Abuse of power always targets the weakest: Upneet Lalli on the need for police training

Courtesy Upneet Lalli
15 January, 2021

Upneet Lalli is the deputy director of the Institute of Correctional Administration in Chandigarh, a central government institution which imparts training to police officers and prison officers. A psychologist and legal expert by training, Lalli is the author of the book Human Rights in Indian Prisons, among other works.

As Indian politics places itself on the right of the ideological spectrum, some individuals who were members of right-wing organisations, have moved towards the Left—or at least, away from the Right. Yet, others, who hail from a notably right-wing milieu, never embraced it and have become the political right’s fiercest critics. Abhimanyu Chandra, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, seeks to explore these transitions in a series of interviews, titled Converse Lens, published by The Caravan. The initial set of interviews focused on individuals who turned critical of the Right despite previous associations. In the latter part of this series, Chandra interviews experts who comment on when, why, and how some people leave right-wing settings, even as so many others do not.

For the final interview of this series, Chandra spoke to Lalli about training programmes for police officers as well as prison officials—in the context of evidence of anti-minority attitudes prevalent in sections of the police forces. For instance, there is considerable evidence that the police not only attempted to cover up the anti-Muslim violence in north-eastern Delhi in late February 2020, but actively took part in it. The police’s conduct in north-eastern Delhi is part of a larger trend of custodial violence and brutality that often targets marginalised and minority communities. Speaking in a personal capacity, Lalli emphasised that “Attitudes don’t change overnight. They do require the constant hammering and drilling and constant reinforcement.”

Abhimanyu Chandra: Could you briefly tell us about the Institute of Correctional Administration in Chandigarh—what does it do, and your role in it?
Upneet Lalli: The institute was set up by the government of India, specifically for the training of police officers and prison staff. It primarily caters to the training needs of the northern states, and is funded by the ministry of home affairs. We conduct training, and also some research, on issues of criminal justice and prison related issues, mainly. We train police staff based on their needs and based on requests from their department.

My role is primarily academic, in terms of delivering training programmes, organising them and doing research. I have also been assigned administrative duties, so I look after the institute.

AC: Are there many such institutes across the country? How many police and prison officials does your institute train?
UL: Our institute is one among others. There is one in Vellore [Tamil Nadu] and one in Kolkata [West Bengal] for prison officers. For police, there are many at the central and state levels.

We [at ICA, Chandigarh] on average train 600 police officers and prison staff, per year. For our one-day programs, we have a large number [of trainees]. For other programs, we have a smaller number. Some trainees could be repeaters. There is a training calendar, but sometimes the same officer is nominated for different training courses.

AC: What is the kind of training that the institutes offer, in terms of duration as well as curriculum?
UL: First of all, to be very frank, training is on a very low priority for state governments. My personal take is that you can give a lot of funds to police and prison departments but unless you develop their human resources, you will not have much headway in terms of their service delivery—because these are ultimately a service organisation. That is my take on why we need an emphasis on training.

The basic year-long trainings are done for the police at police academies. We do not do that. Our kind of institutes offer specialised training. The focus of any training program is primarily in relation to priorities, such as a focus on their technical and legal skills. Whenever some new law or amendment comes in, even before they have actually come into effect, say POCSO [Prevention Of Children from Sexual Offenses Act of 2012], or POSH [Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013], the officers are supposed to know the law, since they are to implement and follow it. So, our focus is also on updating officers on the amendments and any new legal changes that are there, and develop their orientation towards the implementation of those laws.

The second aspect we focus is on human-resource skills. A lot of focus in our training programmes will be on attitudinal change, like stress management, gender sensitisation and behavioural skills. Those are important aspects which they will not have too much [training for] in their police academies.

So, if we are to implement human rights, it is not just about the theoretical aspects of what the law says, which is very important for them to understand, but also to have some basic exercises, to enable them to actually be able to listen to people. That becomes very important at the grassroots level—whether you [as a police officer] are actually listening to complainants or not. Those are the behavioural skills in terms of how you communicate. For prison officials, how do you communicate with inmates?

Of course, we cannot make them counsellors in short training programs, but we try to give some basic skills of empathy and listening, which are very important. So, our training relates to their psychological understanding, legal aspects and human relation skills.

AC: There is ample evidence of the abuse of power by the various police departments. As a trainer, when you first encounter officers as a training starts, do you find that they have a high level of empathy, listening skills, human relation skills, or is there a lot of work to be done?
UL: I am sure you are aware that there is a lot of work to be done. In trainings for police officers, the debate that happens is about whether you need to have fear or how else to create respect [for yourself as an officer]. Because once you are using your coercive power, you feel that it is fine, [they say] “everybody listens to us rather than we listening to them.” Because we have inherited a colonial [policing] structure, the mentality of changing from being masters to actually persons who are there to serve, this requires a whole different orientation.

In the first two days [of training] you encounter a whole lot of resistance [from the trainees]. Unlearning is very important. And unless that unlearning happens, new learning can’t take place. You have to rewind and unlearn a lot of what you have learned. A lot of them say that what occurs in their basic training programmes and academy levels is dehumanising—the language used and the behaviour that is there. There is a lot of desensitisation in the programmes. So, creating sensitivity then takes some time. It is challenging.

Every person is different. In a group of twenty you will encounter a few who are totally resistant [to the training] and a few who are not. The younger lot will be more open and receptive. Being open to learning is very important.

Attitudes are the hardest things to change, whether it is for a person in the police or for any other common, public person. Attitudes do not change overnight. They do require the constant hammering and drilling and constant reinforcement. Our institute is not at all hierarchical. The police is a very hierarchical setup. So, initially you are amazed that they are very rank conscious. And that is part of our Indian societal structure because we are very hierarchical in many ways.

So, if I talk about the right to equality in the Constitution, equality means that you treat everyone, including your juniors, as at least equal to you. You can have the law but how do you translate that into behaviour? Ultimately, what I have found is that, if we are able to hammer in some things that set them thinking for some time about what they are doing, then that may be the beginning of change. Otherwise, once you go back to the same environment [of the police station or prison], the same rut, the orientation [of the officers] reverts back.

AC: Could you speak more to the nature of the training or curriculum? Does it involve books, role-play activities, group discussions? What tends to work, what stays with them?
UL: Adult learning principles are very different from what you teach to college or university people, or the youngsters. Training that is very interactive and participative works fantastically. What I find really works well are role-plays. Role-plays, making them members of the public, getting them to enact out scenes, then realising how the victim feels when they are treated in that manner, that works. So, some of them will act out as police in the thana—police station. A thana kind of setup will be reproduced. And then getting observers to react and respond in terms of what they felt and what they would do differently. So, those are where they participate and get an insight. That has an impact. They come back after that, some of them respond, that this is what we learnt and this is how we responded the next time.

Group discussions work; on topics such as, “You cannot have effective policing without human-rights violations.” So, we have some people arguing from one side and others from the other side. They [these discussions] generate excitement and interest. That is the beginning part of it. Training has to get you interested in the subject.

I think one of the very good trainings that was there, which we had done with the British Council, NHRC [National Human Rights Commission] and others was “human rights and interviewing skills” and “human rights and custody management.” Those were skills that they [the officers] would not even know—would not even know how to question, [ask] simple questions [to complainants or those in custody]. I would say that a large majority of policemen do not know how to conduct simple, open and close questions. So, practicing on those is important—to understand how you can get the correct information. If you use torture you will not get the correct information.

In terms of methodologies for adults, the participative kind of training is much more effective. When they [the trainees] are discussing in a group that enhances their assertiveness skills, because these are very hierarchical organisations. It gets them to start thinking that if there is a death in custody, how it affects not just that one individual person but also that person’s family, the department, and society. Those are the things that personally for me, if it affects even 20 percent of them [the trainees], then that should lead to better results.

It is important to have the courage [as a police officer] to say “no” to wrongful orders. They often have political pressure, and pressure from their senior officers, to use wrongful methods such as custodial torture. They are told that you have to investigate this crime in so much time and get a confession, so they use torture. Torture is common. So, if you are saying do not use torture, what is the alternative method? Therein comes the process of interviewing skills. That is where the “human rights and interviewing skills” program that we had done with the British Council had emerged from.

At the end of the day, when there is a death in the custody then who is accountable for it? It would not be the politician or the senior officer. It will be the officer who has implemented [the order]. What are the consequences of that behaviour? So, you get them to start thinking about it, that ultimately it is affecting my family. And they come out and say “Yes, this happened in our state, this person was in our prison, and this is the consequence of it.” “Is this action legal,” that is a very important question to ask yourself [as a police officer]. “Was the force, if you used it, proportionate?” “Did you document everything properly?” All those things become very important.

AC: How diverse do these groups tend to be during the exercises and discussions—in terms of gender, religion or caste? And how valuable have you found diversity of the trainees to be to these trainings?
UL: The police departments nominate officers. We request that they represent, say an adequate number of women officers. We do not mention caste though. Officers of different ranks participate. People come from a mix of religious backgrounds. I find women get less nominated for training programs, and that is for many reasons. For instance, the woman will have to leave her home if the training is out of the state.

Sometimes, officers who really require trainings, may not want to be there for training. Because it removes them from their jobs at that point in time, and there is that fear that they will get transferred out, if they are in lucrative posts. In some courses we have some fifty, sixty people from different states. And that helps them appreciate what is happening in other states and what are the practices there. In other training programs we have twenty or so people in a group. If it is too large a group, it is more challenging in terms of the impact we can have. More than 25 becomes too big. With smaller groups, you can have more impact and better quality participation.

Having a diverse group, ideally speaking, is fantastic. That really enhances the training programme. And as a trainer you have to be able to establish the ground rules on the first day—that you have to respect each other’s viewpoints, and there has to be an equal opportunity for everyone to speak up.

AC: It is plausible that the officers participating in these courses sometimes come in with prejudices, say towards people of a different religious identity. Do you have observations of whether there are such officers whose thinking has changed as a result of the training? Or is that too optimistic?
UL: The states I am dealing with, Himachal for instance, is very ideal. Prejudices partly depend on the particular state. So, things depend on which states people are coming from and the social structure prevalent in that particular state.

About prejudices, how do you remove them? The more you interact with someone the more you realise how similar you are in terms of being a human being. Those biases, the pre-conceived notions that are there may get broken. That is the time you start reflecting and interacting. That is of course an ideal situation. The emphasis is that you are duty-bound to act according to the law. It will take a long time for that situation to become, to treat everyone as equal, because time and again one sees different events [involving officers showing prejudice] happening.

AC: How does one measure the impact of trainings? You mentioned positively influencing 20 percent of trainees—how does one measure that? How can one see if this person has become, say, more gender sensitive after this week-long training, and they will retain that empathy not for ten more days but ten more years?
UL: Training is a continuous process; it is not a one-time event. It has to be a continuous process of development. More training and constant training is required. What is also missing is psychological help and counselling for the officers. Crisis intervention is needed for them because they have to put up this façade of being part of a macho organisation. They are dealing with situations that are not normal, of human beings and human problems at the worst levels. We are assuming that they will help others, but no one is helping them.

With prison officers, I had very close, constant training and constant interactions. I would like to share one example of the impact of our training. We ask at the end of training programmes, “What will you change, what are the two things you would like to do once you return to your work?” The first few months when we started the training there was a lot of resistance [among these trainees]. There was a lot of laughing, especially from the older officers who were used to running the prisons based on their whims and fancies, that “Dr Lalli, she does not know anything about prison administration and she is telling us about human-rights issues.”

Now [among these prison officers], there is more [of a culture of] competing [with other prison officers] based on good practices: that we have initiated this, or we have done something where they [the prisoners] can expose their talent. The pride that comes is from doing good work. It does not develop from torturing someone. Within your own colleagues you can brag about it [torturing prisoners]. To the public, your goodwill comes from good work. Your development comes from developing others.

That is the ideal message [for the trainees], but how you make them imbibe that message is through showing examples of other officers who have improved their prisons, and now those prisons are known for good practices. There have to be a set of positive role models within their own departments. That is very important. Those are the subtle ways in which you get them to reflect on, imbibe, and model their behaviour on. It is satisfying at the end of the day. Sometimes it is disillusioning also. You find that this person does not change. The ideal situation would be that there will not be any torture, no corruption. But it does happen.

AC: One of your areas of expertise is psychology. Events such as the 2020 Delhi violence, which involved police brutality specifically against Muslims, suggest a deep problem at the level of training. For a police officer complicit in the violence, what role can training play? Has such a person never received training? Is he beyond training?
UL: We do not have any psychological tests done at the time of their selection [to the police force]. So, there could be some who are more prone to this kind of behaviour. When you have encounter specialists being [role] models that gives a very wrong signal to the police officers. You can’t have that.

[The impact of] training is limited because we do not end up changing structural factors. Structural changes have to come from within an organisation—changes such as the separation of law and order from the investigation bit; having specialised police officers dealing with crimes against women. You can’t measure your police just by the number of new vehicles you have. These structural reforms that are needed are the elephants in the room.

Leadership is very important in police departments in particular. Because it is a hierarchical system from top to bottom, the message does go down. Having a message, on gender issues, or corruption, or this kind of behaviour [in anti-Muslim violence], what is the signal, the tacit communication that is there? What are you communicating to the person under you? That is very important because they listen to the top man. So, for top officers, it is important for them to be very clear about how they communicate. And then, accountability for such actions [complicity in anti-Muslim violence] is very important. Because if there is no accountability, that behaviour pattern continues.

I am a proponent of restorative justice. Restorative policing involves listening and pre-empting any kind of problems that occur. Once you have done something because of which society gets only more divided [such as anti-Muslim violence], then it is a slur on your department. When you have acted like this, you have not acted based on the law, you have broken your own police rules. Inculcating it [lawful behaviour] in your daily practices is very important. These aberrations [participation in anti-Muslim violence] does not happen just as one-off actions.

The abuse of power and force always targets the weakest, it will never be against powerful individuals. You will never find an instance of torture of a gangster; same with custodial deaths. It is mostly the poorest and most vulnerable who are most affected.

This interview has been edited and condensed.