10 ways to cut custody deaths and abuses

Police need to submit to checks and balances and be open to public scrutiny and feedback if it is to improve its operations and image.


THE death of A. Kugan while under police custody has raised yet again serious questions as to how detainees are being handled in police lock-ups, and how police conduct their investigations.

To improve and maintain public confidence in the police, and to ensure that police conduct themselves lawfully and treat everyone equally under the law, they must ensure a number of things and agree to others.

Follow the letter of the law, and ensure fair and equal treatment to all so that no one, guilty or innocent, is deprived of their legitimate rights under the law while under police detention.

Here are 10 ways the police can avoid instances such as Kugan’s.

1. Make an open and public commitment to treat detainees lawfully.

I have had comments like these made to me: “You know, lah, if the police don’t beat them, they won’t be able to solve crimes.”

That’s an attitude that some Malaysians need to change, and change fast. And they will if someone dear to them ever has had the misfortune to come under such treatment.

The 2004/05 Royal Commission on the Police, headed by a former Chief Justice and with a former Inspector-General of Police as one of its members, cautioned against confession-based solution of crimes, favouring instead investigation-based solutions.

The public must impress on the police, and the police must make the commitment, to conduct themselves to the letter of the law at all times – no ifs and buts.

2. Stop all forms of physical torture and abuse immediately.

Under no circumstances must physical torture and abuse be condoned, and all such practices must be stopped immediately.

That may make the police job more difficult in many cases, but the police cannot be permitted to descend to the level of criminals to do their work – they must at all times be above them. There will be much abuse otherwise and many innocent people will suffer.

3. Make sure that CCTVs are installed and operational in all interrogation rooms.

Closed circuit TVs in strategic areas are just one way of ensuring that the necessary infrastructure is in place to ensure that no abuse takes place during investigations.

But there also needs to be a change in culture and mindset to inculcate in all police personnel the need to uphold the sanctity of the law at all times.

4. Investigate every case of death and injury under police custody fully.

Police will take much more care of detainees if they know that each and every case of death and obvious injury will be investigated fully.

In fact, the successful conclusion of such inquiries and due prosecution is the only way to maintain public confidence that the police are following the law in the treatment of detainees. To ensure that investigations are full, fair and impartial it is necessary for step 5.

5. Agree to the setting up of an independent investigative commission.

This will investigate all allegations of police brutality, mistreatment and misbehaviour.

The Royal Commission on the Police, in its 2004/05 study, recommended just that, but the Govern­ment thought it fit to come up with a watered down version.

The important thing is that investigations must be free, fair and full and seen to be such.

6. Punish the guilty.

After all the investigations, there must be the will and conviction to bring those guilty to account, and for the full weight of the law to be put on them.

Those who are suspects in ongoing investigations of police brutality must be suspended from their jobs for the duration of the investigations until cleared.

While we can sympathise with the police for the difficulty and danger of their jobs and give them everything possible to help them do their job properly, we simply cannot tolerate the breaking of the law by the police – no matter what.

7. Provide full and detailed statistics on deaths in police custody.

In July last year, according to a news report, Deputy Home Minister Wan Fairuz Wan Salleh, in reply to a question in Parliament, said 85 deaths occurred in police custody between 2003 and 2007.

According to him, 77 out of 85 deaths that had occurred in police custody were caused by infections and diseases, while seven committed suicide and one died in a fight with his cellmate.

There were no details, including of race and what the police had held them for. If we are to believe the account, not a single one of the deaths was due to police action, which is rather unbelievable given anecdotal accounts of police brutality.

If each of the deaths had been independently investigated, things might have been different.

If we were to assume that at least some of the deaths were due to police brutality then we have to ask ourselves the question as to how much police brutality there is on those who come under police custody.

8. Eliminate racial discrimination and racial stereotyping in the force.

It needs to be impressed on the police the need to be racially neutral, especially since the bulk of the force is made up of one race – Malays. No racial group should be targeted just because they are more disadvantaged socially and economically. Statistics according to racial breakdown can help identify such tendencies.

According to the 2004/05 Royal Commission on the police, between 2000 and 2004, a total of 76 deaths under police custody were noted. Of these 38 (50%) who died were Malays, 16 (21%) Chinese, 15 (19.7%) Indians and the remaining seven (9.3%) foreigners.

Tellingly, Indians were roughly two-and-a-half times their proportion in the population of around 7%-8%, while Malays and Chinese were significantly lower than their population proportions.

The Royal Commission also noted that in the majority of cases no inquest was held to determine the cause of death. Inquests were held only in six cases. These raised doubts on the credibility of the police, the Royal Commission concluded.

9. Hire more non-Malays for the force.

This will help to better reflect the racial composition of the country in the police and to ensure that investigation teams are multi-racial and multi-ethnic to reduce the possibility of racial discrimination in the police force. In fact, this was one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the police.

10. Treat all offenders equally.

The way some demonstrators are treated more forcefully than others is clear indication of discrimination. Indian groups’ assertions that the police were harsher with them are borne out by videos posted on the Internet, while those demonstrating against legally held forums, for instance, were let off lightly.

Under such circumstances, the public is likely to believe that such discrimination extends to the lock-up. The police must ensure that all offenders are treated equally.

No one denies that the police have a very tough job to do. However, because of their position of authority, there is need for independent check and balance to make sure that abuses do not occur.

The sooner the police submit themselves to such checks and balances – so vital for the functioning of a robust democracy for all those who wield considerable power – to weed out the actions of miscreants in their ranks, the sooner will the confidence of the public in the police force increase.

And that will in turn engender greater cooperation between the public and the police force in the common fight against crime.

The police, like any other authority wielding power, must be open to public scrutiny and feedback if it is to at all improve its operations and its image.

P. Gunasegaram is managing editor of The Star. He believes all public authorities, including the police, must be accountable in a transparent way for their actions.