Settling drunken fights, conducting vehicle checks, controlling unstable people – there’s a lot on the night cop’s plate, discovers Ananth Krishnan
My tour guide for the night is the Sembium Assistant Commissioner Sivamani. He seems straight out of the movies, reinforcing all the cop stereotypes in my head. Grim, laconic and built like a pro wrestler with an iron handshake to match.
We are to make our rounds of Chennai’s most notorious crime spots tonight. After some awkward small talk about the weather and food prices, we set out at a half past eleven. I buckle myself into one of the swanky Hyundai patrol cars and we drive into the dark North Madras night.
Patrols go on what they call ‘crime prevention’ rounds every night until around 2 a.m. This includes checking out ‘disturbances’, conducting vehicle checks at random street corners and raiding the not-so-reputed establishments of the night.
We start at Basin Bridge and wind our way through the back streets of Vysarpadi. No street lights here; the faint blue glow of the cop-car lights up the streets, just enough for me to notice the crumbling roads. Was this Madras? It sure didn’t look like it. “There are two different cities. One (the South) has come up, the other has been completely left behind,” says Sivamani.
His walkie-talkie crackles into life at around half-past midnight when he’s told there’s a “disturbance” around five minutes away — our first piece of action. His partner turns on the siren and we speed away. My heartbeat goes into overdrive.
Sivamani tells me that most of the crimes in North Madras stem from drunken fights, and this one was no different. A fight started by a drunk, violent husband had spilled out into the street, and the neighbours had gotten involved. It had quickly turned into a 20-man mass brawl. Sivamani and his men wade in and calm it down with a few swishes of the lathi.
“If they closed the TASMACs for 10 days, we probably wouldn’t have a job to do,” says Sivamani. We leave it to his men to clear up the mess, and quickly make are way to the edge of Vyasarpadi, just in time to start the vehicle checks. Most of you are probably familiar with this — the infuriating personal questions: Where are you coming from?; Who are you with?; Are you both married?; If not, why aren’t you home?, etc. And, I resent being made to feel like a criminal every time I drive home from a party, I hate to admit. But it’s nice being on this side of the fence for once.
The checks stop at around half past two, and we make our way back to Basin Bridge for a rendezvous with the Joint Commissioner. On our way, on a quiet side street, we see a woman stumbling down the middle of the road. She collapses near a garbage bin, picks up mud from the ground and puts it all over her hair. Another woman is chasing her. “She has lost her mind, and her husband threw her out of the house because he thinks she’s possessed,” she tells us. A dilemma for the cops. The woman’s companion asks them to take her away, but they are reluctant to keep her overnight in the station. They decide it’s best to take the woman back to her husband and reason with him. She suddenly turns violent and attacks them, screaming abuses and scratching their faces. They finally manage to calm her down and take her home. “See what we have to deal with?” Sivamani’s partner asks me.
We’re back on the streets. It’s about 3 a.m., and time for the raids. We barge into a lodge by the railway station, a popular hunting ground for sex workers, I learn. The lobby’s deserted. The cops check the guest list and quiz the door man. Satisfied with his responses, we move on. After more rounds and checks, it’s close to 4 a.m. when we’re done.
We make our way back to Sivamani’s station for coffee. His men will be out on patrol till 6 a.m., and while they’re supposed to enjoy the morning off, most of them will report back to duty by late morning because there’s a widespread shortage of personnel. There’s no question: It’s a hard life. Long hours, poor pay and the constant companionship of the city’s biggest drunks and louts.
It’s certainly taken its toll on Sivamani. He looks exhausted and, back at his office, throws his gun down on his desk and collapses into a rickety chair. He tells me about some of the worst things he’s seen in 20 years on the beat. “What surprises me more than anything else is how cynical this job has made me,” he says. “I think we cops are programmed with this weird software. It makes us wake up every morning thinking about what this murderer is going to do today, or if that rapist will be let off in court. It makes us forget how to think about good people.”
After eight hours of cruising around with him and watching his men in action, this tired admission was, for me, by far the most revealing moment of the night.
For our last patrol of the night, we drive to the Secretariat and the High Court. By this time, I’m completely exhausted and can’t keep my eyes open. Rather embarrassingly, I doze off, and wake up to find that the sun’s already rising and we’re back at the station. Even more embarrassingly, I’m sprawled across the back seat of the patrol car in a rather undignified position. I jump up and mumble an apology. “It’s okay. We are tired too,” says Sivamani. “And we do this every night.”Nightlife ‘Crime prevention’ rounds last till 2.00 a.m. Raids on lodges where sex workers operate begin at 3.00 a.m.More checks and raids continue till sunrise