The first in-depth examination of police reforms in Sri Lanka was the 1946 Soertsz Commission Report. This report covered such topics as the composition of the force; the conditions of the service and selection of officers for promotion and transfer; procedure for investigations of complaints made by the public against the police; the powers and duties of the police; and amendment of the police ordinance to give effect to the recommendations of the commission.
Another commission report was published by the government publication bureau in October 1970 and this was named the Basnayake Commission. Among other duties, this Commission was mandated to examine the nature and the scope of the functions of the police; the measures that should be taken to secure the maximum efficiency of law enforcement agencies; and the procedure that should be adopted for the investigation of complaints made by the public against members of the police service. The Basnayake Commission went to great lengths to analyse the issues facing the police and in fact even reworked the existing 1865 law in order to remedy its many shortcomings. However, nothing ultimately came out of this effort.
The report of a further commission was published in 1995, generally known as the Justice D.G. Jayalath Commission Report. This Commission examined issues very similar to the earlier reports, but it too bore little in the way of practical police reforms. An attempt was made at reforms when the government passed the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in early 2001 which created the Constitutional Council (CC) along with a National Police Commission (NPC). The CC was a 10-member council designed to eliminate partisan appointments to key institutions such as the NPC. The NPC was aimed at being an independent mechanism, free from political interference, to hold the police more accountable and to formulate policies for the improved functioning of the Sri Lanka Police (SLP). While the CC functioned well during its first term, the Rajapakse government chose not to make independent appointments to the CC for its second term. Instead, the current administration has hand-picked members of the NPC which is in direct contravention of the 17th Amendment. As a result, the CC and the NPC are dysfunctional bodies.
With the end of the civil ware in May 2009, the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution has been floated as a solution to Sri Lanka’s policing problems. The 13th Amendment devolves policing to provincial councils, thereby making policing a provincial subject matter. However, India’s and Pakistan’s difficult experiences of policing in a federal system, along with the relatively small size of Sri Lanka, suggests that one should approach this idea with caution. Tellingly, President Rajapakse has stated very clearly that he has no intention of devolving police powers to the provincial councils. Click here to read related article.
Notwithstanding the cessation of hostilities, police torture and police misconduct remaining burning issues in Sri Lanka. According to a report by the Asian Human Rights Commission, The Phantom Limb: Study of Police Torture in Sri Lanka, “the development of the law complex via the introduction of emergency and special powers acts combined with the introduction of presidential regulations, has been the prime reason for the undermining of the rule of law, the impairment of the judiciary and the dysfunctionality of the criminal justice system causing widespread and routinized use of torture.” Click here to read The Phantom Limb.
Police reform in Sri Lanka ought to include sensitising new recruits to gender and minority issues, the recruitment of more women and minorities into the SLP and greater accountability for police wrongdoing. The culture of impunity is so deeply entrenched in Sri Lanka that it will be very difficult for the police to gain the trust of the public. Finally, political interference of the police by the Executive must be curtailed to a large degree if the SLP are to be operationally responsible for policing in the country.