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Thirukkovil tragedy and police reforms

27 Dec 2021

Sri Lanka’s police force has been the centre of many controversies, and the Police’s conduct and discipline has been the reason for many of these controversies. However, in an unprecedented development in the Sri Lankan context, during the Christmas weekend, it was reported that a police officer attached to the Thirukkovil Police Station had shot to death four police officers – i.e. one Police Sergeant, two Police Constables (PC), and a PC driver – over an alleged dispute over not being granted leave. In addition, three more police officers, including the Officer-in-Charge (OIC) of the same police station, had been hospitalised after they sustained injuries from the same incident. Even though the widespread allegation is that the said incident was caused by a refusal to grant leave, Police Media Spokesman Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Nihal Thalduwa has said that neither had the suspect police officer applied for leave for the said period, nor had the OIC of the said police station denied permission to take leave. Those serving in the defence forces and law enforcement agencies using their firearms in harmful, unauthorised ways is not at all a new development. Over the past few decades, there have been many incidents of such authorities misusing their firearms to take their own lives and those of others. However, the publicity the said incident attracted is different. It has more to do with the way police officers are expected to behave and be treated, and whether the police force, which has a culture of giving and following orders, has a proper mechanism to address practical issues that arise during their duties. While certain parties have claimed that this incident is an isolated incident, if the prevailing allegation – i.e. the altercation was triggered by a dispute over not granting leave – is true, this becomes a matter that should receive the attention of those in charge of police reforms, including stress and anger management, and also how those in lower ranks of the police force are treated when it comes to their personal matters. In fact, the aforementioned incident has been highlighted by many as an incident of the loss of patience and discipline in the police force. While there is more to be revealed in this connection, especially as far as the exact motive of this said shooting is concerned, perhaps the law enforcement authorities should make this an opportunity to go for long-overdue reforms in the police force. While the necessity and urgency of reforms in this sector has been pointed out for years, thus far, those reforms predominantly focused on making the police force a public-friendly service provider and on addressing the extrajudicial acts on the part of the police force. Regardless of the reason that led to it, this incident shows that those reforms need to focus on what is happening inside police stations, among police officers. According to law enforcement authorities, especially high-ranking police officers including those providing training to trainee police officers, the training given to police officers usually includes anger and stress management, which helps them manage stressful situations without causing any harm or committing any unlawful acts. However, when looking at the recent incidents where police officers have misused their powers and firearms in ways that harm the relationship between the police force and the general public as well as the Police’s overall conduct, what we can see is that the training that is being currently conducted is not adequate. At the same time, it is high time that Sri Lanka acknowledges the fact that police officers are also human beings, and that there should be a way to address their grievances as well. Addressing their grievances could prevent many issues from escalating to uncontrollable situations, such as the above-mentioned incident, which might sometimes even lead to such untimely deaths. It is, therefore, the time to address the root causes of issues, instead of merely addressing the outcomes of issues as and when they arise. Even though legal actions are necessary against any person committing an offence, what truly prevents the recurrence of these forms of tragic incidents is remedying what led to such in the first place. At the same time, it is time to pay more attention to the mental wellbeing of police officers who work day in and day out in stressful situations.

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