A new vision for policing?

Published : Oct 22, 2004 00:00 IST

There is a pressing need to review periodically the basic concepts that underlie policing so that a consensus can be built on its objectives and principles.

"How can professional police officers best adapt to a world in which their own efforts are only a part of the overall policing of a modern society? There is no perfect model for us, no example of a country that, to quote one European police officer, `has yet finalised the total transformation from force to service'."

Chris Patten (1999) in his report on policing in Northern Island.

EVER since 9/11, the police in many parts of the world have been under fire for their inability to contain terrorism. The 9/11 Commission's report was a severe indictment of the intelligence system that had become so intertwined with routine policing. The horror that one saw in Bali, Madrid and Beslan, as if in logical sequence to 9/11, contributed further to an erosion of public confidence in the preparedness of law enforcement agencies to meet the challenge.

These attacks raised the fundamental question whether the police and intelligence agencies, as presently organised, would ever be able to match the guile of Osama bin Laden and his ilk. Alongside this, in most parts of the globe, criticism of the police continues to be directed at their low capacity to tackle organised crimes such as trafficking in drugs, women and children and conventional crimes such as homicide, rape and robbery, which stalk the lives of law-abiding citizens in large cities.

Taken together, recent failures on the terrorist and, to an extent, on the crime front, have given rise to a pervasive feeling that the police have either run out of ideas or are simply incompetent. Harsh as it may seem, the basic truth of the charge against the police should sting professional policemen into reflecting on future strategies. Sadly, however, all of us miss the wood for the trees. What is the point in blaming police mechanics when what we need is attention to the whole concept of policing as it has evolved over the centuries.

To slightly digress, I must record here that the police rarely receive accolades for any smart piece of work. For instance, a full-fledged terrorist attack was predicted during the recent Athens Olympics. There was fear in the air when the Games began, but it vanished once the athletic action picked up momentum. By all accounts, the security arrangements at Athens were near perfect, which explained the absence of even a minor incident that smacked of mischief. One, therefore, expected paeans of praise for the Greek Police. Nothing of that sort has been heard, which is outrageous. The police, world over are taken for granted even as they suffer the image of a bumbling and uncivilised lot. This can and should change. This can happen only when the concept of policing itself is subjected to a periodical clinical review and a consensus built on what its objectives and priorities need to be.

It is not that the police are short of innovations. We do see experiments once in a while, which are undoubtedly imaginatively conceived. They aim at satisfying a wide spectrum of consumers. The record of many police forces, including those in Indian metros, is not all that unimpressive. Whatever I have seen in various parts of the world gives me the confidence that the police are not stagnant in their tactics. It is an entirely different matter that these have not paid full dividends and have not measurably enhanced police standing vis-a-vis the community.

Within India especially, I am gratified to see some Police Chiefs being vibrant and unique in their approach. They have displayed a commendable determination not to leave office without making a difference to the scene. This is heartwarming. For instance, in Mumbai, Police Commissioner Anami Roy has tried out several experiments, especially in the area of community needs and training of personnel at lower levels. These are promising, and I am told the common man has started talking about them. Given political and citizen support, I am sure the tribe of Roys will grow. I will not however rest content with this. I would like to go further to see whether the basic concepts that underly policing in our times receive a fresh look so that the police role is clearly defined, and there is an understanding of the problems that face the average policeman.

IN disciplines such as science and medicine, there have been many landmarks during the past century, which have transformed attitudes and improved the quality of our lives. The discovery of penicillin to combat deadly infection and the near-perfection of surgical skills to repair or replace defective human organs have greatly increased longevity. The arrival of the jet engine has revolutionised travel. The quality and reach of communications, aural and visual, have altered beyond recognition, with the ushering in of the satellite age, the Internet, and the cellular telephone.

I concede it would be preposterous to expect similar incredible happenings in areas such as policing, which has come to be regarded as a mundane calling. but being an inveterate optimist I am hopeful that a brilliant mind in some remote corner of the globe will come out with a proposition that will revolutionise the way police service is organised and delivered to the consumer. For this to happen, I believe we need a vision that will bring about much needed changes in the concept of policing itself. Such a concept will then lead us on to formulating strategies, from which will flow tactics.

It is not as though policing has not had the benefit of some original thinking. In the early 1920s and 1930s, one saw a group of progressives, chiefs of some U.S. police forces, such as Richard Sylvester (Washington D.C.), August Vollmer (Berkeley) and O.W. Wilson (Wichita, Kansas), pressing for the introduction of science and technology in the methods to solve crime.

To a large extent, they succeeded in altering the conventional mindset that afflicted police forces. They were followed by William Parker in the 1950s, who was responsible for transforming the image of the Los Angeles Police, which had till then been considered a corrupt and conservative force. All this was in reaction to the pernicious political influence over policing in major American cities, which transparent and dynamic police leaders thought was cutting into police effectiveness. These distinguished public servants brought some respectability to the police and helped to sharpen their operations.

The concept that a science and technology-oriented policing could enhance professionalism had not occurred to many until then. Lawrence Sherman, who now heads the famous Jerry Lee Centre for Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, would say: "The spirit of enquiry that guided the physicians (when they abandoned crude practices such as leeching of bad blood to cure diseases, in favour of more modern techniques) bypassed the police, leaving them with little else but 18th century theories until about 1970." The message that professionalism could be achieved through science and technology was absorbed swiftly across the Atlantic as well. We in India have not been as quick, but over the years, there have been slight signs of change on the police outlook to scientific investigation.

Beginning with the 1980s, a new school of thought, again in the U.S., disseminated the theory that policing could benefit from consumer participation in the production and delivery of service. This was not merely innovative, but actually revolutionary. Till then, it was believed that the producer and consumer were two entities ensconced in watertight compartments, an arrangement in which the role of the latter was only one of criticism. This was the genesis of `community policing', a much-vaunted phrase that was soon to become unfortunately a shibboleth. About the same time, one saw the rise of a similar school that coined the phrase `problem-solving policing'. This stood for attention to minor public order issues - such as drug dealing, abandoned motor vehicles and uncleared debris - which, when attended to promptly by the police and solved, enhanced police effectiveness, and, therefore, orderliness in the community.

Several names flood my mind as I talk of the two concepts - James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling (authors of the famous "Broken Windows" essay of 1982), David Bayley, Jerome Skolnick, Herman Goldstein and Jack Greene, all eminent American professors, who not only brought substance to policing theory, but invested enormous credibility to police research in the campuses. I must acknowledge here the impact that David and Jack have had on me personally. Men such as these alone can generate new concepts. It is sad that the Indian academic scene is poor in terms of attention to criminal justice, and policing in particular.

Unfortunately, right from its birth, policing was enmeshed with the political stream in every country. Instead of acquiring the rigidity and contours of a parallel community service such as medicine, which also treated pain and suffering, policing allowed itself to become the handmaiden of those who conceived it. It is this development that has proved to be the undoing of the police. Do we have a concept on the relationship that should prevail between the Executive and the Police? Should we meekly agree to an arrangement whereby the police are subordinate to the Executive? Does not policing fall more within the realm of those who interpret law, the Judiciary, than those who make it or implement it? We need to look at the whole concept of making the police a part of the Executive, an arrangement that might be in tune with the basic canons of democracy but which militates against professionalism and clinical objectivity.

It is distressing that terrorism has become an obsessive preoccupation with the police, at the cost of other services expected of them. Undoubtedly, the police have been outwitted and overpowered by bin Laden. The need of the hour is a concept of policing that will sound the death-knell to terrorism. I am not for a moment demanding a magic formula, but am looking for a coalescence of ideas, a meeting of minds of academics from a variety of disciplines such as political science, economics, criminal justice and psychology, with those of practising policemen, lawyers and jurists, so that we evolve an approach that marries theory with executive action.

WHAT about the larger issue of the role of the police? The charter of duties is galloping, much to the consternation of those who want less and less of government in our daily lives. The fears of a `police state' are somewhat in conflict with the stand of those who make laws that the police will have to be proactive in snuffing out anti-social elements. We saw this prominently in the debate over the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was replaced by a new Ordinance recently, and the Patriot Act in the U.S. Can we resolve the contradiction that is apparent here between policing and democracy? The debate over the superiority of `civil society' as conceived by Locke over the `state of nature', which Hobbes so vividly described, is eternal, but is vital to what we want the police to do in present times. Does policing have to be authoritarian or merely persuasive, or both?

Finally, a few thoughts on policing and ethics. The literature on the subject is weighty. It highlights the dilemmas that an average policeman faces, while out on the streets, to maintain order and prevent crime. The temptation to use force in order to obtain immediate results is irresistible. Equally alluring is the ease with which a policeman can appropriate extra-legal benefits through the exercise of his discretionary authority. Does the concept of ethics apply to policemen with the same severity as it does to the clergy or the judiciary? This requires clarity, in the absence of which we will continue to witness the scandals that have rocked the police in many countries in the past.

I would strongly recommend to readers Policing, Ethics and Human Rights (Willan Publishing, 2001) by Peter Neyroud, who now heads the Thames Valley Police in the U.K., and Alan Beckley, a police training manager. The authors lament that it is police performance that has received excessive attention at the cost of police processes. It is this oblique endorsement of the principle of `the end justifies the means' that has caused havoc to the police image. The two authors believe that the casualty is one of leadership. We need strong leaders who are committed to ethical policing. We will, however, get them only when there is all-round agreement, within and outside police forces, that policing and ethics are not incompatible. In the ultimate analysis, without value-based leadership, there is no way current concepts of policing will ever be reviewed and a vision for the future arrived at.

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