Acquittals: Are police alone to blame?

The police, the prosecution and the judiciary, all play important roles in criminal cases.

The recent judgment of the Supreme Court on the role of police in the rising number of acquittals in criminal cases has reaffirmed the public perception that a real culprit goes usually scot free whereas an innocent languishes in jail. The apex court,  which  felt that the Investigating Officers (IO) conduct shoddy investigation which leads to acquittals, has directed the state governments to review each acquittal and take disciplinary action against the IOs.

It must be understood that the police alone is not responsible to ensure punishment to the guilty though it plays a major role. The criminal justice system comprises of the police, the prosecution and the judiciary, and all play important roles in acquittals or otherwise of criminal cases. It is common knowledge that in our country trial of criminal cases takes ages to be completed which results in denial of justice. Attempts made so far to correct this problem have not made any significant change in the system.

The volume of criminal cases, the shortage of judges, a system that encourages delay have compounded the problem. A delayed trial results in witnesses forgetting the events of the crime, or not attending the courts or just turn hostile. It also results in the accused getting bail giving him an opportunity to tamper with evidence or threaten witnesses or just jump bail. A good witness protection system is also not in place.

The prosecution of criminal cases is in the hands of public prosecutors. Most of the time there is no synergy between the police and the prosecution departments. The prosecutor has no personal stake in the successful prosecution of the case unlike the defence attorney. He is also overburdened with cases leaving him very little time to understand the nuances of the cases he is prosecuting in the courts.

Change of system

There was a time when prosecution was part and parcel of the police department. This changed. Subsequently a system was introduced wherein the IO had to submit all his investigation papers to the prosecutor for scrutiny and submit the chargesheet of  that case in court only after the approval of the prosecutor. Thanks to a court ruling, this system has been given up. Now the IO, after completion of investigation, submits the papers to his superior officers and the superior formally grants permission to file the chargesheet without much application of mind. Naturally, the flaws in investigation remain un-corrected.

An IO has very little time for investigation nowadays because he has to take care of law and order and security duties too apart from attending to many administrative functions which include attending innumerable meetings in his superiors’ offices. Despite a SC ruling in 2006, the law and order and criminal investigation functions in the police department have not been really bifurcated.

The quality of investigation also remains poor because the supervision over investigation by superior officers is lax. Cases prosecuted by agencies like the CBI have a high rate of conviction because every stage of investigation is closely supervised by the seniors which do not happen in States. Investigation of a criminal case and its successful prosecution is an art which every police officer does not have. As the SC has said, there is a dire need for training police officers in this. But in the police, there is very little formal training during one’s career. 

Both these problems can be surmounted if we rope in retired ace investigators to go through the investigation papers at least in important cases and suggest measures of improvement to the IOs. There was a time when every senior police officer was expected to attend trials of important cases. The mere presence of a SP in court during a trial would invariably raise the chances of conviction. Besides, the investigators and the prosecutors would take extra care if they knew someone senior is watching them. Nowadays, senior police officers rarely attend courts.

There was a system in Karnataka that all judgment copies were to be scrutinized by a cell in the District/Range Police office and a decision would be taken whether a judgment deserves appeal or otherwise. SPs would also take action against investigating officers if there were any strictures by the courts on the investigation. In fact this is the type of system which the SC has asked State Governments to put in place.

An investigating officer is a part of Criminal justice system and unless the entire system is revamped we may not see any improvement. In 2003, Justice Malimath submitted his report on the revamp of criminal justice system and his recommendations remain on paper. Mere disciplinary action against investigating officers will not solve the problem.

(The writer is a retired DGP in Karnataka.)                                                      

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