Former Director-General of Police, S. Sripall reminisces about the simpler times when petty thieves and burglars were the biggest enemies of the law

Successful police investigation rests on a combination of clever hunches and hard facts. After considerable fact-finding, a surmise often turns the last key in unlocking a mystery. The opposite is true as well – a series of sharp guesses can take an investigation forward. In such instances, it takes expertise and research to close out the case.

This interplay was remarkable in a case of robbery in a locality near St. Thomas Mount. In this instance, the burglar had brutally raped the lady of the house, who was alone. Distraught and angry, she was determined to bring the criminal to book. She did not want her family to know what had been done to her, but she took the police into confidence. Faeces on the floor were tell-tale sign that the robber belonged to a particular tribe. Burglars from this group followed the odd practice of relieving themselves after committing a crime. On a hunch, outlaws from the group active in another district were brought in for inquiry. The woman identified one of them: he owned up to the crime.

An understanding of behavioural psychology helped deter crime. It is common knowledge that criminals strike mostly between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., the time separating the end of the last cinema show and the movement of factory workers on morning shift. During the early 1980s, at my behest, inspectors would regularly go to select places and conduct mock ‘checks' around this critical hour. For example, an inspector and a retinue of constables would park themselves near the Anna Salai Roundtana and question passers-by. The inspector would also pretend to be calling certain police stations on a dummy phone. A few among the questioned – policemen under disguise – would be “taken into custody”. Invariably, such police checks are a topic of discussion at petty shops and therefore serve as a deterrent for potential thieves.

The Madras police have often had to use their imagination to execute their job excellently. In the 1980s, defecation on the sands of Marina was rampant. The police had to produce evidence of this despicable practice. Photos of the shoreline littered with human waste would not do. We had to get the locals in the act. But when we trained our cameras on them, they fled. We finally got some of our constables to line up on the Marina and pose for a photo!

Recognising patterns is vital in crime prevention: constables in Madras were encouraged to look for them. On the first of every month, pocket-picking would go up. On that day, policemen would question all those hanging around crowded areas in a suspicious manner. Most pickpockets wore no footwear in order to be nimble on their feet. As a result, those who went barefoot were closely watched.

In the late 1960s, rolling shutter thefts were rife. It was a novel form of burglary, where the rolling shutter of a shop would be lifted partially for a criminal to crawl in while two or more accomplices sat outside with woollen sheets wrapped over them, as if they were taking shelter from the cold of the night; however, they were only gathering the loot being passed on. These burglars struck at Vadapalani and a few other parts of Madras, but cases were reported from other parts of the State too. When we studied them, a pattern emerged. These criminals struck on Saturday nights. Policemen around the State were alerted and the kingpin of the gang, Amarnath from Kolkata, was nabbed in Madurai during a Saturday-night expedition orchestrated around the State.

Preparedness has been the Madras police's greatest strength and it has been generously praised for this. During a visit, a police officer from the United Kingdom narrated the horror of the fire accident at the Bradford City stadium (1985) that killed 56 of the spectators out to watch a football match. When we told him that every fifth constable on duty during events at sports stadiums in Madras carried five litres of water and a bucket of sand, he was surprised. Shaking his head, he said: ‘If we had known this earlier, we could have averted that disaster!' That's a compliment I cherish.