Clamping down on crime

The police’s perception of public safety and their own role is changing, but too slowly

May 15, 2017 12:02 am | Updated 12:27 am IST

The Nirbhaya ruling on May 5, where the Supreme Court confirmed the death penalty for four of the accused in the gang rape and murder case of a paramedical student in Delhi in 2012, is also an occasion to examine certain fundamental assumptions about policing. This takes into account protests after the incident that squarely blamed the Delhi Police for its failure to protect the victim. It is debatable whether the police alone were blameworthy here. Both the state and community at large have a role in shaping public safety, especially that of women and children.

A reading of Kautilya’s Arthashastra will help one understand the genesis of the state and how it needed to legitimise its authority through the evolution of the police as we know it today. The creation in 1829 of the Metropolitan Police in London and the setting up of a similar organisation in New York and other large cities in the U.S. paved the way for organising the police in many western democracies and for our own police forces set up by the British in the early 1900s. The focus of law enforcement was initially on disciplining unruly elements disturbing public peace rather than on hunting for criminals depriving others of their life and property. Crime was petty in those days, not requiring any sophisticated methods of investigation and detection. Now, it is not only widespread and violent but also sophisticated with the abundant use of technology. A fallout is rising fear in a community, especially among elders, women and children. It is my conviction that the police force must address this fear in a focussed manner. It is my lament that many unenlightened governments in our country do not evaluate police performance by this yardstick. Police pliability to serve political ends rates higher in their agenda.

A trust deficit

What does the common man expect of the police? Several surveys point to a demand for protection of life more than guarding individual property. With the phenomenal expansion of the geographic area to be policed and the mind-boggling increase in the number of lives to be guarded, the Indian police, more than in many western democracies, have been stretched and outnumbered. There are only about 140 policemen per 100,000 people, a very poor ratio when compared to other modern democracies.

The strongest criticism against the police is of their preoccupation with the problems of the political party in power and those of the rich and famous. This resonates with the dictum that all are equal (in a constitutional democracy), but some are more equal than the others. This is why the 10,000-odd police stations in the country are shunned by the better-off sections, who prefer organising themselves to ward off threats or buy safety services from other sources. The phenomenal rise in private security agencies accounts for the growing lack of trust in the state police. This is a shameful but real state of affairs in most of India.

Lessons from abroad

What is the way out? Drawing lessons from elsewhere in the world is not beneath the dignity of the Indian police. Learning in public administration is a recognised healthy exercise the world over. I am not for a moment suggesting that this is not happening at present. I am only pleading for a greater readiness to sink our egos and borrow from the best practices of foreign police organisations.

Two recent happenings — one each in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and the Metropolitan Police, London (Met) — come to mind readily. Under its legendary Commissioner, Bill Bratton, more than a decade ago, the NYPD instituted a COMPSTAT (short for COMPuter STATistics) programme, that analysed crime with the help of computers, identified crime hotspots and took preventive action, such as intensified patrolling. Police commanders in New York were made to report to the commissioner each week explaining how they were tackling crime in their jurisdictions. This mechanism not only brought about greater attention to crime in the field but also enhanced police accountability at the grass-root level.

The NYPD has recently gone beyond COMPSTAT by hiring a reputed private agency to survey public opinion on police performance. Focussed questions over mobile phones and the responses obtained look at how to fill visible gaps in policing. The effectiveness of this unique tool will depend on how forthcoming and honest the respondents are. Variants of this have indeed been tried in a few of our cities by some smart police leaders. We have not heard enough about their outcome to comment on their utility.

Contrary to popular belief, London is now a high-crime city. There is not only public concern over looming terrorist threats but also over youth crime. There are at least three or more stabbings a day carried out by teenagers. Although guns have made a recent entry, it is crime using sharp and small knives that is fuelling anxiety. The Met has launched a major campaign against street crime that involves frisking and seizure of knives — a visible, street-level operation that has enhanced security perceptions. The use of large manpower has been the hallmark of this operation. Physical checks of youth in the streets has added an element of deterrence. This is analogous to the ‘stop and frisk’ practice of the NYPD, whose focus on the non-white population has often drawn flak, especially from African-Americans. Mr. Bratton and his successors have had to tone down the exercise. This is a real danger that the police face while working for greater public safety. Any overzealousness is liable to make the police a villain. Given the high corruption among the police in India, procedures such as ‘stop and frisk’ carry the risk of greater public harassment and dishonesty at the cutting-edge levels.

Some hope in India

In my view, there are at least two features which offer a glimmer of hope for community safety in India. The first is the availability of a corps of leadership in the form of technically savvy young Indian Police Service officers who have a stake in working closely with the community to carry out experiments in the field to upgrade safety at minimum cost to the government. They can borrow from several studies under the rubric of ‘evidence-based policing’.

The second is the spread of Internet use at all levels of the police. An offshoot is the use of social media in day-to-day policing. Information on crime incidents and criminals is as a matter of course conveyed to the public in many urban centres with encouraging results. Citizens are also encouraged to report crime through email or over social media. This practice gives no option for the police but to act without fail and swiftly. The participation of the print and visual media in this dialogue gives further fillip to the exercise of sensitising the police to the community demand for safety through police processes.

The police’s perception of public safety and their own role here is changing, but only slowly. Many of us are impatient over the pace at which it is happening. We must realise that the Indian police is a behemoth and will respond faster only if there is constant pressure exerted on it by well-organised community leaders and the media.


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