Transforming police image

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

Is customer relations management the answer?

I AM just back from an international conference on the current state of democracy in India from the perspective of federalism. In an overwhelmingly academic crowd, I was one of a handful of former bureaucrats.

During the course of the conference, a young smart professor referred to an all-India survey on governance, with special reference to the performance of government agencies. I could detect near-glee on his face when he stated that the police came last in the public perception. Naturally, I felt small and somewhat diminished. In Mumbai, I tried to sell the idea of a police-private partnership to improve police delivery of service to a group of businessmen. Here again I am subjected to a barrage of questions as to why the police are so inhuman and cannot help a citizen in distress. One person in the group told me that whenever somebody rang up a police station desperately for help, he was greeted with the curt response that there was nobody available, as everyone, including the sub-Inspector was away on bandobust (whatever that means). I was further told that even when an intruder was apprehended by the inmates of a house or his neighbours for theft, the police did not react swiftly to take the offender into custody.

Now a commoner, after nearly four decades in the agency, whenever I hop into a taxi in any city, my stock question to the taxi driver is what he thinks of the police. The feedback is invariably one of contempt and derision, laced with stories of unabashed corruption and extortion. This is sad and appalling when one considers the amount of money spent on the police each year, for equipment, training and policemen's welfare.

Why should this be so 50 years after India got rid of the foreign rulers who, incidentally, gave us a highly dubious system while themselves settling for a far more transparent arrangement where submission to the law was placed above subservience to the person in authority? Or, am I barking up the wrong tree when I accuse the police of insensitivity? Is it not true that even if we opted for a structure and mode of recruitment similar to the British, we may not be able to produce a police force that will be law-abiding and oriented to serving the common man? These are issues that we have wrestled with for decades without reaching anywhere.

The Indian police have done extremely well in tackling terrorism. Handling of routine political agitations and similar threats to law and order has also been reasonably satisfactory, although one could pick holes accusing them of partisanship. Crime investigation has been good in patches, with some amazing stories of brilliance. Traffic management has been professional and could improve with greater discipline among road users and stricter licensing by the authorities who, unfortunately, are no longer accountable to the police. Tales of police heroism during crises such as natural calamities have been many and these have brought credit to the whole police.

Why is it that, in spite of all these positive attributes, the police are objects of contempt and ridicule? Why is it that public trust in them is almost non-existent? We have produced world class scientists, software engineers, writers, and businessmen. Why can we not produce world class policemen? Except for Kiran Bedi, who has brought laurels to the Indian police with her recent appointment to the United Nations, we have not made waves in the international criminal justice field. Can we at all produce another Kiran Bedi?

I can be accused of dwelling on a hackneyed subject. But I am inclined to bring up this issue time and again in my column and in public lectures in the hope that somewhere a spark will ignite itself and lead to a miracle in the form of a smart and acceptable police force, somewhat similar to that in the West or in Japan where the average policeman is respected and not spurned as an abnormal and brutal human being. I know that the blame lies not merely within the police but rests also on the executive, the ruling and Opposition parties, the judiciary, and the citizen who often adopts double standards, one for himself when he is caught by the police for a violation of the law and one for the rest of humanity.

ALL reports on the police reform in India pinpoint the forbidding ambience in the police station as the chief cause for the odium that the agency has picked up over the years. Critics are positive that unless there is a change at the police station level, nothing else will bring about a transformation of the image of the police. This is a view that all police officers share but rarely act upon. I strongly believe that if we focus on this issue, half our battle will have been won.

Two specific grievances of the public cry for attention. The first is the feeling a visitor to a police station gets that he is most unwelcome. One does not necessarily expect to be received with a polite greeting or offered a cup of tea. The minimum that he desires is to be taken notice of and asked what he wanted. Very often he is either totally ignored or rudely questioned as to what brought him to the station, as if it was an act of impropriety to have stepped into the premises. It is either cold neglect or downright hostility that is dished out to anyone who bundles up courage to go to a police station and ask for service. The second relates to the reluctance of a Station House Officer (SHO) to draw up the First Information Report (FIR) on receipt of a complaint that makes out a cognisable offence. We saw this in full measure during the Gujarat riots last year. This is not confined to the Gujarat Police alone, but is a `national disease'. Since every government wants to prove to the rest of the world that crime is under check under its regime, there are word-of-mouth instructions to be very selective in registering crime. I see no end to this evil as long as police performance is measured only in terms of statistics and the Opposition in the Legislature exploits crime figures to damn a government. An enlightened Opposition which keeps politics out of policing is one of many things that we need to enhance professionalism. But the point is that, until this miracle happens, citizens will have to encounter an obdurate SHO who sees no great merit in rushing with filing an FIR.

My conviction is that we can bring about a modicum of improvement in satisfaction levels vis-a-vis the police by borrowing from business practices. My reference is to the concept of Customer Relations Management (CRM). CRM has worked wonders in private enterprise. There is no reason why it cannot make a difference to policing. For a moment, it is not my case that CRM is not in vogue in policing. It is my perception that whatever is being practised is muted and there is scope for enhancing and broadening police perceptions of the impact it carries.

There are many aphorisms which the voluminous literature on CRM throws up. "The customer is always right" is one that needs highlighting here, if only to make the grassroots policemen understand that if they want to give a better account of themselves, they should listen to those who come to them for help. A police force that shuts itself to feedback from the public is doomed to fail in whatever it does to enhance public safety. So, the starting point for reforms at the police station level is the initiation of a dialogue between the SHO and those who live in his jurisdiction. There are departmental instructions on the subject that contemplate the creation of Village Vigilance Committees (VVCs) that discuss policing issues at the station level.

Unfortunately, a majority of the VVCs exist only on paper and come to life whenever a senior officer visits a station for the ritual of inspection. Otherwise they are dormant. Unless these bodies are taken seriously and become real forums of debate, there is no salvation for policing at the grassroots. Apart from generating information on live issues vital to the police, they bring about a willingness to listen and sharpen skills of meaningful interaction. Supervisory officers will have to be indoctrinated in this area so that they motivate SHOs to use the device of VVCs and similar outfits.

WHAT visitors to police stations need most is the extension of basic courtesies to them while transacting business. This is very much in short supply in the ambience. This situation can definitely improve through training. "Can I help you?" is what you normally hear when you ring up the office of a private enterprise. It does not cost very much to persuade policemen to say this when somebody calls up or visits a police station. I have mentioned this earlier in my column. At airport security checkpoints in our country, Central Industrial Security Force personnel have been taught to greet every passenger with a "good morning" or "Have a good flight". This has been very favourably commented upon by many passengers, including some foreign visitors. Why can we not do the same thing in our police stations? I can hear many readers say that such cosmetic changes do not mean anything to a citizen who does not get genuine service that he expects from the police. I beg to differ from such a negative response. All major revolutions get kickstarted through such incremental measures. When a policeman starts behaving courteously, it is a matter of time before he begins to act correctly.

The next stage in the process of sharpening police responses is community policing, where you not only receive a feedback, but you actually get the public to work hand-in-hand with the police. CRM contemplates enhancing the value of a product or service through involving the customer at different stages. Professors C.K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy of the University of Michigan Business School have written extensively in this area. They believe that thanks to the Internet, "consumers have moved out of the audience and onto the stage". According to them, leading corporations have greatly benefited from utilising the core competence of groups of consumers. ("The competence that customers bring is a function of the knowledge and skills they possess, their willingness to learn and experiment, and their ability to engage in an active dialogue.") Can the police not do something to exploit the enormous reservoir of talent that is available in the citizenry so that policing becomes a vibrant partnership from a mere unilateral exercise of authority that serves vested interests most of the time? Community policing is real in some regions, especially in the south, but is a mere shibboleth elsewhere.

I may sound abstract here, but there are brilliant young men and women in the police force who can translate this into practical guidelines that inspire those in police stations. This column is written more out of anguish than anger. Many past police officers like me know that policing is becoming more and more complex each year. When one considers the odds against which they are operating, quite a large number within the force have been giving a splendid account of themselves. This is not enough. A majority are lagging behind in terms of professionalism and honesty of purpose. This is no doubt a reflection of the existing ambience in the country. But my appeal to policemen is not to be overshadowed by this. They are fortunate to be part of a profession that is as noble as the medical profession, and if they do not pull their weight, the health of the society is bound to become graver than it is today.

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