The tragic death of Amal Umer on the eve of Aug 14 in a crossfire between robbers and police, notorious for dozens of questionable encounters, has once again brought to light a range of issues confronting policing: the application of excessive force, choice of weapons and ammunition and training of personnel under a critical review.
In the aftermath of the Amal tragedy, the police conceded a police weapon hit her. This followed calls for replacing the police assault rifle AK-47, with another suitable weapon.
DIG South Karachi Javed Odho says in any law enforcement force, weapon transition is a long process, involving serious discussions, reviews and intense new weapon training. “The police have already started arming patrols, like Anti Street Crime Unit, with pistols and SMGs.”
The decision to deploy sidearms and shotguns as a weapon of choice is good, at least from the point of view of optics — the gun-toting cops lined up like a firing squad at every nook and corner of the city, give the impression of living and working in a concentration camp. The handguns look less intimidating.
Experts believe though relatively easier to manage, rifles and SMGs, with greater kinetic energy, give a deeper penetration to the bullet, making it more dangerous than a pistol shot. Odho says, “Longer the engagement, greater the danger to the public and policemen.”
The DIG, however, says the inherent complication in adapting to pistols as a primary weapon is the preponderance of assault weapons in the society. In case a policeman is confronted with criminals or terrorists, armed with Kalashnikovs, certainly pistol is not a suitable defence “against its superior and deadly firepower”.
He adds, the SMGs cannot be written off but are being deployed in a suitable mix with pistols. “The pistol jerk is the biggest bane. To overcome it, consistent training is required. A slight jerk can translate into the fire going 11-12 inches in any direction, posing serious risks to a collateral victim.”
Avoiding collateral damage is critical to any policing. The police training protocols wean them off the “gun-belt” and the impulsive self-defence centred “frontal assault” mindset.
Little Amal became a blood curdling tragedy when police fired back at the bandits who had robbed her family. The shootout left a robber dead and Amal seriously hurt. While all know the disturbing details, the natural question is, why the application of force was so necessary?
On the face of it, the police acted in self-defence when fired upon by the alarmed robbers. The police SOP for using “deadly force” against an assailant is premised on “retaliatory fire of an equal and opposing force”. Undoubtedly, the deadly force encounters are very fluid and involve extreme stress. And, the safety of an officer is more important than of an assailant. The officer must repel the attack.
That is where the training to control motor reflexes shows its benefits. Those operating in high-risk circumstances are expected to demonstrate higher degree of situational awareness. In case of an armed engagement, senior officers underline identifying the target, and particularly those behind it, before steadying the gun. If there are several bystanders, the protocols advise against engaging with an armed criminal. A reckless spray of fire would only invite disaster.
Hopefully a detailed investigation into Amal’s case will determine if the police violated the SOP or the tragedy was unavoidable.
Some lessons must be learnt. Considering the nature of injuries to the child, ballistic experts question the use of high velocity and high energy AK-47 bullets (Kalashnikov). If such a bullet misses, ricochets or over-penetrates, bystanders are most likely to get hurt. DIG South Javed Odho agrees, “There is a stronger need to change the ammunition to protect the lives of civilians as well as the policemen confronting the assailant”.
It is a tricky debate on what is a ‘better’ weapon and ammunition used by a force. Here, we try to describe some in generic sense with reference to safety of the human victim.
There are different types of bullets used by law enforcement agencies the world over, varying in size and weights. Two types — Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) and Hollow Point (HP) are commonly used.
The AK-47 bullet, 7.62 mm, is categorised as FMJ. It has a brass jacket surrounding the inner lead projectile, making it ideal to pierce deeper. It can even penetrate metallic armour. In the case of Amal, the bullet entered from the car’s trunk, passed through the rear seat and the child, and dropped after shattering the front windscreen.
Both the UK and US police use hollow point (HP) ammunition that “does not overly penetrate deeper as it expands like a mushroom upon colliding with the target and also does not ricochet after hitting concrete walls or pavements”. While it is preferred to avoid collateral damage, the HP is banned under the Hague Convention of 1899 for military use owing to its serious nature of injuries, but that does not however apply to police.
Besides the type of weapons and ammunition, it is cardinally important for officers to be psychologically stable, who drive pleasure in drawing out the weapon and spraying it impulsively. It seems our police have a tendency to go for the overkill in the heat of the moment.
Last year an administrative judge of the Anti Terrorism Court found police officers to be “misusing their power in at least six of the 20 cases of police encounters investigated”. The judge was told by the Central Police Office that in “six cases police were found to have transgressed their powers by violating the SOP and shooting the suspects after their arrest”. Our officers appear to be habitual users of excessive and deadly force.
Further, our system of law and justice glorifies officers notorious for staged encounters. The young officers consider them role models. Like the egg and chick theory, officers blame the courts for letting the criminals go scot-free, whereas the courts and even senior police officers term police investigation to be sloppy, leaving gaping holes for the defence to exploit.
The police reforms must lay strong emphasis on protecting the people and to de-escalate calamitous situations than defend the law enforcement officials and opting for summary executions. Only a behavourial change will turn the policing into a sensitive and humane service — not the change of uniforms as is being considered.
The seven-year-old Aqsa was killed over the last weekend in her school when she was hit by a stray bullet, fired from the nearby Police Training College, Saeedabad, Karachi. Tragically, she was hit in the back by a 9mm bullet when she was playing in her school ground. It was found that a cop accidentally ‘fired his pistol while cleaning it up’.
The irony is that such accidental or negligent discharges routinely happen around the world either due to lack of attention or poor training.
According to experts, it happens either when a bullet is left in the chamber unintentionally, despite the removal of the magazine, and it gets fired as functional testing or dry fire practice, or a trigger is pulled unintentionally when the gun is loaded. It could be poor maintenance as well.
Irrespective of whether it was an accidental or negligent discharge, it killed a child.