Crime calculations

Print edition : June 15, 2012

DATA ON THE New York Police Department shown by Civil Liberties Union's Associate Legal Director, Christopher Dunn, during a news conference in New York on May 9.-KEITH BEDFORD/REUTERS

Police forces the world over, barring a few exceptions, are notorious for massaging statistics so as to give the impression that crime has declined.

PRIOR to all my travels across the globe especially at the beginning of my career in the 1960s it had been my firm belief that any exercise aimed at comparing problems of the Indian police with those of the police of other countries was both flawed and illogical. India was so different from many other nations. It was too large, poor and diverse and had lamentably low literacy. The country had to evolve its own distinctive style of policing that stood apart from the rest of the world. I was, therefore, convinced then that making comparative studies of the police in the two largest democracies, the United States and India, was only of limited utility to researchers and policymakers.

My recent travels especially in the West and discussions with police scholars and practitioners at international forums have, however, altered this perception. I am of the view that, despite obvious cultural and economic disparities between developed and developing nations, there is a commonality that binds policing internationally.

To be more precise, the twin fundamental issues of policing, namely, how to ensure more than adequate attention to public security and how to micromanage police personnel so that they adhere to the high standards of ethics the community expects of them, should receive the same kind of responses in all open societies. Many studies reveal that both these areas of law enforcement demand the critical personal care of the higher echelons of police bureaucracy, and any neglect could seriously dent police image.

The context to my column this time is some unflattering reports on the U.S. police, particularly the New York Police Department (NYPD), that have received prominent media attention in the past few weeks. While police forces in many parts of the U.S. have been accused of racial bias and mismanagement of their personnel, the NYPD has specifically been charged with suppression of information on crime so as to disseminate the wrong impression that crime was falling. A discussion of the criticism of the police in that country seems germane to the Indian police so that what happens in the American police forces offers some lessons to their counterparts in India. And police departments in our country certainly can derive benefit given the generally low rating they get from people.

The iconic New York Times (NYT) and an online newspaper, The Village Voice, also from the Big Apple, have lately been highly negative about the NYPD for what they considered to be its major shortcomings in the area of crime registration, personnel management, and a distinct bias against African Americans and Muslims.

In the rest of the country also police forces have been berated for their biases and an inability to rein in their personnel against misbehaviour with the minorities. The February 26 shooting of a black youth by a white Hispanic neighbourhood watch volunteer in Florida under dubious circumstances and the local police's initial kid-glove treatment of the assailant have in particular been cited to support the charge of prejudice by white-dominated police.

The media in any country have a whale of a time exposing police misdemeanour. Investigative reporting is their staple food. I am particularly impressed by the skill of The Village Voice in unearthing police misconduct. The newspaper is credited with five clandestine tapes, one of which refers to a whistle-blower within the NYPD, Adrian Schoolcroft, a Police Officer (a rank equivalent to a constable in India).

Schoolcroft was suspended in 2009 and remained so for two years. He was sent to a psychiatric home for treatment of what was cited to be a mental illness. He is, however, a hero in the eyes of The Village Voice, which recently went to town with the allegation that the NYPD top brass had maltreated Schoolcroft once it was found that for two years he had clandestinely recorded all that was happening in his precinct (police station).

Such recording had revealed several irregularities, mostly pertaining to deliberate non-registration of crime. The Village Voice report was filed by Graham Rayman, a celebrated writer with high credibility. This was subsequently picked up in March by The New York Times columnist John Dewey, who wrote a piece saying that an internal investigation (not disclosed to the public) had confirmed the veracity of Schoolcroft's charge that NYPD was systematically under-registering crime so as to make the public believe that crime was going down in the city.

Schoolcroft has now sought legal remedy for the alleged injustice done to him. The New York Times also wrote an editorial on March 17, in which it complained that innocent Muslims were being targeted during stop-and-search operations. (This was promptly denied by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in a strong rejoinder on March 24.)

Barring a few exceptions, police forces the world over are notorious for massaging crime statistics so as to give the impression that crime is declining. The Indian police are particularly known for this highly objectionable practice. Successive police reform bodies, including the celebrated National Police Commission (1977-81), have had harsh things to say on this vexatious subject. Well-meaning criticism by many citizens' groups and the media over the years has been of little avail. On their part, policemen cite an excessive workload as an excuse for non-registration of minor crimes. Most senior officers actively encourage this or wink at selective registration.

In fact, there is support for this from Chief Ministers, none of whom would look kindly to the police reporting a rise in crime during their tenure. This is because any admission of a spurt in crime is exploited by opposition parties to charge the government with incompetence in policing. (Readers may remember that in the United Kingdom also there is a volley of exchanges between the Conservatives and Labour whenever there is a change in government.)

It is also a fact that in the past, a few police chiefs in India who had come down heavily on this act of dishonesty and directed free registration of crimes were unceremoniously eased out of their positions. I had always imagined that the American police were largely free from this dishonesty. This is because, unlike in India and the rest of the developing world, most of the complaints to the police in the U.S. are over telephone, using the 911 service, and these are simultaneously voice recorded or registered by a computer, thereby limiting the scope for suppression. This impression now appears erroneous if one goes by The Village Voice and The New York Times reports.

The other charge against the NYPD is that it has systematically abused the power of stop and search against innocent Muslims. This phenomenon is an offshoot of 9/11. The belief earlier was that blacks alone were subjected to what many consider a needless harassment of citizens chosen for the colour of their skin. This kind of profiling is now said to have been extended to Muslims as well. The NYPD has been at pains to prove through statistics that they were not guilty of such racial profiling and to highlight how many of the searches of individuals had yielded illicit weapons.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has used The New York Times columns for this purpose and says that all NYPD actions were constitutionally permitted and had led to significant arrests in the area of preventing terrorism. The debate will be ceaseless. The point, however, is that the police are universally hard pressed to defend people every waking hour. While the majority of policemen do their duty conscientiously, a few rotten apples bring odium to the whole profession.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor