Policing and private initiatives

Print edition : February 14, 2003

There is a case for a tie-up between business, private bodies and the police, which will help bring about greater accountability and transparency in police work.

POLICE officers the world over complain continually of inadequate manpower and weaponry support against an ever-expanding charter of responsibilities and escalating disorder and violence in society. In their view, 9/11 strengthened their case for a new look at and review of the quantum of police needs. Those in the Third World also cite a rising population graph as another factor that compels the grant of additional resources to the police to maintain public order and combat crime. It is our experience that the claimed shortage of men and equipment often becomes the excuse for poor performance. While the grievance is often genuine, it is equally true that little thought has been given by them on how to economise the use of available manpower. There is something that the police can learn from the private sector, especially foreign banks, which hire just one when they should hire three! The police leadership alone cannot be blamed for unimaginative deployments, which squander precious police resources, mainly to satisfy the whims of the political order. A political system that celebrates ostentation and show undeniably contributes greatly to the malady. My heart bleeds whenever I see, during my travels across the country, the deployment of enormous numbers of uniformed personnel to regulate small gatherings, sometimes even a procession by the handicapped or by senior citizens, to press their case for a better deal from the government. (Alert and knowledgeable readers will however be quick to challenge me by pointing out how in Delhi, a few years ago, a gathering of the visually impaired turned violent and the police had to use force.) The less said about VIP security in India, the better.

Personal guards continue to be a status symbol, and I do not see an end to this feudal demand for protection, even by those on whom their most bitter adversaries will not waste a bullet. I know personally how much pressure Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani experienced a few years ago for restoring guards when the Home Ministry pruned down the list of protectees in the nation's capital. To his credit, he stood his ground in most of the cases. He must have won quite a few enemies in the process.

Under the present dispensation in India, only a police officer out of his mind will ever take a chance to displease those in authority. Out of an instinct for self-preservation, he, therefore, over-deploys his men to take care of even the smallest of public meetings addressed by those in power. He is a prisoner to the system that is growing in its bizarre characteristics. I cannot therefore visualise a reversal of this trend of wasting police personnel and material on dubious causes as long as we deify a populist democracy that considers yielding to every act of blackmail as synonymous with the best form of governance. What is the way out?

FORTUNATELY, market forces have come to the rescue of the police. My reference is to the rapid privatisation of police services. Finding the public police response hopelessly inadequate and slovenly, many consumers have gone to private security agencies for bailing them out of difficult personal security problems. The mushrooming of such outfits all over the world, including India, is a testimony to this trend. Not that these agencies are super efficient, but they give manpower that offers at least a semblance of protection to threatened individuals. I am told that in South Africa these agencies have set up control rooms that are alerted when a client's premises - home or office - are trespassed. By all accounts, help arrives swifter than that dished out by the public police. Is it not outrageous that you pay taxes to get state protection, among other services, but end up by turning to the private sector to receive such protection for a stiff fee? But this is a biting reality one has to learn to live with.

There has been another significant development in many parts of the world. The business community in large cities has realised that it will have to chip in substantially to bolster the police in the latter's endeavour to upgrade the quality of its response. Business districts in many cities are readily identifiable, and require extra protection to secure their wealth. Police forces in some places have taken the position that such heightened protection will come only at a cost. Measures such as special police stations, intensive patrolling, and background checks of employees will all have to be at least partially financed by business. This concept has not yet gained ground in India. But it should happen very early, and to the satisfaction of both business and police. An added dimension is the willingness of private organisations, not merely business but non-governmental organisations and other non-profit bodies as well, to join the process of establishing a partnership with the police so that the whole community is benefited.

A recent global conference at the Mount Kenya Safari Club, a picturesque locale just three hours away by road from Nairobi, was devoted to the subject of how to innovate in the area of police-private partnership, with a view ultimately to bring about much-needed police reforms. Co-hosted by the Vera Institute of Justice, New York, and the Nairobi Central Business District Association (NCBDA), it attracted delegates from the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, India and Indonesia. It must be mentioned here that Vera, a non-profit research centre, has done pioneering work in the area. It has drawn lessons from past local business achievements in New York, where it is based, and has effectively spread the message that there is no escape from police-private partnership if policing has to be focused and has to satisfy the consumer.

Interestingly, enlightened businessmen in New York, led by a wealthy industrialist Peter Cooper, had as early as the 1870s set up a Society for the Prevention of Crime. Ironically, contrary to what its title suggests, the focus of this Society was on eliminating the unbounded police corruption in the city. Possibly, the assessment was that once you ensured probity in law enforcement agencies, you would have an efficient force that would go hammer and tongs at crime. This was faultless logic indeed! I would like to share an excerpt from an extremely informative paper presented by Vera at the Nairobi conference that colourfully described the New York scene in those days, a picture that may appeal to the patriotic instincts of some of us who believe that we do not necessarily hold the world monopoly for dishonesty:

"... government was in the hands of corrupt politicians who used the police for their own profit... political leaders maintained a system of graft. Rising police officers had to purchase their posts, some costing ten thousand dollars each."

I will not blame my readers if they think that this description fits in admirably with the current Indian scene. What is, however, relevant is that the Society for Prevention of Crime ultimately managed to get the then police administration replaced and install future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt as the head of the Police Board . This helped to usher in an era of police professionalism in the Big Apple.

THE strategy of seeking the help of the business community to sharpen police performance has won many supporters during the past few decades. In South Africa, for instance, triggered by an exhortation from Nelson Mandela, an organisation called the Business Against Crime (BAC) has been formed. This is a professionally staffed body that is devoted to ensuring speedy police response to crimes such as car-jacking, and better management of police stations and service delivery to crime victims. A presentation made to the Nairobi conference by the South African delegation did give the impression that this approach to crime could greatly aid the police in reacting meaningfully and quickly to victims' needs. In Kenya, the NCBDA has dedicated itself to community policing. This takes into account the existing tension-ridden uneasy relationship between the police and the community. In London, some of the biggest business houses have set up London First, an organisation that pairs businessmen and borough commanders for enhancing police performance. An exercise to improve the profile of the Metropolitan Police through extension of business practices in personnel management and communication to the police is also on the anvil.

In Brazil, Sao Paulo Against Violence, an institute founded in 1997, brings together businessmen, private firms, academic institutions and media representatives on an anti-crime platform. The institute lends a helping hand to projects that seek to bring about police reforms and aim at enhancing police accountability. Reduction of violence in the community is another of its activities. Interestingly, the institute has also steered a project entitled Crime Stoppers, which runs a call centre that receives information on unsolved crime to be passed on to the police. The institute claims that this has helped to solve about 2,500 cases.

WHAT are the principal benefits of a tie-up between business and private bodies on the one hand and the police on the other? Apart from bringing about greater accountability to and transparency in police work, there is a transfer of skills that should hone police work to face new challenges. In the estimate of Chris Stone, the dynamic Director of Vera, and Chitra Bhanu, his dedicated aide, professional customer service is one area where the police can learn a lot from business. One major lacuna in policing in India is: lack of concern for the common man who is a customer in his own right as a tax-paying citizen. When he pays his taxes, in a sense, he buys police service. The political executive's repeated exhortation to policemen to be sensitive to citizens' needs has hardly been heeded, for a variety of reasons. Private industry, if permitted, can fill the gap, thereby enhancing the police's image as a service institutions. In the process, a new police culture is built. Prof. David Bayley has brought this out vividly in a paper " Democratising the Police Abroad: What to do and how to do it?", which he presented last year to the U.S. Department of Justice. Bayley says: "Increasing contacts between police personnel and respectable non-criminal members of the public is an important way of encouraging the development of an accountable, service-oriented police organisation."

Chris Stone and Chitra Bhanu point out the contrast between reform through service orientation and reform through political independence. I cannot agree more with them when they say that the former is practical and the latter a wild dream in an ambience where the collective political power of those running a government is awesome. There is a dilemma that haunts those who espouse police reforms in India: what approach to adopt.

Ever since the National Police Commission (1977) set out strongly its reports (1979-81) seeking substantial insulation of the police from the political process, there has been a vocal lobby that favours implementation of the NPC recommendations in toto. While most of the non-controversial ones have been pushed through, the substantial ones which call for a mandatory term for the Director-General of Police and the creation of a State Security Commission, have evoked little political support. All efforts to persuade those in power to bring about these vital reforms have failed miserably. People who wield power will not do a thing that will even remotely dilute their control over the police. The Vera philosophy that a greater service content and orientation in police operations could turn the tide, therefore, seems plausible.

It is against the above backdrop that Vera proposes a new approach to police reforms in India. Based on this, a group of former police officers in the country is working on a blueprint for what is known as a Business Initiative for Professional Policing (BIPP). Four cities - Mumbai, New Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore - will each shortly see a project that will utilise the business community to impart customer orientation to police operations. To be funded by the Ford Foundation, each city will conceive a project addressed to local needs. Those under consideration include building a model police station, enhancing road safety through educating motorists, and imparting computer instruction to segments of lower police ranks. A business body - such as the Indian Merchants Chamber of Commerce (IMC) in Mumbai and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in New Delhi, is expected to play the leadership role. It will be assisted by a group of former police officers with a good knowledge of grassroots policing. There will be a full-time coordinator to monitor each project, who will act as a link between the police and the Advisory Committee to be formed for the purpose.

In the ultimate analysis, the bane of the Indian scene is the extreme cynicism that marks perceptions of the police. Policemen and the public are equally emphatic that the rot is too deep-rooted for any salvage operation to succeed. It is this despondency that is a major obstacle to projects such as those launched by Vera. Success here will depend heavily on the dedication and perseverance of those who pilot it in the initial stages. The hope is that Vera will find such men and women who, more than others, know that if they succeed, they could be inaugurating a new chapter in the chequered history of the Indian police, a chapter that could prove to be a watershed in the long and frustrating struggle to enhance police professionalism.

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