Cop in the Crossfire reviewed

Lalin Fernando, courtesy of the Island

Pic from Sunday Tiemes of Gunaratne presentinga book to Sylvester Joseph

Merril Gunaratne’s brilliant ‘Cop in the Cross Fire’ is a book that covers some of the most important areas that affect policing in SL. It makes fascinating reading. It examines the working of multifarious intelligence agencies (NIB.SIS, SB, DIBs and those of the forces like the very effective DMI and suggests ways and means to improve and reorganize National Intelligence. (Is it to be modelled on the clandestine FBI?). He discusses leadership in the police and its hydra headed challenges and recounts riveting interludes with politicians and criminals (in no special pecking order).This last should warm the cockles of many long suffering upright citizens. It has lessons amongst others on organizing high profile VIP visits and Police welfare that has for long been the Achilles heel of the service. It further offers insights into those who made police history both good and otherwise since the 1960s.

This book must be read by all those interested and concerned, whatever side they are on, in the never ending ‘cross fire’ between the guardians of the law and those hell bent in subverting not only the law but the entire judicial system in SL. No one who is, was, or hopes to be a leader of either tribe in SL can risk not reading it! Despite the dark clouds that loom it also shows that there are eminently capable people in the police who have knowledge, character, experience and desire (or is it ‘intention’ as the police emphasise?) to effect change for the public good. All is not lost.

When I informed my army friends that I had been invited for the launch of the book, those who knew him, (there were many) with no exception responded ‘Merril was a good man’. Normally a non regimental officer of that calibre would be referred to as ‘not a bad guy’. Only officers of one’s own regiment would be called a ’good man’. That spontaneous and pithy description of Merril is the highest that could be given by army officers. It is exceptionally rare. They further said he was a super cop, unafraid to do the right thing, forthright, virtuous, effective and exemplary officer. Their views of many others at that level and higher in any place are normally far less charitable and occasionally contemptuous. The book had to be a good one. It was.

The ‘launch’ did not disappoint. Gunaratne revealed that the need for this, his second book, was as a consequence of the recent contemptible events in the police log especially the chaotic violence at the FTZ Katunayake, the unspeakable brutality of the Dompe excesses and the Welikada imbroglio. The book seeks to shed light on why the leadership of the police (have some bureaucrats been masquerading as senior officers?) has been unable to prevent or avoid such debilitating debacles that have occurred recently with increasing frequency. It shows police morale ebbing under the stress of overwhelming and perennial ‘crossfire’ between law and order and powerful bipartisan political elite and assorted sycophants that suborn their leadership.

The launch was not only well timed given the many crisises that have dogged the police, not the least being the ridiculous ‘resignation’ of the former IGP after the FTZ fiasco. The launch was also extremely well received, not only by the many senior serving and retired Police officers amongst a cross section of respected public figures and ex military brass privileged and happy to be present. The author’s own facile, erudite and cerebral address without a script contributed in no small measure to the tenor and success of the launch. It was well supported with humour by Gaston de Rosayro (compere) and the chief guest Mano Chanmugam. The presence of the IGP NK Illangakoon, the former Commandant of the STF was opportune. He is by all reports a very hard nosed, forthright and battle hardened professional. Apparently he is also taciturn which is unusual for most SL chiefs who never miss a chance to wax eloquent. Hopefully Gunaratne’s message both spoken and given indelibly and in detail in his book would be taken to the highest precincts where it should matter most.

The book covers in incisive and emphatic detail Gunaratne’s experiences and responses as a leader with exceptional operational and leadership skills in 35 years of a full and mostly rewarding life of service. It offers a valuable insight into the life, times, adventures, high points and tribulations of a graduate entry ASP from Police Training School through district (ASP), division (SP/SSP) and regional commands (DIG) and two postings to the MOD, one as Director General Intelligence and Security (DGIS) in 1985-8 and the other as a Senior DIG as ‘Defence Advisor’ in 2002-4. He insists he was actually coordinating the National Intelligence Services in the latter post and his military style title was a complete ‘misnomer’. He was nonplussed that the then Prime Minister saw him only twice in his tenure. This was probably because Gunaratne did not compromise his professional integrity by giving reports of comfort and joy about the intentions of the LTTE.

Gunaratne’s illustrious year career ended very sadly. Quite in character, he politely refused a unique farewell ceremonial parade on the Police grounds instead of the normal guard of honour for senior DIGs at Police HQ. That was his way of responding to the indignities he suffered just before the close of play. He as a Senior DIG no less had been sent on ‘compulsory leave’ shortly before. He returned to the service only to be given a back handed posting to the Depot Police instead of Police HQ as befitting his rank and only after a civil court verdict that stated it was a ‘highly illegal and arbitrary order’. Compulsory leave would appear to be a penance and occupational hazard for officers especially those judged outstanding by their peers and the public.

The ‘cross fire’ in the book refers not to the battle field, silent since 2009, but challenges to a policeman’s duty, integrity, impartiality and honour from powerful forces. These latter are both corrupt politicians and self seeking, weak minded superiors who have abandoned the straight and narrow. Gunaratne while revealing various aspects of the response of the police leadership at different levels to such pressures shows the deleterious effect it has on the service especially the weaker policemen. They, who would have had high ideals, ambition and a sense of honour when they joined the police, succumb selfishly to fear, greed or temptation, abandoning the public they were duty bound to serve. He believes very strongly that when the top brass of the police meekly compromise themselves to survive, they encourage the weaker members to become shameless.

He believes that senior officers must share responsibility not only for successes but also the failures of their men. He goes as far to say that seniors must also back their subordinates even when they do ‘evil’ in the line of duty for the protection of the public. It is a dilemma that confronts good, strong leaders whose interpretation of and commitment to duty, nation, service and their men is challenged by seniors who have dishonoured the service for the proverbial mess of (political) pottage. He believes those seniors who actively look beyond their police jobs for further government employment after retirement, compromise their command while in service and ridicule it. They in turn, little do they know, are held in contempt by their subordinates and also the public.

There are situations that show in ample measure his character, courage, knowledge, initiative, sense of duty to get a job done well and his uncompromising attitude to breaches of law and interference in the line of duty by anyone however high and mighty. The last includes at least four Executive Presidents, a ‘pretender’ to that post and two popular high profile Cabinet Ministers who were killed by the LTTE. Being an officer and gentleman he elaborates sufficiently but does not go overboard. Yet it takes little imagination to know where the rot that affects the police and the public service if not the nation begins. Some seniors cave in. He does not succumb to such pressures even when he could have profited by doing so as when he had to report confidentially to the President on a petition about a senior just above him who was awaiting promotion. He asked that the report be done by someone else. The senior was promoted. He did not follow a survival at any cost, ‘I am alright Jack’ course.

With the war ended, the citizens sleep at night without fear because of the police. Yet the police most often make news only for its failures while its many and exceptional successes are less well known. It must be remembered that the police reflect society and not the other way round. The man who offers a bribe is just as guilty if not more so than the man (most often a lowly paid policeman or public servant who gets caught) who accepts it. The police do or try to do what the public expects them to do. Unfortunately in SL the public often takes the law into their own hands. Parents, teachers and clergy have singularly failed to arrest this situation at its incipient stage but it is the police that is blamed for the misdeeds of the citizens and are expected to correct them. When police excesses occur, SL society should reflect on its own conduct, its attitude to crime and the police, its bullying nature (especially of the weak and powerless) and its support or otherwise to the police. This does not however excuse in any way inhuman acts committed by the police especially during times of civil unrest and insurgencies. Unfortunately the police have become convenient whipping posts for an exceedingly ill disciplined, lawless, shameless and corrupt society who give little support to the lawmen to maintain law and order.

Gunaratne does not tread lightly. There are two points he has brought up that deserve special mention. He shows a rare mix of revolutionary far sightedness and humility when he suggests that probationary graduate ASPs (he was one) should begin working at Inspector level in a police station for at least three years and prove themselves in the nitty gritty of police work and man management before becoming ASPs on appointment as at present. This is so that they could be more effective and possibly not novice and ineffective, appendages, keeping well apart from the men during their probation. It is a controversial but excellent suggestion that would be well received by the Inspectorate, the back bone of the police. It could in the future for reasons given, be central to the effectiveness and image of the police which has suffered grievously under the existing system.

Gunaratne also draws attention to what has for long been considered a sacred cow, the Police Commission. He points out succinctly that while the Commission’s role in controlling iniquities, injustice and partiality is ‘salutary’ its power to prevent the immediate transfer of policemen for disciplinary reasons undermines the IGP’s and his deputies’ authority and impinges on their responsibility for the performance of the police. There cannot be divided responsibility at the top if the police are to succeed.

A note of caution with regard to promotions based purely on seniority may not be out of place. Gunaratne suggests monetary rewards for meritorious acts instead of promotion. In a service that needs the best at the top this could result in fast runners hanging around demoralised or seeking fresh pastures while undeserving senior(s) bat stolidly and ineffectively on until retirement, possibly blocking more deserving officers. Seniority does matter but it must be tempered with merit. Otherwise the best of the younger officers could wilt awaiting their promotions. When they reach the top eventually, they will be too exhausted by the climb and simply fall down.

Several riveting descriptions are included including defusing in an exemplary manner potentially explosive riots in Beruwela (1991) winning the plaudits of all concerned. The founding of, role and daring of the crack STF is well described. There was a very dangerous hostage crisis (FTZ Biyagama) that ended peacefully with the use of psychological tactics including a thinly veiled STF reconnaissance Overwhelming force could have been justified but Gunaratne knew the mindset of the first time ‘union’ terrorists. The visit of Pope John Paul II (1995) was so well organized that the Holy See “had ranked (it) one of the best in the whole series of 64 pilgrimages undertaken by the Pontiff”. The reorganization of the Police hospital and the facilities for retired police officers made it a model even for the SL Ex Servicemen’s Association at one time. The 24 hour non stop action high lights the pressures, tensions, responses and frustrations in ‘Cop shops ‘.On reading the book one has a better and more appreciative insight of the police and the contribution made by Gunaratne. I re read it.

All of it makes super reading but more so it is a book that records police history that must not be forgotten. Especially if the ghosts of the respected past illustrious leaders are not to haunt the service. It also analyses well the stirring issues that affected those who served during three decades of terrorist war. Gunaratne has done a yeoman service not only for the police but the general public as well.

Much of the country’s future depends on the attitude and effectiveness of the police, despite the power of the spoilers. Gunaratne has made sure thankfully that at least some of the people that matter do not forget that. The future of the country must include a well led, educated, effective, friendly, impartial, courageous, independent, well paid and technologically well equipped police service. Society must contribute to that ideal without fear or favour. Without the committed and unqualified support of the public the police can never succeed. The choice between law and order and lawlessness is for society to make. Gunaratne quite rightly believes good leadership in the police and in the nation will be crucial for success if the right choice is made.

(The reviewer is a retired Major General of the Sri Lanka Army)

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Filed under historical interpretation, life stories, LTTE, politIcal discourse, power politics, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, terrorism

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