An American model

Print edition : April 21, 2006

The John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which serves the law enforcement community effectively, has a lot to offer to the Indian Police.

IT was against all advice, from both by family and my mentors in the Indian Police Service (IPS), that I chose to take a break from my profession, just as it was blooming in the late 1980s and go to the United States to pursue a Master's programme in criminal justice. I have never regretted that decision, and have not looked back either since then. My links with the American academia have become stronger and stronger, enriching my life beyond the wildest dream. Names such as David Bayley, Mark Haller, Jack Greene, Ron Clarke, Alan Harland and John Goldkamp are only a few that I can rattle off in the Pantheon that I most adore and worship. These are professors with great research achievements in the area of crime and law enforcement. I firmly believe that senior officials in the police, corrections and judiciary in India with even a slight inclination towards research would greatly benefit from a spell in any of the top-ranking universities that teach criminal justice in the U.S.

I am happy that the trend of IPS officers pursuing mid-career education has caught on. This can only sharpen their basic skills and expand their ability to innovate, at a time when policing is confronted by newer and newer problems and policemen are hauled over the coals by the public, the judiciary and the media for their commissions and omissions. Just consider the verdicts in the Jessica Lal and Matoo cases, which have rightly or wrongly pinpointed blame on the investigators, and there is an animated national debate how to overhaul not only policing but the judiciary as well.

Last week I was at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (JJ) in New York to speak on the ills of our system. A small group of Masters students listened to me with rapt attention, when I gave an account of our problems in bringing offenders to book. Many of them had heard of Jessica Lal thanks to the extensive media attention. The connection was almost instant because one JJ student, 24-year-old Imette St.Guillen, had been raped and murdered in Manhattan just a few weeks earlier and the college had still not recovered from the trauma. A portrait of this beautiful lady greets visitors at the portal of this famous centre of learning. My audience raised a whole lot of issues that not only highlighted fair knowledge of the intricacies of the criminal justice system, but certainly pointed to a concern that their academic pursuits should somehow dovetail with practices on ground. And, this is what has always struck me most about the U.S. What you learn at universities should be relevant and useful to the real world. It is my regret that we in India have not learnt to appreciate the value of this link. This is what I felt when I came back from the Temple University, Philadelphia, in the early 1990s. I still feel the same way about the gap between academia and the hard realities of what is happening in the field, something that will always detract from the merit of most of our research, at least in the realm of crime and its handling.

JJ, named after the U.S. Supreme Court's first Chief Justice who belonged to New York and was also the State Supreme Court's first Chief Justice, fills the gap admirably well. I am told on authority that whenever some sensational crime happens in New York city and there are grey areas that call for application of science and technology, JJ gets a call for assistance from law enforcement. This is logical, but so different from our perceptions in India. But then there is always a clash between logic and ego, and many of us in the police have a king-size ego that blinds us grievously. The New York Police Department (NYPD) is one of the grateful beneficiaries of JJ's expertise.

What about the victims themselves? I saw during this visit to New York a live TV relay of a press briefing by the families of firemen who perished in the September 11 tragedy, on their resolve to get all the tapes of conversations recorded on that gory morning released to the public. This was with a view to getting a clearer account of how relief and rescue were managed or mismanaged during the crucial minutes between the first attack and the collapse of the second tower. The allegation was that enough was not done to alert those in the second tower and take them to safety. At a time when they should have scurried out of the building, they were unimaginatively asked to stay on, an action that cost many lives. The families had to fight a four-year legal battle to get the tapes released, but then these do not contain the voices of most victims. So the battle goes on. What I was most impressed with was the participation in the briefing by a Professor of Fire Science from JJ who had studied the event in great detail and has come out with findings that offer lessons on how such a major catastrophe should be handled. Here was a case of how academics could be fused into practical difficulties of law enforcement agencies.

JJ was founded in 1964 to fill in the need for a higher centre of learning that could forge a link between teaching and practice. By all accounts, it has performed this role admirably well. Jeremy Travis, JJ's president for the past two years, is brimming with ideas that have already taken his institution to great heights. (A former Director of the National Institute of Justice, he had also been Deputy Commissioner, Legal affairs, NYPD.) I was flattered when, at the end of my talk, he received me at very short notice, ignoring protocol and the many chores that awaited him on a busy day. He has many ambitious plans to make JJ a vibrant body that serves the law enforcement community effectively. Such a mission becomes critical in a country that has had many ups and downs in crime.

There is euphoria in the U.S. that while homicides continue to pose a problem, crime rates have otherwise generally dropped. This is not based on mere statistics, which are proverbially suspect in any part of the world. It is the members of the community at large who should vouch for it, and many men and women who I talk to during my frequent visits to different parts of the country endorse the assessment that large cities have become safer than before. I can personally speak for New York and Philadelphia.

What is interesting is one point of view that crime that has been foiled in major cities has spilled over to the smaller ones and also to the suburbs. For instance, many well-known suburbs of Washington D.C. now complain of a rash of burglaries, a phenomenon that was unknown until a few years ago. Just last year, a doctor friend of mine living in a fashionable Philadelphia suburb was traumatised by a break-in that resulted in a loss of traditional Indian jewellery and hard cash she had earned through the sweat of her brow. This displacement of crime is something that JJ would study and come out with findings germane to tightening of police strategy.

Also appropriate to recall here is the problem of high incarceration rates in the country. In 1973, there were just 200,000 in all prisons. According to a count in 2003, the number had gone up sevenfold to a staggering 1.4 million. More revealing is the statistic that about 5.6 million U.S. citizens have been jailed sometime or the other in their lives. Recidivism, or habitual offending as we know it in India, is naturally a problem that afflicts a country which incarcerates so many. President Travis has studied the problem in depth. His But they all come back: Facing the challenge of Prisoner reentry (Urban Institute 2005) is a classic study of the problem and fits in with JJ's mission.

As one who dabbles these days in cyber security I am struck by the scope and depth of JJ's Master's Programme in cyber forensics. This is a two-year full-time rigorous course with its emphasis on science rather than technology. Its objective: to build a sizable corps of experts who are equipped to deal with problems that emerge each day in this fascinating field. The frontiers of cyber crime are ill-defined, and the cyber forensic expert has to wrestle with issues of infinite variety and complexity. As some of my readers may know, computers are not only targets of attack but also smooth facilitators of crime, conventional and non-conventional. If you are smug that you have computerised protection of your commercial property or home, there are umpteen ways a criminal can use his knowledge of computers to break that wall.

This is why a course in cyber forensics that JJ offers is most relevant to law enforcement agencies, including the Central Bureau of Investigation, in India.

During the four decades of its existence, JJ has been growing by leaps and bounds. It has now a strength of 14,000 students, of whom 75 per cent are part-time. This is, perhaps, the distinctive feature of most criminal justice programmes in the country that encourages law enforcement professionals to improve on their academic attainment even as they are discharging their duties. There are 700 in the Masters Programme and 200 doctoral scholars. Interestingly, 5 per cent of the students come from Asia.

I can record with satisfaction that two of my former students at the University of Madras - Dr. Mangai Natarajan and Sheethal Ranjan - are now part of this Asian contingent at JJ. While the former is on the faculty, having already set up a formidable reputation in the area of Women Police, Sheethal is a Ph.D. scholar who has made a mark for a wide range of abilities, including research.

Travis has a vision to make JJ a cut above the rest in the business of criminal justice education. His boyish enthusiasm inspires confidence in all of us who have had a chance to interact with him. His desire to make JJ an international training centre is a sure way of honing police capacity at a time more and more people are getting disillusioned with the ability of the police to deliver quick and reliable service that is honest to the core.

I am absolutely convinced that JJ has a lot to offer to the Indian Police. How far will the Union Home Ministry take advantage of this is anybody's guess. But I am going to try, and try hard.

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