It’s time for an urban upgrade

A rational, full-fledged review of policing the city is long overdue. To gain the citizens’ confidence, it must also focus on the local police station

Policing can probably be regarded as ideal only in places that are themselves idyllic and untroubled.

— Late Prof James J. Fyfe, Temple University (U.S.)

An ideal policeman is a myth. You come across him only in crime fiction. Equally elusive is ‘good policing’, an idea that even the best of criminal justice thinkers have found it difficult to define. This is why, in what is a chaotic world, we have to reluctantly settle for an imperfect policeman and an inadequate system.

The Indian police have been the target of criticism from several quarters, some justified and others not. We (the two authors) should however admit that the police in our country has changed only marginally since Independence, so much so the average member of the public views it as an unhelpful and insensitive body that has to be scrupulously avoided if possible. Several police reform bodies have examined this intractable situation with only marginal success. What has been critical is the undoubted absence of political will to make the system professional and to insulate it from the caprice of the street-level politician.

A demographic shift

With the growing size of our cities and towns, India no longer lives in the villages. All the action and focus are in the cities, and the police are evaluated mainly on what they do there or fail to do. The recent Swathi murder case in Chennai is an instance in point. The initial public outrage was one that blamed the police for not giving enough security to working women. This lasted only for a few days, until the nearly blind case was successfully cracked. Criticism slowly yielded to admiration for the police.

Another key area is traffic enforcement amidst gross indiscipline on the part of the road user. Increased technology and flawless identification of offenders and harsh penalties on violators of traffic rules alone can save the situation. This is a challenge to which the urban police has responded with only marginal success. The citizen expects drastic results, forgetting the fact that it is he who will make the difference through dissemination of the message that submitting oneself to traffic rules alone will reduce chaos on the streets.

When he set up the world’s first urban police force in Dublin and London in the 19th century, Sir Robert Peel, the legendary British Home Secretary (from whom was derived the common appellation ‘Bobby’ for a policeman), would hardly have dreamt that so much would be required of a policeman on patrol. From a purely preventive role that Peel contemplated for the constable on the beat, we have come a long way to assign to him a set of functions that seem enormous, complex and too forensic to discharge to the satisfaction of society. The net result is an all-round harsh assessment of the police.

A valid cynicism

Again, the Swathi case triggered a debate on the responsibility and capability of the police in preventing such a dastardly crime. The victim and her parents have been blamed by some insensitive persons for their failure to alert the police about the stalker, who is believed to have done away with her. There is the other view which the two of us and many other former colleagues in the police share — that assuming the victim’s family had approached the local police station, the latter would just have ignored their complaint. This is the cynicism that marks all appraisals of the police, and it is this challenge that police leaders will have to cope with in their daily work.

We believe a rational and full-fledged debate, some kind of national consultation, over limits to policing in an urban setting is long overdue. Otherwise we will be stuck with what Peel thought of policing more than a century ago. Any system that does not constantly review the manner in which it does business is doomed to perdition. Innovation is the key to upgrading quality. In the case of policing, this could be in the areas of patrolling the streets, receipt and registration of public grievances and identification of law-breakers. Technology can help, but it is the sensitivity and dedication of policemen at the cutting edge that would eventually make the difference between an admired and an alienated police force.

Going by the rising graph of bodily crime and traffic accidents, our cities and towns appear to be fast going beyond redemption. Policing would collapse not long from now because of two factors. The first is the growing geographic sprawl of our cities. Chennai Corporation has now a jurisdiction of more than 400 sq.km, twice what it had a decade ago. This expansion has not been accompanied by a commensurate increase in police strength. The second is the disappointing lack of consensus on what the police can do, and what it cannot or should not attempt to do.

We believe that there are implications here for a concept such as the Smart City that Central government in New Delhi has conceived. Any Smart City would thrive and flourish only if it is turned into a “safe city” first. This possibly resonates with the stand that Prof. David Bayley, an eminent police thinker and genuine Indophile, took when he said that policing was necessarily to be “smart”, rather than big and flamboyant.

Ultimately, all discussion of urban policing would lead us to the important issue: how much money can a government invest in policing? India has approximately a little more than two million policemen (both armed and unarmed).There are about 12,000 police stations. In the absence of scientifically determined yardsticks, the question whether this is adequate for a country as large as India is debatable.

The growing tentacles of terrorism have resulted in a certain disarray in police thinking, something for which the police were untrained or insufficiently trained. An almost whole-time attention on countering monstrous outfits such as al-Qaida, Islamic State, Taliban, Lashkar-e-Toiba and a host of others, including our very own Indian Mujahideen, has robbed the common man of police services to which he is entitled as a tax-paying citizen.

Any evaluation of the police will be grievously wrong if it did not factor in this development. Also, an attempt to divest the police station of its responsibility in this area by raising an exclusive counter-terror outfit is ill-advised, because thwarting the terrorist depends on intelligence collection at the grass-root, and this can be done only with the help of a police station on the ground. The latest arrest in far away West Bengal of a suspected IS organiser and propagandist, who had made Tirupur in Tamil Nadu his home, would indicate how growing towns in the country could provide shelter to anti-social elements and need more intensive policing than before.

This is the complexity of urban policing today. Mechanical law enforcement, not backed by an alert intelligence apparatus, can result in disasters of the kind that happened recently in Dhaka, Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris.

In the ultimate analysis, it is the consumer of the police service, the average citizen, who has the critical role of giving a continual feedback to the police on how well the latter are performing. Without this, no community will get the police it demands, and possibly deserves.

Broken windows

We are here reminded of a classic essay ‘Broken Windows’ written by two eminent social scientists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, that first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly (March 1982), and which pointed out how a citizen’s neglect of order around him provides the ambience in which crime flourishes. A broken window in a house or a public facility that remains unattended for months sends out the message that no one in the locality cares, and that crime could be committed there with impunity. Many U.S. police departments, including the NYPD under legendary Police Commissioner William Bratton, have benefited from this essay. Our civic authorities and the police should draw similar lessons for action from this remarkable formulation.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director, and D. Sivanandhan is a former Commissioner of Police and a former DGP Maharashtra.

The Swathi murder case in Chennai has triggered a debate on the responsibility of

the police in preventing such

a dastardly crime

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