Imagine, the unassuming woman next to you at the bus stop can be a Shadows police officer

In the past two years, the women police officers attached to the plainclothes squad of the Thiruvananthapuram city police, Shadows, have witnessed the sleazy side of urban life, perhaps more than their male counterparts.

Anonymous men have mistakenly solicited them on the street for paid sex. Strangers have made physical passes at them in crowded transport buses.

Males have furtively captured their pictures on mobile-phone cameras. Petty criminals have attempted to snatch their bags.

Most such “aggressors” have ended up in police custody. Some, depending on the gravity of the offence, have been warned, accounted for at the local police station and let off with a fine. The others have been arrested and remanded in judicial custody.

A team of woman civil police officers, all with not less than 10 years of experience in law enforcement, form the cutting edge of City Police Commissioner P. Vijayan’s special task force to make the city safe for women.

Stakeout

Working under cover, they spend most of their duty hours on stakeout in urban neighbourhoods notorious for crime. Operating in tandem with their male colleagues, they use classic crime-busting techniques: intelligence collection, unmarked vehicles, secret surveillance, sting operations and hidden cameras to book offenders.

The “daily work register” of the squad, a detailed log of the Shadows team’s activities, maintained studiously at the office of the Circle Inspector, Control Room, A. Pramod, who supervises the unit, is an everyday account of the capital’s underbelly.

One entry details how Shadows, on the basis of information provided by its sources on the street, arrested a flasher, an exhibitionist who exposes in public, near a girl’s school. Another describes how they came across an impoverished family of migrants, all alms-seekers, pouring liquor to their girl children.

On the face of it, the women Shadows members, when at work, are indistinguishable from the civilians they are tasked to protect and serve. Over the past two years, they have perfected the tradecraft of undercover police work.

A squad member says the key to maintaining her cover is not to appear cocky, a giveaway, and make herself unremarkable. “Allow them (potential offenders) to underestimate you. Do not let them see you coming,” she says.

They conceal their police wireless sets in their handbags to be taken out only in the event of an urgent need for back-up or to convince those they have detained that they are indeed law enforcers.

Gathering intelligence

Intelligence collection is the squad’s mainstay. Much of their duty revolves around making visits to schools, interacting with teachers and parents, speaking to saleswomen employed at malls, textile shops, fuel outlets and jewellery showrooms and cultivating shopkeepers, autorickshaw and taxi drivers, students and women commuters, first as friends and later as voluntary informants.

A Shadows officer says there are more to city bus stops and terminals than what meets the eye. “At a bus stop, if a woman does not board a bus or hail an autorickshaw, there is a good chance that she could be approached by men willing to pay for sex,” she says. It is an experience common to most women of the squad. “Some back off when we tell them we are not sex workers. Few do not and they end up in police custody,” she says.

Spotting runaways and school students who bunk classes are everyday tasks Shadows excels at. “Young boys and girls in civil clothes often approach us asking money for bus fare to return home on the pretext they had misplaced their wallets. We pay them and tail them to nearby theatres or restaurants. Invariably, they would have their school uniforms in their bags and their parents and teachers are informed,” an officer says.

The volume of street-level intelligence generated by the squad is impressionable, says a senior officer.

The police know, to an extent, where intravenous drug abusers meet to share “dope,” which nooks of school campuses in the city are venues for “bring your own bottle” parties, the hottest spot to procure marijuana safely and electronic shops which upload porn content on mobile phones for money.

Till November this year, Shadows has detected 354 offences, a testimony to their professionalism. Assistant Commissioner P. Bijoy heads the unit.

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