Lack of training, modern equipment takes toll on Police | Sunday Observer

Lack of training, modern equipment takes toll on Police

On June 22, it was business as usual at the Nileka Jewellery Store in Matara. But around 10 am when an armed group wearing full face helmets entered its premises, a call to 119 hotline by a member of the public alerted the Police to the robbery that was underway at one of the popular jewellery stores in the town.

The ensuing encounter between the policemen responding to the call and 10 armed robbers, later identified as underworld members left one cop dead and several others injured. But, as the CCTV footage of the incident was later released, the scenes of what appeared to be ill equipped cops being overwhelmed by the armed robbers sent shock waves among the public.

Police Sergeant Suranga Pradeep Weerasinghe (36) who was not wearing a bulletproof vest at the time was seen physically trying to prevent the brazen robbers from getting away, only to be gunned down by what appeared to be a sophisticated weapon. Witnesses later claimed Weerasinghe, a former Police Special Task Force (STF) personnel appeared to be unarmed while nabbing one of the weapons used by the criminals. The Police identified it as an Israeli manufactured Mini Uzi submachine gun, a weapon popularly used by military and law enforcement the world over, including Sri Lanka. As many members of the public were quick to point out, gone are the days of ‘galkatas’ (a type of locally manufactured gun) and iron rod brandishing underworld goons with many now possessing state of the art weapons instead.

As the Police rank and file visited Weerasinghe’s home to pay their last respects, even in her despair at the loss of her husband the Police Sergeant’s wife was seen pleading with visiting officers to at least provide cops responding to similar incidents with some form of personal body armour to prevent deaths of Policemen in the future.

Following the incident, many members of the public too felt the same. Venting their anger on social media sites such as Facebook, some questioned the outdated uniforms of the Police and the lack of modern equipment to respond to an emergency situation. Others suggested, it was time to introduce SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) teams to respond to high risk tasks.

Drawing parallels between modern policing forces such as, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police which uses bullet proof vests as armour while being equipped with weapons such as Smith & Wesson Model 5946 pistols, Glock semi automatic pistols, various types of assault rifles, tasers, pepper sprays and expandable batons, sources within the Sri Lankan Police force pointed out that the Sri Lanka Police on the other hand are stuck with heavy and outdated body armour which limits movement, while commonly using T56 assault rifles, the Chinese manufactured NP 22 Norinco pistol which they claim is prone to constant stoppages and old fashioned batons.

This incident, therefore, has now given rise to a public dialogue on upgrading the Police to suit modern law enforcement needs, especially, in the face of a far more and well armed underworld mafia.

While the Police in recent times announced a uniform change as a simple but initial step, not only to introduce a better suited outfit for the purpose of modern day law enforcement but to also change public perception about the force, the project now appears to be stalled leaving the Police stuck in their traditional khaki uniforms which cannot hold weapons without a holster. “I doubt the project will go ahead” an informed source of the Police said when contacted by the Sunday Observer, adding that with the Ministerial change the idea appears to be scrapped.

The proposed and much larger Rs. 5 billion worth plan to modernise the Police, suggested in 2017, appears to have gone the same way despite an office being set up for the purpose and tenders being called. “That too was cancelled” the Police source admitted. While it remains unclear if any former plans to upgrade the Police service continues, speaking about body armour he claimed they have been distributed to Police Stations across the island. “The issue is, most do not wear them” he said. But when questioned he admitted that the existing vests were heavy and could be cumbersome. “To counter this issue perhaps, the Police should buy new and lighter vests” he suggested admitting that the ones currently being used were those issued to the Police during the country’s conflict years.

Expressing his views on the weapons being used by the Police, the officer said he believes, they are currently sufficient to maintain law and order in a country such as Sri Lanka. “The only issue is when encountered by advanced weapons, such as those used in the Matara incident” he said. The Police force, he admitted has not imported any new weapons in recent years. A fact Police Spokesperson SP Ruwan Gunasekara agrees with.

“It is not an issue with the Police not having weapons” he said adding that, they are in possession of adequate weaponry. According to him encountering a powerful weapon such as in the Matara incident is not a common occurrence for the law enforcement units as being portrayed by the media and others.

However, the initial police source also revealed that plans are rife to introduce a new and updated belt, next year, which can hold different types of weapons. “Tenders have been called for the purpose” he said.

According to a respected and top ranking officer currently serving in the Police, who admitted that the Police service needs to be modernised, though the current issue lay not with the weaponry nor the armour, but with the management of resources. “We have enough weapons and even powerful ones to respond to arms such as, the Mini Uzi” he said, alleging that however, its distribution and management has been severely mismanaged by the Police Armoury.

When the Sunday Observer inquired from several chosen police stations, they claimed the station was never issued with body armour and therefore, they do not possess any bullet proof vests, while responding to similar incidents.

The lack of any emergency response teams to take on high risk situations, other than the STF has also been highlighted. According to the officer, it is high time a team such as the SWAT teams in the US are introduced in Sri Lanka. “They will be better equipped and trained to deal with these situations” he said.

Addressing the calls to provide police officers with newer and advanced weapons and equipment SP Gunasekara says, the Police can neither deny nor fully accept the statement. “The issue is that currently Sri Lanka Police is focusing on a community policing model” he said, adding that therefore ,every officer cannot be kitted up with weapons as officers need to be approachable to the general public.

Pointing out that not every modern weapon used by the police in other countries is suitable to Sri Lanka, Gunasekara says, its suitability should be checked prior to introduction. “It all depends on each area of the country as well” he noted.

In the light of the recent event, the Ministry of Law and Order now says it has recognised the need for an updated and modern Police force equipped with technology and state of the art weaponry to successfully respond to calls of assistance from the public.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Deputy Minister of Law and Order, Nalin Bandara said, in the post conflict period the Police has been tasked with the serious responsibility of maintaining the law and peace within the country. “Therefore, we understand the need to strengthen the Department by giving the officers the necessary equipment and facilities” the Minister said adding that upgrading of uniforms, equipment and infrastructure will be looked into.

According to Chairman of the Police Commission, P.H. Manatunga, all relevant authorities are now receiving the expertise of foreign consultants such as, from the Scottish Police for the purpose. “A plan to modernise the Police and introduce reforms is underway” he said, adding that however, the basic requirements cannot be neglected for the purpose of modernisation. He admitted that the Police does need to be modernised by introducing new policing methods used the world over.

According to Deputy Minister Bandara, currently, a new plan to modernise the Police is also being formulated, led by the Minister of Law and Order, Ranjith Madduma Bandara. “The government is focused on eliminating the crime spree and drug menace prevailing in the country” he said, adding that a more modern Sri Lanka Police force with a new look will be introduced in the near future.