CCTV cameras in police stations: An eye in the sky for cops

The Supreme Court orders installation of CCTV cameras and video recording equipment at all police stations in the country in a bid to prevent the occurrence of human rights violations.

Published : Dec 23, 2020 06:00 IST

At the inauguration  of a CCTV facility at the Thoothukudi South police station in Tamil Nadu on September 23.

At the inauguration of a CCTV facility at the Thoothukudi South police station in Tamil Nadu on September 23.

To put in place an effective mechanism to deter violation of civil rights, torture and deaths in custody in police stations, the Supreme Court has issued an exhaustive set of guidelines to the Union Home Ministry and all States and Union Territories on the need to install high-resolution closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras and video recording equipment, which, it said, must function 24 hours a day in all police stations across the country.

Activists say that these guidelines will have far-reaching implications for the general functioning of law enforcement agencies by making them accountable for any rights violations in criminal investigations and will largely benefit the victims of custodial violence in the country.

Responding to a special leave petition (SLP) in Paramvir Singh Saini vs Baljit Singh & Ors , a Bench of Justices R.F. Nariman, K.M. Joseph, and Aniruddha Bose on December 2 issued a 20-point charter of guidelines that explained in detail the importance of installing CCTV cameras in all police stations to prevent abuses. The Bench even issued directions on the positioning of such cameras and their quality and storage capacity and on the issue of video recordings of crime scenes, besides ordering formation of monitoring committees at various levels, including the districts.

The judges pointed out that the court, responding to an SLP in Shafhi Mohammad vs State of Himachal Pradesh (2018), on April 3, 2018, directed the Ministry of Home Affairs to set up a central oversight body (COB) to implement the plan of action with respect to the use of videography in crime investigation.

The court had then said that it was time to upgrade the directions on police and custody issued by it in D.K. Basu vs State of West Bengal & Others listing a 10-point “Do’s and Don’ts” for law enforcement agencies while investigating a case.

It had also directed that an independent body ought to be created in every State to study the CCTV camera footages and periodically publish a report of its observations. The COB, it said, should issue appropriate directions from time to time “so as to ensure that use of videography becomes a reality in a phased manner”. It had set a deadline of July 15, 2018 for the first phase of implementation of the guidelines.

The Ministry of Home Affairs formed the COB on May 9, 2018, “to oversee the implementation of the use of photography and videography in the crime scene by the State/Union Territory Government and other Central Agencies, to suggest the possibility of setting up a Central Server for implementation of videography, and to issue appropriate directions so as to ensure that use of videography becomes a reality in a phased manner.” It issued directions to all Central agencies, States and Union Territories to implement effectively the guideline to use photography and videography at crime scenes, and to furnish action taken reports.

However, the apex court felt that its orders in Shafhi Mohammed were not adhered to in letter and spirit. Hence, on July 16 this year, responding to the SLP in Paramvir Singh Saini , it issued further notice to the Ministry of Home Affairs on the question of audio and video recordings of statements under Section 161 of the Criminal Procedure Code, as well as the larger question of installation of CCTV cameras in police stations in general.

It also urged all the States to file action taken reports.

Also read: Sathankulam: Terror in uniform

The States of West Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Nagaland, Karnataka, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Sikkim, Mizoram, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Manipur and the Union Territories of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry had filed compliance affidavits and action taken reports as of November 24.

But the court found that a majority of these documents had no details such as the exact position of CCTV cameras in police stations and contained inadequate details on aspects such as the cameras’ working conditions, availability and details of recordings.

Hence, it asked senior officials of the Home Department of all States and Union Territories, including those that had already filed the “so-called compliance affidavits till date”, to file detailed compliance affidavits within six weeks of December 2, the date of the order. It urged States to form oversight committees at the State and district levels.

Monitoring committees

According to the court, the State-Level Oversight Committee (SLOC) must consist of top officers from the Home and Finance Departments and the Director General and Inspector General of Police, besides the Chairperson or a member of the State Women’s Commission. The District-Level Oversight Committee (DLOC) should consist of senior district officers, the District Magistrate, the Superintendent of Police, and the mayor or Heads of the Zilla Panchayats.

The SLOCs, the court directed, should carry out the instructions of the Supreme Court in these matters besides facilitating the purchase, distribution and installation of CCTVs, obtaining the budgetary allocation, monitoring the maintenance of CCTVs and equipment, and carrying out inspections and addressing grievances, and seek monthly reports from the DLOCs.

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The Station House Officer of every police station should be responsible for CCTV data maintenance, backup of data, fault rectification, etc., it said. The DLOCs’ role was to maintain and monitor the CCTVs in the police stations of their localities, interact with the SHOs on the maintenance and functioning of the CCTVs and send monthly reports to the SLOC about the functioning of the CCTVs.

The DLOCs must also review CCTV footages in the police stations to check for any human rights violation that might have occurred but not been reported.

The court further directed the Finance Departments of all States and Union Territories to provide funds for the same at the earliest.

Besides, it issued directions to the SHOs of all police stations to maintain CCTVs and immediately report any fault or malfunctioning of CCTVs to the DLOCs. If the CCTVs were not functioning in a particular police station, the SHO concerned should inform the DLOC of the arrests/interrogations carried out in that police station during the period and forward the record to the DLOC. If the SHO concerned had reported malfunctioning or non-functioning of CCTVs of a particular police station, the DLOC should immediately request the SLOC for repair or purchase of equipment.

Positioning of CCTV cameras

To ensure that no part of a police station was left uncovered, the court said: “It was imperative to ensure that CCTV cameras were installed at all entry and exit points; main gate of the police station; all lock-ups; all corridors; lobby/the reception area; all verandas/outhouses, Inspector’'s room; Sub-Inspector’'s room; areas outside the lock-up room; station hall; in front of the police station compound; outside (not inside) washrooms/toilets; Duty Officer’s room; back part of the police station, etc.” CCTV systems must be equipped with night vision facility and must necessarily consist of audio as well as video footage. In areas without electricity, alternative sources of power such as solar power and wind energy should be provided.

CCTV cameras must then be installed with such recording systems so that the data that is stored can be preserved for a period of 18 months. If the recording equipment currently available in the market does not have the capacity to store recordings for 18 months, the storage capacity for a shorter period of time, not below one year, may be bought, the court said.

In cases of serious injury and custodial deaths, complaints are to be made not only to the State Human Rights Commission but also to Human Rights Courts, which must be set up in each district of every State and Union Territory. “The Commission/Court can then immediately summon CCTV camera footage in relation to the incident for its safe keeping, which may then be made available to an investigation agency in order to further process the complaint made to it,” it said.

Also read: T. N. custodial deaths prima facie murder: High Court

The court also said the Union government should file an affidavit with it on the constitution and workings of the COB, and directed the government to install CCTV cameras and recording equipment in the offices of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the National Investigation Agency (NIA), the Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB), the Department of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), the Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO) and other such agencies. “The COB shall perform the same function as the SLOC for the offices of investigative/enforcement agencies mentioned above, both in Delhi and outside Delhi wherever they be located,” the court added.

The apex court said that the SLOCs and the COB must give directions to all police stations and investigating/enforcement agencies to prominently display information about the CCTV coverage at the entrance and on the premises.

Prominent display

It said: “This shall be done by large posters in English, Hindi and vernacular language. In addition to the above, it shall be clearly mentioned therein that a person has a right to complain about human rights violations to the National/State Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Court or the Superintendent of Police or any other authority empowered to take cognizance of an offence. It shall further mention that CCTV footage is preserved for a certain minimum time period, which shall not be less than six months, and the victim has a right to have the same secured in the event of violation of his human rights.”

It added: “Since these directions are in furtherance of the fundamental rights of each citizen of India guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, and since nothing substantial has been done in this regard for a period of over two and a half years since our first Order dated 03.04.2018 [ Shafhi Mohammed case], the Executive/Administrative/police authorities are to implement this Order both in letter and in spirit as soon as possible. Affidavits will be filed by the Principal Secretary/Cabinet Secretary/Home Secretary of each State/Union Territory giving this Court a firm action plan with exact timelines for compliance with today’s Order. This is to be done within a period of six weeks from today,” it said while issuing guidelines on December 2.

The bench posted the case to January 27, 2021, for further hearing. Siddhartha Dave, senior advocate, was the amicus curiae.

While welcoming the guidelines, Henry Tiphagne, executive director of a Madurai-based rights organisation called People’s Watch, told Frontline that these directions from the apex court assumed a lot of significance particularly in the backdrop of the recent custodial deaths of a father-son duo at Sathankulam in Tamil Nadu, which the CBI is investigating.

Also read: DISPATCHES | CBI names nine policemen in charge sheet in Sathankulam custodial deaths case

People’s Watch and Evidence, also a Madurai-based rights organisation, were the two intervenors in the SLP in the Paramvir Singh Saini case.

Intervenors’ pleas

Giving written submissions before the court, Henry Tiphagne said: “Custodial deaths and torture in police stations across the country have registered a sharp increase. We need a proper monitoring mechanism. It is heartening that the Supreme Court has intervened now.”

He said that the earliest direction on CCTVs was from the Bombay High Court in Leonard Xavier Valdaris vs Officer-in-Charge (2014) to the State government to “install and maintain closed circuit television (CCTV) with rotating cameras in every corridor, room and lock up of each police station so that every part of the police station is covered 24 hours of the day and to preserve such footage for a minimum of one year.”

The Bombay High Court, he said, took note of Amnesty International’s 2010 Report on Spain, which noted that complaints of custodial violence reduced by almost 40 per cent in police stations where CCTV cameras were installed.

Later, in line with this court’s observations in D.K. Basu vs State of West Bengal and Shafhi Mohammed vs State of Himachal Pradesh , some High Courts had directed the installation of CCTV cameras, which he claimed were often observed only in the breach.

Henry Tiphagne said: “The purpose here is twofold: one, accountability in the custodial situation; two, speedy remedy in case of abuse. Neither purpose will be served unless the operation is open to a simultaneous review by agencies independent of the police and the executive. We have submitted a brief summary from a 2013 paper titled ‘Video Recording in Police Custody: Addressing Risk factors to prevent torture and ill-treatment’ by a United Kingdom-based organisation called Penal Reform International.”

Advocate Nithya Ramakrishnan appeared for the intervenors.

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