The South Asia Channel

Reforming Karachi’s police

Karachi suffers from a terrible disease. This illness has been fierce at times, and calmer at others, but has remained in place for over 25 years. It has darkened the life of every human in the City of Lights. Certainly, it has spread so deeply throughout, and within, Karachi that sights of the city burning ...


Karachi suffers from a terrible disease. This illness has been fierce at times, and calmer at others, but has remained in place for over 25 years. It has darkened the life of every human in the City of Lights. Certainly, it has spread so deeply throughout, and within, Karachi that sights of the city burning have become part of the inhabitants’ immunity. "Business as usual" many muse. Indeed, 16 years ago, the deadly illness of chronic violence killed over 2000 people. In the first half of 2011 alone, 1,138 people have been killed by it; 490 of them targeted on political, sectarian, and ethnic grounds. And amidst this carnage, the ideal healers, the police, are found wanting.

Patron-client relationships permeate every level of life in Karachi. At the top, political parties keep a keen watch over criminal groups and gangs. These gangs perform duties for the parties including canvassing, illegally occupying land on the behalf of party workers or politicians themselves, providing personal security, and intimidating opponents or rivals. In turn, gangs gain in two ways. Firstly, they are allowed to continue with their illicit activities, including drug, alcohol, and gun running, as political parties overlook the legal transgressions of their minions. Secondly, and inextricably linked to the city’s political corruption, they gain protection from the very police that should be hounding them.

Yet it is not the police themselves who are entirely to blame for the breakdown of law and order, but rather a system whereby politicians are able to use the police according to their whims. It is in some ways easy to vilify the police, to claim, as many do, that they can be bought, that they protect politicians instead of the people, or that they are more abusive than the actual criminals. As such, several writers have given their theories about what can, and should, be done to improve the conditions of a dire force. Voices within the system, for instance, often speak of improving the equipment and living conditions of the police as a means to fight corruption and build professionalism. Yet material changes alone will not fix the institutional problems and political culture that have continually held the police back as an instrument of law and order. A revolution in police affairs needs to take place with regards to the relationship between the police and the province’s politicians.


The toxic political and security culture in Sindh province draws its institutional memory directly from the colonial period, the origin in many ways of the patron-client mentality that remains entrenched for Sindh’s rulers and ruled alike. This has been recently reinforced with the decision to revive the Police Act of 1861 in Sindh, which replaced the updated, and far less damaging, police law of 2002.  The latter law had much needed provisions, including the creation of complaint cells, better station facilities and equipment, and, most importantly, increased accountability of the police to a criminal justice coordination committee headed by a district and session judge. However, though it looked the part on paper, the laws were never fully, or well, implemented, resulting in a mutilated law.

The Police Act of 1861 came into being after the 1857 War of Independence (or Sepoy Mutiny as it is known abroad). The then-colonial Governor of Sindh, Sir Charles Napier, sought to emulate the Irish Constabulary model used for military-style policing in that other, closer British colony. This Constabulary was created initially with the sole purpose of suppressing armed rebellions, sectarian riots or agrarian disturbances. According to a report by Dr. Muhammed Shoaib Suddle — the former deputy inspector general in Karachi and head of the Pakistan Intelligence Bureau — the intent of the law was to keep "the natives on a tight leash" and to ensure that the police was not organized as a "politically neutral outfit for fair and just enforcement of law." The Colonial masters would keep the police chained to their authority by forcing the police to refer onto them, specifically the Chief Secretary, all major questions concerning the control, distribution and discipline of the force. In precisely the same way, the main stays of provincial politics in Sindh — the landed and industrial elites of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) — seek to ensure that the police continue to do their bidding under a restored, but equally undemocratic, system. The Act has in the past, for instance, provided legal cover for successive provincial governments to use the police for partisan purposes without sufficient checks and balances. And one only need drive past the home of the controversial Senior Minister for Works, Services and Forestry, Dr. Zulfiqar Mirza, to see a force of some 20 police officers guarding a premises where he infrequently resides, in addition to the personal guards kept to patrol the 10-foot high walls of the private mansion. Within this milieu, the police, handcuffed to the power of their patrons by law and practice, in addition to searching for greater revenue to balance out their poor salaries, come together to compound security concerns, and the police become the protector of the politicos rather than the public.

In light of these failings, some efforts by the public have been made seek alternative methods of protection. In the late 1980s, when elite families in the city came under threat from bandits, kidnappers and criminals, they blamed the paucity of the police. The brass was too busy looking after the politicians, and so the wealthy sought to take care of themselves. A group of businessmen, lawyers, and other professionals set up the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) in 1989 to handle the new wave of lawlessness. It was not a police force per se, but rather an investigative unit to facilitate negotiations and gather data on crime. With up to 80% of funding arriving from private donors who wanted protection for their families, a parallel community watch system was set up. CPLC’s Savile Row-clad workers facilitated negotiations and visited wealthy families’ homes, while the investigative officers robustly gathered intel on criminals and major incidents. The CPLC soon became the first phone call beyond the police itself, and was even included in the Police Order 2002, to work alongside the main police force. But the set-up has obvious limitations. After all, the organization could not, and to a large extent cannot, deal with the deep levels of crime in the city, and do not have the personnel to function outside of a certain slice of the city’s society. The CPLC must be led by a strong police in order to operate effectively. Elsewhere, and most recently, a former high level official of the CPLC tells me that the organization has met what he calls an unfortunate, but "inevitable," end: it has become politicized in its own right.

It would be foolish to conclude that strengthening the facilities, salaries, and training of the police is completely futile. Indeed, the relative success of the motorway police — which often shows little mercy in fining the most powerful politician or bureaucrat — is a case in point. They have a higher recruitment of college graduates, are better-equipped and -trained across the board (they even receive instruction in proper etiquette in how to speak with those they apprehend), and have higher salaries, thus decreasing the likelihood of turning their heads away from transgressions in return for a quick buck. But the urban setting of a city such as Karachi, with its deeply-ingrained culture of violence, needs a police far beyond the capabilities of the motorway force, which does not encounter the daily challenge of facing gun toting criminals and threatening political workers at every corner.

But some lessons can still be derived from the experience of the CPLC and the motorway police. Aside from implementing the aforementioned changes experienced by the latter, the police’s organizational structure needs to be more akin to that first laid out in the 2002 reforms, together with institutionally demarcating — and lawfully accounting for — when politicians can tap into state security forces for personal security, increasing the professionalism of the police, and making the police the number one priority of state, and international, funds. By making the police establishment a public policy priority and a more professional force, the mindsets of police officers will, in turn, change drastically. Right now, the police play second, third, and fourth fiddle to the Frontier Constabulary, paramilitary Rangers, and Army respectively, in Karachi, and behave accordingly. Institutional changes and legal barriers between Karachi’s political elite and a newly-professionalized force can go some way towards building an effective police force that can deal with Karachi’s chronic violence. But for the change to be truly complete, the city’s elite themselves will have to change the paradigm through which they view security and the proper role of law enforcement, and bring about a true shift in "business as usual" in Karachi.

Bilal Baloch is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is currently conducting field research in Karachi. You can follow him on twitter @babaloch

Bilal Baloch is a co-founder of GlobalWonks, a tech-enabled marketplace connecting global affairs experts with organizations around the world. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. You can follow him @bilalabaloch