is in order to safeguard the people, their property, etc.,” he said, adding that “especially when we are able to intervene in the midst of a crime being committed, it is a high-risk situation because people are unpredictable and desperate in such situations.”
Thladuwa also shared that there were many who commit crimes as it was all they knew but there were those who turn to it as a last resort, and in many of these instances those who go to the extent of committing a crime had the mentality that they have ‘nothing to lose’ – a mindset that is incredibly dangerous and the person who is apprehending such a person is at risk because they may not exercise normal logical reasoning.
He also shared that what people also fail to realise is that, this too is a job. “It is a job that people do, being a police officer. And when they are off duty, many of them go home to a family, a wife, children, parents, and other loved ones. They are people like everybody else. People do not feel this human element primarily because of the uniform, it is easy to categorise all those in uniform as a single entity of their own,” he said.
“What is also most challenging is that we are working against natural human instinct,” he said, adding: “People do not want to be told that they are wrong and that they have done wrong. It is a normal human feeling to assume that they are right. However, in our line of work, the times that we would approach is more often than not, to tell you and show you that you have indeed done wrong. This angers people. Their reactions are understandable, but this is the nature of the job.”
A job but also a service
Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Army General Shavendra Silva also shared his thoughts on this matter of adopting risk and the call of duty. He stated that while the police force and the military had their differences, there were certain elements where they did share certain similarities. One such similarity is the duty they adopt in the name of their station.
“They take an oath to defend the territorial integrity of our nation. There are many risks involved and while most jobs come with their own set of risks, here they go so far as to pledge their lives and place it on the line to achieve their given task,” he said. He noted that we saw the extent of it during the war, there were many who sacrificed their lives in the line of duty.
General Silva also shared that people failed to realise that these acts were in the line of duty, they were not personal. They are following orders to carry out a task and what they must do is take any and all necessary steps to achieve said task. “Even the police officer who is guiding traffic, he is no different, he is simply doing his job, it is not personal,” he said. “Carrying out these assigned tasks, that is discipline. That is the training they receive.”
Are they trained to protect themselves?
It is clear that ensuring security is not a task to be taken lightly and there are risks involved – in which case these officers should be given the necessary tools to protect themselves. At the very least they should have the skills, knowledge, or tools that set them apart from the average citizen when it comes to facing the criminal element.
We asked SSP Thalduwa about training and he shared that, to a certain degree there was training, however, Sri Lanka did experience a lack of resources when it came to extensive training for officers.
He noted: “Police officers are given a basic training, and then they also receive in-service training which is training on the job. There are also courses they take that are courtesy of various institutes.” However, he added: “Police training for every single officer is a huge task; it is time consuming and costly but we do our best.”
If the tables were turned
The incident that sparked this discussion took place in Tangalle, in the Southern Province of the island. However, what if this incident were to take place in the north?
While we like to pretend that we are one country and one law, we cannot deny that racially-motivated micro incidents pop up almost everyday.
So if we could think for a moment if a police officer were attacked by a minority group, the headlines surrounding the topic are likely to have been very different, as would the discussions we would be having.
We posed this hypothetical to SSP Thalduwa who simply shared that each instance should be taken on a case by case merit and that it did not matter whether it happened in the north, east, or the south. This is his official answer. However, we would like to pass this question over to the reader: Would things be different if it were to happen in the north?
We cannot deny that police officers adopt great risk in their line of duty, even if it is on occasion. They should be appreciated for the sacrifices that they make in order to keep us all safe.