Rising violent crime

Print edition : October 19, 2007

At the funeral service for Rhys Jones, the British schoolboy who died after being shot on August 22. - PHIL NOBLE/REUTERS

The brutal policing of yesteryear can hardly produce results in these days of high ingenuity among criminals. The need of the hour is application of the mind.

At the funeral

TO continue from where I left off last fortnight, Madeleine, the three-year-old English girl missing from a holiday resort in Portugal since May, is yet to be traced. A few weeks ago there was a wrong tip-off that led investigators to a remote village in Morocco where a humble, semi-literate couple were baffled by a group of policemen suddenly descending on their home. The reason? Their child had been photographed by chance a few days earlier by a tourist. Because she bore a reasonable resemblance to Madeleine, there was a flurry of activity leading the police to the two Moroccan natives. It took no time to realise that there had been a mix-up. This was quite an anticlimax to the surge of reports that screamed that Madeleine had been found.

I was pleasantly surprised with the response to my own column from Dr. T.V. Dorairajan of Chennai, a former Director of Medical Services. According to the doctor, it will be possible to identify Madeleine through an obvious iris defect that she has in her right eye. His observation is based on a study of the picture of the girl that Frontline published.

Unfortunately, this welcome advice will prove useful only if and when Madeleine is located and there is doubt with regard to her identity. No clues are yet available. The earlier discovery of some DNA evidence in a car rented by her parents suggests, however, that Madeleine was subjected to some degree of violence and has been, in all probability, murdered. There is the equally distressing speculation that the childs body was dumped into the sea and will never be found.

Two other recent incidents highlight the gravity of violence on youth. The first is the gunning down of 11-year-old Rhys Jones of Liverpool (the United Kingdom) on August 22, an incident that has caused outrage in that country. The youngster, an ardent football fan, was shot at in a public car park while on his way back from football coaching. Investigation has still not been able to establish whether he was the actual target or whether he was just an unwitting victim in the crossfire between rival gangs. It is widely believed that there were many eyewitnesses, but none has come forward to give the details. One thing is reasonably clear: the aggressors were young boys. This, incidentally, is the unfortunate trend of the current spate of violence in many cities in England, especially London. Teenagers are killing teenagers and that too with firearms.

The violence has confounded policymakers and policemen alike in the country. It has of course spawned many theories, some plausible and some fanciful. A breakdown of the family, growing alcoholism, the influence of the macho football culture, and the laxity of the criminal justice system are a few theories cited to explain the spurt in youth deviance.

These are not new characteristics of English society. In my view, more than these, the violence depicted in movies and television programmes is the greatest contributory factor to inducing youth to behave the way they do now in England and elsewhere. A majority of governments across the globe are supine and permissive, and few of them are seen to be exercised about delinquency promoted by the celluloid medium. Both celluloid sex and violent behaviour seem eminently acceptable to large sections of the ruling classes in most countries as long as these do not adversely affect their fortunes.

Closer home, the circumstances leading to the recent death of Mohammed Rizwan in Kolkata raise more than a suspicion that he was brutally done away with by his enemies. The body of the 22-year-old graphics designer was found near a railway track in suburban Kolkata. Persons closely related to his Hindu wife are being questioned. There is the information, still to be established conclusively, that before his death he had been intimidated by two local policemen. The impression is that Rizwan paid the penalty for tying the knot with a girl whose family was opposed to an inter-religious marriage.

Madeleine, Rhys and Rizwan may not have anything in common except that their lives were brutally cut short for no fault of theirs. The three incidents may also not be uncommon in some parts of the world. My point in bringing them to focus is that together they highlight the pattern of horrendous violence that stalks us at present, irrespective of which part of the globe we may be living in.

Victims of such violence become in the course of time just a statistic for only their dear ones to bemoan. We seem to be helpless, nay insensitive, to our obligation to tone down such mindlessness.

Talking of statistics, according to the recently released Federal Bureau of Investigation-compiled Uniform Crime Report, violent crime (homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, together accounting for 1.4 million cases) in the United States registered a marginal increase (1.9 per cent) in 2006 over the previous year. There were more than 17,000 homicides in the U.S. in 2006 as against 32,000 in India in 2005. The U.S. reported 92,000 rapes and India reported 18,000 in the same period.

Also significant to a study of violence is the fact that in the U.K., robberies in which firearms were used registered a 10 per cent increase during 2005-6. More than 50 persons succumbed to gunshot wounds.

These are random statistics that highlight the nature of the violent environment we live in and urge us to take more than an academic interest in matters of modern-day crime.

There are two ways to combat crime. We need enlightened police leadership that is not only honest but intelligent. It needs to be smart, a favourite expression of my good friend David Bayley, a professor in the State University of Albany, New York State, who has a refreshing mind on matters of modern policing. The brutal policing of yesteryear can hardly produce results in these days of high ingenuity among those who commit crime. Unlike in the past, the need of the hour is an application of the mind rather than crude force.

The New York Police Departments COMPSTAT method of collating information on a daily basis from different jurisdictions of the city police and subjecting it to rigorous computer analysis is recommended by many scholars and law enforcement practitioners as a sure way of preventing and detecting crime. It may not work all the time. My hunch is that it does work often enough to make it a useful tool in the hands of a straightforward and hardworking sleuth.

What is the role of the society here? Basically, a community afflicted with crime cannot be passive and resign itself to its fate. A number of clichs no doubt rule the field here. However, community policing, a concept that has evolved over the past three or four decades, especially in the U.S., seems to be a good bet to complement police resources, particularly in areas where manpower is either limited or stretched.

I recently read a fascinating book, Police and Community in Chicago: A tale of three cities (Oxford University Press, 2006), by Wesley G. Skogan, a professor in Northwestern University and an authority in the field, that deals with the subject in a clinical manner.

It details the findings of a 13-year study conducted in the multi-ethnic city of Chicago, which had a real crime problem and a fear of crime that weighed down the community. Interestingly, the three segments of the population (African Americans, whites and Latinos), which had virtually created three cities within one, reacted differently to the new community-based style of policing introduced in 1993.

Named CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy), it won ready acceptance from the whites who benefited from it immediately in the form of a reduction of fear of crime. African Americans needed some persuasion before they realised the wisdom of taking part in activities such as beat meetings, neighbourhood problem-solving projects and supportive rallies. Latinos were a divided house. Wherever they were integrated with the community, they were enthusiastic and fell in line with the rest in bolstering policing. Where they kept to themselves and lived in enclaves, they were indifferent to CAPS.

CAPS is definitely not a panacea for all problems that ail a crime-ridden city, but it engenders confidence in the polices ability to combat crime by building bridges between the police and the policed.

It is not as if community policing has not been tried in other parts of the world. Its degree of success has varied, depending upon the quality of a police departments leadership and its commitment to servicing the community. Indian police forces have had several experiments.

Unfortunately, many have just been showpieces to glorify some individual officers. I would like to see greater dedication from the senior ranks as well as the grass roots, one that flows from real faith in the benefits of involving the entire community in the day-to-day handling of problems. Until this arrives, the concept will remain a shibboleth used for mere window dressing.

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