Recently Indian Express published a very good article by a former director general, NHRC, and former director, National Police Academy. The editorial raises some valid questions about should Police/Law Enforcement be allowed to break laws sometimes for the greater good?
If so in what extra-ordinary circumstances? Does Ends Justify the means? How do we draw a line between abuse of power and breaking laws for the greater common good.
Its slightly long, but do Read if you have time
When the police exceed their authority and powers in order to achieve apparently legitimate ends, it is called ‘noble cause corruption’. This phrase, which entered the lexicon with Edwin Delattre’s influential book Character and Cops: Ethics in Policing (1989), has classical origins — in Plato’s Republic the philosopher-king justifies the use of noble lies in order to advance the good of the city. But whereas for Plato, the noble cause does not justify anything more than minor deception, police today indulge in flagrant abuse of human rights.
On the face of it, noble cause corruption is very different from what’s generally referred to as corruption. It is committed in the name of good ends, corruption that happens when police officers care too much about their own work and corruption committed in order to get the bad guys off the streets. Many feel that corruption for personal gain is more serious than corrupt behaviour that tends to benefit the society at large.
This is expressed best in the film Dirty Harry where the anti-hero is trying to achieve a good end, trying to find a girl whose life is in imminent danger, and tortures the kidnapper who refuses to reveal her whereabouts. The image of Harry Callaghan inflicting pain upon a psychopath is emotionally compelling.
But in practice when police either fabricate evidence or use excessive force, they violate the right of the suspect and affect the moral fibre of the policemen indulging in such methods. Besides, corrupt acts including noble cause corruption are habitual, not a one-off immoral action committed for a good purpose. Police officers simply tend to act in this manner, rather than rationally calculating the morality of ends and means on a case-by-case basis.
Noble cause corruption implies faith in the concept that the end justifies the means. However, the critical question is whether the ends are important enough to justify the means. Convicting a criminal is important but in a liberal democracy the police have to behave in accordance with the values of their society. Adoption of impermissible means may ultimately undermine the end.
Again, many means have other consequences that may make their use inappropriate. In the post-9/11 world, many democratic countries have passed draconian laws to curb terrorism but the enforcement of such laws, even in India, show that some ways of keeping a country secure for freedom may end up jeopardising other values of a democratic society.
Some justify torture to fight terrorism. But once a degree of torture is permitted it gives interrogators the license to use it systematically. The argument that enemies deserve no justice will lead to deterioration of justice for all. Proportionality of means has to be kept in view.
Noble cause corruption often occurs in a climate of arrogance which generates a belief that police officers know what’s best for society and have the right to punish anyone posing a ‘threat’ to public order. Unless senior officers take a resolute stand against various forms of misconduct, illegal practices will continue.
One common form of noble cause corruption is testimonial deception, for ensuring conviction of someone believed to be guilty of criminal activity. This can include fabrication of material evidence, selective presentation of evidence and improper collusion in the presentation of evidence etc — deceptions amounting to perjury.
Writers like Michael Walzer hold the view that noble cause corruption is a definitive part of the roles of political leaders, police, and military personnel. They have ‘dirty hands’ as they have to perform actions that infringe on the principles of morality, but may be morally justified, despite questionable methods. For example, a political leader who must order the torture of a terrorist chief with a view to discovering the whereabouts of a bomb likely to kill innocent people — this is an unusual emergency when moral principles can be infringed for the sake of greater public good.
Another view is that in difficult cases where there is conflict between ends and means, responsibility for any such decision should rest with the person with greater authority in the police department. But often, important decisions affecting life and liberties of people have to be taken by street patrolling officers, who have to be vested with enormous discretion. The police system allows enormous discretion in practice while at the same time maintaining a top-down command system.
Training for humane and ethical policing is of utmost importance. The police have to develop sensitivity towards both suspects and victims. In policing, mechanical application of rules do not always help, officers have to use their discretion and discretion is not license. Though grounded on rules, discretion is a form of judgement rather than mere following of rules.