ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s police chief has got this third service extension, but the move by President Ranil Wickremesinghe to retain Chandana Wickramaratne also underscores the serious leadership crisis in the 157-year-old organization.
Granting another extension to Inspector-General Wickramaratne appears to be an affront to those appalled by the crime wave gripping the country, but not many know that the police chief has absolutely no disciplinary control over his officers because of the recent bureaucratic layer that has wrested the police chief’s powers.
While it is natural to hold the head of the police responsible for the prevailing pathetic state of law and order, the deepening crisis is a direct result of institutionally subverting the command-and-control structure, the Police Commission.
No Action Against Officers Coming Under Police Commission
“The Police Commission, which was intended to protect officers from politically motivated actions and transfers, may have ended up insulating them from any disciplinary action.”
The setting up of a Police Commission to handle all disciplinary matters and transfers of policemen and women has taken away the authority of the police chief to put such issues into effect himself. In fact, the IGP can only address the Police Commission through the secretary to the ministry of Public Security, a political appointee.
For example, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday attacks recommended disciplinary action against several top officers, including the then intelligence chief Nilantha Jayawardena and Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) Deshabandu Tennakoon, but nothing has been done to-date thanks to the ineffectual Police Commission.
The police chief’s authority extends only to men below the rank of sergeant and two lower-level constables have already been dismissed from the service for failing to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks. But, not a single senior officer has been disciplined to date because of procrastination by the Police Commission.
The same applies to police transfers. While the primary courts, the Attorney General and the police chief himself have called for the arrest/removal of officers such as Deshabandu Tennakoon from the Western province, the Secretary to the ministry of Public Security has blocked action.
Immediate and Comprehensive Reforms
It is clear that the current state of the Sri Lankan Police Department calls for immediate and comprehensive reforms. For a start, empowering the police chief, whether Wickramaratne is retained or not, is a crucial step towards addressing the issues plaguing the department.
In the current hierarchy, the officers directly in line to replace Wickramaratne have serious blemishes that preclude them. The first is current SDIG Nilantha Jayawardena who has been fined by the Supreme Court over his role in the Easter Sunday attacks. Next in line, SDIG Lalith Pathinayake and number three, SDIG Deshabandu Tennakoon have adverse findings against them and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry wanted them disciplined as well as criminally prosecuted.
Sources close to President Wickremesinghe said neither of the three contenders for the top job were considered and hence the extension to low-profile Wickramaratne.
Any change of guard in the leadership, however, may not change the law and order situation in the country given the disciplinary structure following the establishment of the Police Commission. The commission was intended to eliminate political interference and make the department more efficient, but successive commissions have repeatedly revealed their partisanship, which has effectively blocked any decisive action.
Politically Motivated Appointments Continue
The direct interference by the Ministry of Public Security has further compounded the issue. This interference has led to the appointment of politically motivated individuals in charge of police stations, many of whom have proven to be ineffective and ineffectual.
The consequences of this practice were evident after the violence that occurred on June 9, 2022, exposing the inefficiency of officers in charge of maintaining law and order and security.
Yet, there has been no significant shake-up in police leadership within high-crime areas. This lack of accountability not only perpetuates the problem but also raises serious questions about the integrity and effectiveness of law enforcement.
The IGP should be given the authority to lead the 80,000-plus men and women in the force and restore discipline and order. However, this reform must be part of a broader restructuring effort to make the entire police system more transparent, accountable, and responsive to the needs of the public.
The path to reform will be challenging, but it is necessary to restore public confidence and ensure the safety and security of the nation, especially in high-crime areas where drive-by shootings have become a grave concern.
The recent International Monetary Fund governnance diagnostic report went into a number of revenue agencies and suggested an internal affairs unit to probe misconduct of officials. Ironically police support was recommended for key agencies, including the anti-bribery commission.
However no mention was made of problems within the police, or the lack of an effective disciplinary mechanism or internal affairs unit within the police department itself. (COLOMBO/Oct 15/2023)