Meeting of minds

Print edition : August 15, 2008

There is so much that the academia and police leaders can learn from each other to change qualitatively the complex task of crime management.

BEGINNING from where I left off last fortnight (Frontline, August 1), knife crime in London remains a matter of concern, although fear levels, as reflected in the media, have shown some decline. Such partial easing of nerves is despite the fact that another teenager, the 21st since the beginning of the year, has died from injuries inflicted by an assailant armed with a knife.

Against this poignant setting is the ironical picture of assurance quite in contrast with the state of mind of sections of the population in parts of this great city projected by the findings of the annual British Crime Survey (BCS) released on July 17. According to it, knife crime is stable, an assessment derived from the responses of about 47,000 respondents interviewed in England and Wales. A more than 15 per cent drop in overall crime is also portrayed by the BCS.

Incidentally, the BCS, which began in 1982 as a biennial exercise and is now an annual affair, does not cover Scotland. It does not also contact those below 16, an age group which has been victimised greatly in the current criminal attacks using the knife. One must, however, remember that the BCS interviews were conducted several months ago, before the current surge of knife crime started.

The BCS figures should confound experts who normally set much score by crime statistics. Even allowing for the fact that the twin processes of reporting of crime by the victim or his associates and its registration by the police force are more honest and transparent in the United Kingdom than in many other countries, say India for example, public opinion is still sceptical of the whole rationale of analysing police performance purely on the basis of numbers.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair had himself, sometime ago, acknowledged the growing cynicism over crime statistics dished out by the police and public agencies. Therefore, besides circumspection and balance, there is a scrupulous need to avoid politicising the governments claim of a drop in crime or the Oppositions claim of a rise of the same.

But this is exactly what is happening in the U.K., with Labour gloating over what it believes is a declining crime trend and the Tories refuting it by drawing attention to the recent spate of knife attacks. Generally speaking, unlike a crime victim, the rest of the community is more bothered about what the police do to control crime rather than how they respond to a post-crime situation.

Any policing that ignores the communitys perceptions of the state of crime is bound to be misdirected. Many criminologists and police administrators, therefore, lay a lot of emphasis on crime prevention as a sure means of upgrading the quality of police work. Such refinement is normally the outcome of intelligent and smart policing based on experience coupled with field experiments in high-crime areas. This is where a marriage between the endeavours of academics and practitioners becomes critical.

While India has not had much benefit of such a meeting of minds it has just two universities that offer courses in criminology, where modest research takes place the scene is vastly different in the United States and the U.K.

Apart from many eminent universities, including Cambridge, which offer criminology at Masters and Ph.D levels, there is active collaboration between those who teach and do research in criminology and those who are involved in hard policing. Invited to a conference (June 30 to July 2) at Cambridge University, hosted by the Institute of Criminology and the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), I found that there was so much that the academia and police leaders could learn from each other to bring about a qualitative change to the complex task of crime management.

The Institute of Criminology at Cambridge has a formidable reputation for both teaching and research. Set up in 1960 with the help of a generous donation from the Wolfson Foundation, it has grown from strength to strength and now offers Ph.D and M.Phil programmes. More popular is the Master of Studies (MSt) directed at enhancing mid-career knowledge advancement of police and corrections officials. It has two streams, one for police professionals, and the other for prison and probation officials. While a diploma is awarded to those who leave at the end of one year, students who stay on for a second year can receive a Masters degree.

About 300 senior police officers have gone through the Cambridge programmes, especially from the U.K., and occupy positions of importance in their respective forces. The icing on the cake is a well-designed programme for international police executives, at the end of which a police officer receives an M.A. or Diploma in Criminology. The programmes director is Professor Lawrence Sherman, a world authority on policing based on scientifically conducted experiments in different parts of the world.

Larry, as he is affectionately called by friends, divides his time between the University of Pennsylvania, where he is chairman of the Department of Criminology, and Cambridge, where he guides the international police executive programme as well as the newly set up Jerry Lee Centre of Experimental Criminology. He believes that India is a key country that can contribute solidly to the international programme at Cambridge. He was in India earlier this year to canvass support for Indian enrolment. There are indications that he could succeed.

Prof. Shermans contribution to experimental criminology is immense. One of his studies, conducted way back in 1981-82 was the so-called Minneapolis Domestic Violence Experiment, which studied the efficacy of the arrest of an offending husband on the complaint of his wife. It concluded that such an arrest was useful in preventing a recurrence of the problem. This was at a time when the U.S. police was averse to arresting a violent husband.

Another was the famous Kansas City Hotspots experiment, which established that it was places and not it was persons should be the focus of police preventive work. In every city or town there were some hot spots where the incidence of crime was higher than elsewhere, and it is these spots that deserved concentrated attention from the police. This experiment, among other research, led ultimately to the currently popular concept of crime mapping, which analyses crime in terms of geography.

Perhaps, most relevant to our times is Prof. Shermans study in the area of reducing the fear of crime in Houston and Newark cities. The major finding here was that constant interaction with members of the public and introduction of new procedures for policing neighbourhoods certainly contributed to a lowering of fear.

All the three are classic studies quoted often by police researchers in a number of countries. Up and coming police officers in India would derive great benefit from a serious study of these experiments for the methodology used, if not for drawing lessons from their findings. Also relevant are the recent writings of Prof. Sherman in the area of restorative justice, a system where offenders are brought face-to-face with victims. This novel procedure is said to be capable of reducing recidivism among some delinquents. I would be happy to see this innovation employed more and more by Indian police officers whenever they are confronted by repeat offending.

Being a great experimentalist himself, Prof. Shermans choice of it was Evidence-based Policing: Possibilities and Policing as the theme for the recent Cambridge conference was natural. Those present included scholars and police leaders from different parts of the world, who brought different perspectives to the task of how to make policing sharper by drawing lessons from a number of tightly guided experiments. What was striking was the analogy from the field of medicine. Relevant here is the advances made by evidence-based modern medicine.

These have brought about significant gains to the community in the form of new methods of treatment and new drugs that had stood trials with real patients. (Incidentally, the practice of evidence-based medicine is defined as integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research.)

Prof. Sherman and a few renowned medical teachers and researchers who spoke at Cambridge argued that policing could benefit greatly from the rigours of medical research and arrive at a set of best practices in terms of costs and benefits. Since disease control and crime control have the parallel objective of ensuring social equilibrium and happiness, the analogy advanced at the conference appeared appropriate and worth looking at. Evidence and legitimacy in policing, policing offenders in resettlement, Policing places and Predicting and preventing murder with evidence-based policing were subjects that were dealt with in the various sessions at the conference.

While discussing the merits of evidence-based policing, one key question that was posed to the participants was: What are the major barriers and issues to be faced in translating systematic evidence of what works in policing into policy and practice?

In my view, from an Indian perspective, the major problem is one of convincing police leaders that a well conducted field experiment is worth its weight in gold in the endeavour to sharpen policing and win community support. There is the disdain for scholar-guided experiments, which are seen as good only on paper and do not work in practice. Until this negative perception is removed, evidence-based policing can hardly win support from the Indian police.

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