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Issues of policing

Print edition : Jul 31, 2009 T+T-
The Indian Police is notorious for over-deployment under the mistaken notion that sheer numbers will take care of unforeseen contingencies. Here, a file picture of police action against political activists in Thiruvananthapuram.-RATHEESH KUMAR

The Indian Police is notorious for over-deployment under the mistaken notion that sheer numbers will take care of unforeseen contingencies. Here, a file picture of police action against political activists in Thiruvananthapuram.-RATHEESH KUMAR

SPEAKING to a television channel, minutes after the Union Budget was presented on July 6, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated categorically that the security forces in the country were undermanned and their morale needed to be looked after better. These were significant words from a Prime Minister whose concern for the armed forces and the police is widely known.

I am sure both Defence Minister A.K. Antony and Home Minister P. Chidambaram will take the cue from him and act with greater expedition than before to ensure that our security forces are well equipped and paid adequately so that they give of their best in a public order situation that is still fragile.

But then, how much can a democratic government do to strengthen the police in terms of number, especially when the economy is reeling under a severe downturn? Not much. We have a two million-strong police force for a population of 1.2 billion. This is definitely not sufficient. We need to recruit more men and women and make sure that vacancies are filled.

It is an open scandal that, at any point of time, our police departments carry far too many vacancies for a variety of reasons, including politicisation of and corruption in the recruitment process leading to court intervention. The question, however, is whether more policemen is synonymous with a more effective police. Experts in police organisation do not agree that merely having more policemen per capita will necessarily enhance public satisfaction.

Taking into account the financial crunch, our police leaders will do well to economise the use of manpower, so that their valuable resources go to the right sectors of law enforcement and there is no lopsidedness. (The Indian Police is especially notorious for over-deployment under the mistaken notion that sheer numbers will take care of unforeseen contingencies.) Traditional methods, such as street beats, need not be jettisoned.

Actually, there are studies that suggest that even in the 21st century, a beat policeman can deliver services far beyond expectations, particularly if he is of the type who can empathise with the local population and forge a wholesome professional relationship that is hard to describe and easy to discern. Posh patrol cars whizzing past localities at near-jet speeds may catch the eye but do precious little to enhance feelings of public safety. Some well-conducted experiments in the United States vouch for this. At the same time, there is a lot of room for innovation in policing, which will avoid criticism of stagnation in thinking.

There is also the view that the police forces are hardly accountable for their performance and that they carry far too many also-rans. The argument of experts, who look for high quality policing, is that no member should survive in the force unless he proves himself useful to society. All these fundamental issues came up for focussed discussion at the recent second international conference on Evidence-based Policing held by the Institute of Criminology of Cambridge (United Kingdom).

What was striking about the conference was its emphasis on learning derived from the experiences of practitioners. This was nothing surprising because the prime mover of the conference was Prof. Larry Sherman, formerly of the University of Maryland and Pennsylvania University (PENN), who now heads the Cambridge Institute of Criminology and is the man behind several universally acclaimed down-to-earth scientific studies in policing. Singapore Police Commissioner Khoo Boon Hui and former London Metropolitan Commissioner Sir Ian Blair and two police chiefs from the U.S., one from Savannah (Georgia) and the other from Redlands (California), gave valuable inputs for a meaningful discussion.

I was meeting Khoo and Blair for the first time. I was greatly impressed with their knowledge of trends in policing and their willingness to share it with others. Incidentally, Khoo is the current president of Interpol and is hosting its next General Assembly in October. I was amazed to learn that he was in his 12th year of office, a longevity that we in India cannot understand. Khoos exposition on the Singapore Police was remarkable for its clarity.

A multi-ethnic city brings its own problems, and the police will have to necessarily carry all groups without opening itself to the charge of discrimination. Community policing of a fine-tuned variety is one prescription that Khoo has practised successfully and commends to others. We pay lip service to this in India because many police leaders are convinced that they have little to learn from the average citizen.

Thanks to terrorism and a host of other developments, perceptions on the utility of a closer rapport with the population are no doubt changing, but only slowly. What we need are more Directors-General of Police and Commissioners who devote large chunks of their time listening to consumers of police services rather than speaking to them at interactive sessions. That, too, without going to the media too often. I remember Commissioner Blair doing this effectively in the days after July 7, 2005, when London was devastated by bombings in the underground.

If this great city has not suffered again, it is because the Muslim community has been convinced by this and many other ways that it should rein in its younger elements who have been vulnerable to fundamentalist teachings and training. Visits to mosques if I remember right, Blair was at a few of them personally to produce the right impact churches and temples on a routine basis are suggested as one means to reassure the society that the police will maintain order whatever be its costs.

As was done during the first conference held last year, there were presentations on policing of hot spots, where crime was endemic. According to one study that Prof. Sherman conducted nearly two decades ago, 50 per cent of crime in any city takes place in about 5 per cent of street blocks and addresses. There is nothing to suggest that this finding does not still hold good. This is why it is sensible to apply police resources to such hot spots, instead of frittering them away by mindless deployment for sheer political reasons.

The need of the hour is a geographic analysis of crime and collection of data on places rather than individuals. The COMPSTAT, or computer statistics, method of the New York Police Department (NYPD) based on crime mapping is recommended as one intelligent way of reducing crime. This is the refrain one hears in international conferences on crime strategies. Surprisingly, at Cambridge, I heard strong criticism from one speaker that the NYPD spent far too much time on crime reduction rather than harm reduction.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly seems happy with bringing the down number of offences across the board rather than reducing grave crimes such as murder and robbery, which cause greater harm to citizens. According to this school, all crime cannot be equated, and a mere drop in crime rate is of no good unless the police can also establish that it is the graver offences that have shown a decline.

The feeling that the NYPD now gives to an observer is that it operates on what it already knows rather than on what it can know from experiments. This is a significant argument that we in India should ponder and initiate steps for tightly conducted field studies on many police problems. Interestingly, one speaker alluded to U.S. President Barack Obamas philosophy that he would act only on evidence, which would tell him what to do and what not to do. This is an exhortation to many public organisations that they should shed their illogical cynicism on the utility of experiments and their findings. In this context, I am happy that the Unique ID Project under the leadership of Nandan Nilekani will have the benefit of the findings of the pilot project that is already in progress.

Finally, a conference on policing that ignores the impact of politics on law enforcement is blind, to say the least. This way, the presence at the Cambridge conference of Sir Ian Blair, who was unceremoniously eased out of the Met (Metropolitan Police) by Boris Johnson, a Conservative Mayor, was of great relevance to a discussion of where policing in the U.K. was heading. Sir Ian Blair did not pull any punches and made it clear that current trends were not healthy. What he and others (who included David Howarth, the Liberal Democrat Party MP from Cambridge) were particularly distressed over was the thinning of the line between policy and operational control over the police.

Interesting was the reference to the controversy surrounding the use of water cannons to quell demonstrations in public places, especially outside Parliament. This is in the context of the Mets handling of anti-G 20 demonstrations recently that led to the death of a newspaper vendor and consequently provoked huge public criticism of its ham-handed approach. Opinion is sharply divided on the issue of use of water cannons.

Many politicians are opposed to the police using kettling (forcible containment of crowds) on such occasions. The inescapable feeling is that what should essentially be an operational decision has become politicised, leading to the handcuffing of the U.K. police. What was refreshing was the view of the MP present at the conference that political control of the police was the antithesis of democracy, because the abuse of the police by one party worked against other parties, and democracy thereby was reduced to one-party rule. I am convinced that nothing would describe the scene in India better.

The way our police forces are misused by the ruling party is a matter of shame. No politician seems perturbed by this because every party gets its own turn to use the police against its adversaries. This is possibly equality of some sorts guaranteed by the Constitution.