Mixing priorities (between Uniform and Dignity)

Daily News Editorial

Measures are underway for a change in the police uniform, to bring the sartorial aspect of the police personnel in line with contemporary times, it was reported. The last change made to the police uniform was way back in 1974, followed by several additions to the standard Khaki uniform adopted at the beginning of the century. IGP Pujitha Jayasundera has granted approval to conduct the survey on whether the police uniform should be changed to improve the service of the Sri Lanka Police. The survey will focus on public opinion on changing the police uniform, identification of the uniform colour with the responsibilities of the police officers, effects of the change on the civil society and on the change of attitude of the public towards the police based on the changed uniform, according a news item we carried in Monday’s edition.

Of course, the mandatory uniform of staff in certain state sector institutions have been subject to change after a period. Most of these take place with the change in governments. The national carrier is one example where the green hued peacock sari of the air hostesses turned blue with end of the UNP regime. The change in the hue of the Air hostesses’ uniforms did not see a turnaround in the financial fortunes of the national carrier. The government is today battling to bail out the debt ridden entity.Image result for police cartoons - sri lanka

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Similarly, it is hoped, the change in the current Khaki uniform would not be a change for the sake of change exercise but a well thought out one. We say this because re-uniforming some 85,000 police personnel countrywide is going to be a costly exercise which would also raise the question if the government has got its priorities right. Besides, the public are quite accustomed to the current Khaki uniform of the police which still inspires awe and respect among most, although some gentlemen in Khaki had brought disrepute and dishonour to the police uniform. Hence the stature and symbolism of the Khaki uniform should be kept intact. Any changes to this ubiquitous symbol of authority will not have the desired impact immediately and it would take a long time, if at all, for the public to get accustomed to any change contemplated.

Be that as it may, what the IGP should strive for is a macro transformation and measures to raise the image of his service as a whole. Needless to say this cannot be achieved by a mere change of hue in the police uniform. The Police service, while in recent times earning for itself laurels for many important arrests and detections have still not exactly endeared itself to the public. A Minister in the Rajapaksa government placed the police as the second most corrupt state institution and many would not have entirely disagreed with this view.

While the IGP is striving his utmost to clean up the service and make it acceptable to the public there are still obstacles confronted by him in his endeavours. Corruption has become so endemic in the police service, the IGP’s no doubt will be an uphill task to reform and transform the ways and attitudes of his men. To begin with, the the policemen, especially the patrolmen, and others in the lower ranks are a poorly paid lot and cannot be kept out of temptation’s way. This is mostly seen in the case of the Traffic Police who are notoriously on the take. Hence, the recent decision by the government to increase the salaries of the lower grades in the police service by 40% is a move in the right direction though it is moot if this alone will make a change.

Police brutality, though rarely heard these days, is not exactly a thing of the past. The war mindset cannot be erased in the case of most policemen even today, a full eight years after the war. These men were recruited sans any screening, to augment manpower, and old habits, as they say, die hard. This propensity to violence we see today is, no doubt, a carryover from the war days and should be put right if the police service is to be turned into an essentially civil enforcement body.

The IGP also should strive to ensure the dignity of the Khaki uniform is not belittled. Today it is common to see policemen getting into arguments with protestors and are sometimes at the receiving end of verbal abuse. He should not allow a similar fate to that which befell the police personnel guarding the UN compound in Colombo during a demonstration led by Wimal Weerawansa to re-visit his men.

In that episode, following a telephone call by the then Defence Secretary to the officer in charge to clear his men, supporters of the politician went about humiliating and making play at the police on duty, tugging them from their uniforms, with one officer even having his hat removed by the mob. Protecting the dignity of the Khaki uniform would be much more feasible than any change effected to this symbol of authority.