Policing the metropolises

Print edition : January 19, 2002

The police in India's urban areas need to equip themselves in anticipation of even larger populations in the future.

SCHOLARS the world over tend to concentrate on the problems of the police in an urban context, apparently at the cost of issues that cry out for attention in the rural areas. This is unfortunate yet unexceptionable, considering the enormous complexity of modern urban life, which has enlarged the police charter to sectors beyond the wildest dreams of even the greatest of visionaries. The media are also partly responsible for this phenomenon, as it is urban crime that makes for a better copy for most of the scribes and TV personalities. I too cannot resist the temptation of devoting this column to certain features of the urban scene in India and the police response thereto.

Unlike people in most other countries, we in India have resigned ourselves to an unbridled growth of cities. Governmental efforts to halt the urban chaos have been modest and most plans only exist on paper. Private industry has shown some concern, but what it has done to move its establishments from urban to semi-urban and rural areas has not had the desired effect of easing the pressures on the cities. There is therefore nothing on the horizon that points to a lessening of numbers. The police in all the four metropolises will not only have to contend with the existing numbers but will also have to make projections for at least the next decade. Any ad hoc and short-term assessment of needs will only serve to reduce the already poor quality of police service. Consequently, the situation calls for pragmatic planning and foresight from the police leadership and the political executive.

The fundamental operative units are police stations. There is no doubt a frequent demand for increasing their numbers. Even the bitterest critics of the police among legislators are strong votaries of such accretion. Also, Directors-General of Police (DGPs) and Commissioners of Police very often pride themselves about the new stations inaugurated under their regime. But, does the solution lie merely in putting up more and more such stations? I personally believe that the indiscriminate opening of stations only burdens the state exchequer without bringing about a corresponding qualitative improvement in service. I would instead like to see a strengthening of the centralised police command which would have the wherewithal to respond quickly to crisis situations and to the average citizen's distress calls. A number of studies have indicated that ultimately police performance is evaluated not by the solving of crime but the speed with which the police respond to a crime in progress or one that has just been committed. I have in mind something like the '911' service that many cities in the U.S. boast of.

A call to telephone number 911 in the U.S. evokes an almost instantaneous response from the control room and causes the arrival of a patrol car at the scene. (Many semi-urban and rural police departments, which cannot afford the investment, are known to share this facility with neighbouring ones as a measure of cost cutting.) This service, known as Computer Assisted Despatch (CAD), has undergone marked refinements ever since I first observed it in Philadelphia and New York City in 1990. What I saw recently at the Phoenix Police Department was a revelation in terms of the automatic sorting out of the calls in terms of the severity of the reported incident and the speed of transfer of the calls from the desk of the receiver to that of the despatcher. The only problem that remains to be sorted out is the identification of the caller when he speaks from a cell phone. Since the number of such calls is on the increase, telephone companies are under pressure from the police to hit upon the right technology that will facilitate such identification. In addition to the swiftness built into the system, there is the assignment of a number to each call that renders suppression of incidents - with a view to dressing up crime statistics - almost impossible.

I know for certain that the Delhi Police uses CAD in some form. I am not all that sure about other cities. I remember seeing a model of it at the National Police Academy (NPA) several years ago. I would strongly commend its introduction in all major cities in the country. The investment is well justified by the distinct improvement in the speed of response and enhancement of public confidence in the police. The prowess of the Indian software industry assures me that this facility can be built at a modest cost. The distinct improvement in telephonic communication is another factor that encourages me to put forward this suggestion. The creation of a CAD system should be accompanied by the strengthening of police control rooms by means of additional manpower and an enlarged fleet of small fast-moving patrol cars. This strategy will pay a richer dividend than the present one of merely adding on to the number of police stations in each city.

ONE issue that dominates any discussion of public order strategy all over the world is whether the police should concern themselves with quality-of-life problems. The specific poser here is whether the police should take cognisance of people littering public places, defacing walls with graffiti, harassing passersby demanding alms, and creating noise pollution. There is one school of thought that is against the police intervening in such situations on the ground that policemen are already overburdened with graver issues and cannot afford the time involved in sorting out what should agitate solely the municipal authorities. I am not in agreement with them.

No other arm of the government has the authority or the clout to bring order to our cities, most of which have become hell-holes as a result of the unrestrained activities of misguided and overenthusiastic students staying away from classes, beggars pestering passersby for money, encroachers who consider it their right to display their wares on pavements meant for pedestrians and people who just stand and stare in public places doing nothing but causing obstruction to those who need to use thoroughfares for their legitimate movements. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani firmly believed that quality of life problems were definitely within the scope of the police charter. This gave momentum to the New York Police Department (NYPD) under the leadership of the then Commissioner Bill Bratton. This no doubt generated great controversy, and after Bratton's exit following a clash with the charismatic Mayor, the emphasis shifted. Interestingly, the new Commissioner, Ray Kelly, has made a public declaration that the NYPD will go back to its earlier strategy of handling those who prove themselves to be a public nuisance. A return to zero tolerance policing?

URBAN policing in India can ignore quality-of-life problems only at its own peril. Many instances of pocket-picking and harassment of women walking on the streets are committed by men who just stand and stare and seem to be doing nothing that could warrant police attention. By not questioning them, the police only encourage them to go on to serious crime. I concede that a proactive approach in the matter adds a definite element of aggression to policing. Can this be avoided in a modern world where terrorism rules the roost in many parts of the globe, which were havens of peace till the other day? An extra interest in the behaviour of men who just loiter in public places and cannot account for their presence in a particular place can only enhance community safety and keep the police on their toes. The police require an orientation that can be provided by policy guidelines from the executive. Here, I commend the initiative of elected officials such as Mayor Giuliani. However, enlightened public opinion needs to lend support to such strategies.

Finally, a crucial issue is how to involve the community in police work. During discussions with senior police officers in India, I always get the feeling that they are yet to comprehend fully the community's capacity to be their effective partner. Many of them pay only lip service to the concept of 'community policing' which has become a cliche used to impress external observers. The magnitude of the tasks of the police has become so enormous and public expectations have become so steep, that a police force that fails or refuses to exploit the resources of the community is doomed to failure. This is especially true in urban centres which attract floating populations of staggering proportions and provide sanctuaries to an underworld that knows no geographical borders.

At present, a few imaginative officers do use the public for certain traffic and crime prevention chores, but seldom anything beyond this. They hardly realise that the average citizen is a goldmine of information, relevant to police operations, on what is happening around him or her. There is no systematic effort to utilise this source to facilitate police endeavours. In some U.S. cities, a police officer (the equivalent of a member of the constabulary in India) is entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring and keeping in touch with assigned streets, in addition to his other duties. He then reports to his supervisors, events of even a low level of significance. In effect, he is pinned down to the task of interacting with the citizens of those streets under his charge so that nothing of police interest goes unnoticed. Accountability is thus established within the police for collection of intelligence with the active support and involvement of the community. The effectiveness of such a mechanism cannot be overstated, especially against the backdrop of terrorist designs, that have devastated large urban areas.

The value of educating the common man on crime prevention is again not understood well within the ranks of the police. The community has still not been told in no uncertain terms that such prevention is as much their responsibility as it is that of the police. Occasional perfunctory interaction with chosen citizens and distribution of handouts do not leave lasting impressions. The content of communication with the public will have to be concrete and down-to-earth. The accent should be on 'target hardening', namely, how to make the task of the criminal more and more difficult by strengthening physical security of homes and business establishments and ensuring that individuals observe basic precautions, at home and while they are in public places. The police can at best provide inputs for such education. The actual imparting of instruction will have to be the job of community leaders. For this purpose, the police will have to draft training capsules and administer them to group leaders. What I have in mind is the process called 'training of trainers', which will be the responsibility of the police. This strategy will bring great rewards in the form of lower rates of crime. A lot will depend on the interest shown by police supervisors themselves in crime reduction.

Urban policing provides enormous opportunities for rendering service to society. It is hard work under stressful circumstances. Taken seriously, it can enhance the image of the police, notwithstanding the usual deficiencies in performance. I can only cite the example of the New York Police. Up to September 10, the NYPD's image was not one which the administration was proud of. A number of scandals and specific proven violations of human rights had sullied its reputation. The members of the African-American community was at daggers drawn with the force because of an alleged police bias against them. The other segments of the population in the city were also not exactly its admirers. But September 11 changed it all. The heroic deeds of New York policemen on that day have transformed the public feeling into one of adoration. The flowers that pour in every day at the NYPD headquarters are testimony to the fact that the community appreciates hard and honest labour, especially in a crisis of the magnitude of September 11. It is the duty of senior Indian Police Service officers to convey this message to every policeman working under him or her.

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