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Of crime mapping

Published : Feb 25, 2011 00:00 IST

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IN THIS FILE picture, police personnel prepare crime maps as part of a proposed crime management system, at the Inspector General's office in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Crime maps, which pinpoint areas of high crime in a city or town, have become a sophisticated modern tool in fighting crime.-S.SIVA SARAVANAN

IN THIS FILE picture, police personnel prepare crime maps as part of a proposed crime management system, at the Inspector General's office in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Crime maps, which pinpoint areas of high crime in a city or town, have become a sophisticated modern tool in fighting crime.-S.SIVA SARAVANAN

Letting the public know the general trend of crime in a particular locality and educating it on what precautions it should take will enhance the police's image.

This is giving people a real tool, real power to see that something is being done about crime in their area. This doesn't make them frightened, it actually makes them feel a part of what is happening.

- United Kingdom Home Secretary Theresa May on crime maps

ONE of the major challenges of public administration in current times is enhancing community confidence in the ability of the criminal justice system to promote a feeling of security among all sections of citizenry. This is an outcome of the fast diminishing faith in state institutions, especially in the developing world. India is one supreme example of a place where the law enforcement and judicial machinery at the grass-roots level moves far too slowly for anyone's satisfaction.

Disconcertingly, questions of integrity of these segments of governance have also been raised in the recent past. These facts will have to be reckoned against a rising graph of violence and the fast expanding contours of criminal behaviour. Police resources are at present too stretched to cope with the ever enlarging demands of public safety. It is not surprising that in this ambience, law enforcement agencies hardly deliver service in a manner that makes some sense to the common man.

Wherever police leaders understand the value of an active link with consumers and focus attention on their essential security needs, the quality of service receives high praise. Where, however, a police chief believes that he is the repository of all wisdom and looks upon interaction with the community as a sheer waste of time there are quite a few who belong to this category policing evokes negative responses. There are unwelcome consequences of this situation, such as a distorted media portrayal and a lack of public enthusiasm to assist the state, even in times of crises such as widespread riots and natural calamities, both of which strain police resources enormously.

Intelligent policemen understand this symbiotic relationship between themselves and the community and place emphasis on transparent policing. It is this class that wins public support, while the other group, which is insular and secretive and believes in masking all it does towards better policing, is often berated.

Research has established that the police are woefully short on transparency, especially in the matter of sharing crime trends within the community. This reluctance to be open arises from a false notion that disseminating too much information on crime promotes widespread fear among law-abiding citizens and a lack of trust in the police capacity to protect the community. While this may be the right attitude when a sensational crime, such as a murder or a rape is reported, letting the public know the general trend of crime in a particular locality and educating it on what precautions it should take will greatly enhance the police's image.

In this context, crime maps, which pinpoint areas of high crime (hot spots') in a whole city or town and carry a wealth of information, assume great importance. The police in the United Kingdom have recently stolen a march over most other forces in the world by facilitating access to crime maps on the Internet. This is very much an index of their anxiety to carry the community with them and draw on its support to hunt for antisocial elements.

Crime maps are not unknown to Indian policemen. Even during the pre-Independence days, police stations used to prepare and display simple and easily readable maps of their jurisdiction from which one could identify territories that reported more crime than the others within a police station limits. These were invariably put up before an inspecting officer, namely, the Superintendent of Police or a Deputy Inspector General, who would thereafter put down his directions on how the station manpower should be distributed in a manner that would help control crime.

The idea has come a long way since its modest beginning decades ago, and has become a sophisticated modern tool in fighting crime through intelligent analysis and application of police manpower and technology. Computerised maps are very much in vogue and are a great asset to station house officers and the supervisory ranks. They are an important aid to the much-celebrated COMPSTAT (computer statistics) system of analysis of crime of the New York Police Department (NYPD). The sanctity of COMPSTAT as a supervisory aid has grown so much at weekly meetings of the NYPD Commissioner that field officers demand a variety of maps (each of which give crime information on the basis of location, modus operandus, time of occurrence, and so on) to be produced by a centralised unit within the force that is computer-savvy. The COMPSTAT method of analysing crime exists in a nominal manner in many State police forces. The feeling, however, is that this tool is yet to gain acceptance among many policemen in the country.

What the U.K. has done recently is to make crime maps available online to members of the public. This is a near revolutionary change because maps were hitherto used only for internal study and consumption. The move points to a new way of the police trying to carry the public with them. The website www.police.uk now carries street-level maps, which citizens can download for an intensive study. These maps became so popular in the days immediately after their uploading that the website got clogged and many netizens had to wait for long spells of time to get access. (According to the government, the website, which cost 300,000 to create, received an average of 75,000 hits every minute.) Information on crime incidents going back a month is made available by the maps under several heads, including burglary, robbery, vehicle theft and any other crime accompanied by violence.

There is a general belief that crime maps will enhance police accountability. This is particularly in the context of growing public scepticism over official figures released annually by the police themselves. Also, instantaneous mapping of a reported crime works against any temptation on the part of the police to suppress a crime out of sheer indolence or to downplay the incidence of crime.

On the flip side, some privacy concerns have been raised by victim support organisations. It is said that not many who have been vandalised would like to admit the negative experience, however trivial it may be. The only way to take care of this legitimate fear is probably not to pinpoint the actual premises where a crime took place but merely provide the name of the street. There is also the misgiving of some realtors that property prices in a locality where crime is a relatively frequent phenomenon can go down greatly. This is an interesting perspective.

Perhaps, this is a signal for property builders and the police to work hand in hand even before construction begins, so that high security features are built into the infrastructure. Whatever be the limitations of crime maps, there is no doubt that they could form an important part of crime fighting by the police and the community. The partnership may invoke the services of private security agencies as well to make the whole exercise an integrated approach.

Police leaders in India will necessarily have to draw from the U.K. experiment. Crime control and crime investigation in India have not acquired the sophistication that one would like to see in modern times, in times when technology has reached spectacular heights. Crime mapping, when taken up seriously with the aid of information technology (IT), can greatly help dilute the current image of the police as a crude fighter of crime. Perhaps, IT companies in the country could lend a helping hand.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 25, 2011.)

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