In a recent article in an American newspaper, the doyen among police scholars, Prof. David Bayley, expressed his anguish over what he considered to be a crisis in U.S. law enforcement. In his view this was caused mainly by three factors: race, police training and guns. There was an undeniable need for reform, but the prospects for this happening were bleak because of a multitude of factors, including the size of police forces, lack of political and community support.
The Indian police is exactly in the same situation. People are dissatisfied with the quality of service they are getting from the grass roots. They are frustrated with the same old alibi trotted out by the police: political interference. Do rudimentary courtesy to the public at a police station, registration of an FIR when a complaint is received, and acting against harassment of women in public spaces all need political direction? Not at all. The system therefore needs drastic restructuring, beyond cosmetics, in order to make policing more professional and more acceptable to the common man. Look at what other professions have done. In my view, the analogy here should be one with public health service. Despite its many faults, cost being a main drawback, our medical services have improved vastly through sheer professionalism backed by learning from experimentation.
How to professionalise
Those propounding evidence-based policing, a movement launched more than a decade ago both in the U.S and the U.K., often refer to success in the area of health care to strengthen the case for experiment-based law enforcement. Their plea is unexceptionable, especially in India, where the popular image of the police is not flattering. This is despite some remarkable work done by policemen at the cutting edge level. Notwithstanding some token efforts initiated by a few dynamic IPS officers in the larger cities, there is an overall reluctance to experiment with measures that could transform the police from a traditional outfit into a sleek modern force that is constantly looking for ways to upgrade delivery of its service.
A recent international conference organised by the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University was the occasion for some serious brainstorming on the issue of how to infuse some fresh thinking into the twin problems of maintaining public order and combating conventional crime. In effect, the task was how to make the police shed their slumber and arbitrariness in reacting to field developments and make them acquire a fresh mindset to cope with the dire needs of a society under attack.
On the face of it, the subject may appear cliched. In reality, however, the task of policing the community has become far too complex to permit the smug feeling that throwing increased manpower and use of new technology in themselves would be enough to steady a deteriorating situation. If this were so, policing all over the world would be in clover. The fact is, even in countries that have a strong legacy of clinical public administration, there is increasing disenchantment with the way the police handle major crises. This again leads us to only one question: can things improve with a greater scientific approach, and not necessarily the use of gadgets, to day-to-day police operations?
Simply put, policing has acquired many new connotations and a certain immediacy which cannot brook any delay. Terrorism and cyber attacks in particular are heightening the levels of fear of the community. How well have the police responded to this serious challenge to stability?
Stop muddling along
Talking to friends in the police across countries and continents, I get the feeling that many police leaders have thrown in the towel and are just muddling along. I may be accused of generalising and being cynical, but the basic truth is that policing has become far too routine and mechanical at a time when there is need for a drastically different response to events. Reactive policing was adequate to a community as long as it had its fundamentals unshaken. We are now living in tumultuous times, where violent crime grips major cities across the globe. How else would you account for the increasing number of homicides in an otherwise placid State such as Tamil Nadu? Here, anyone speaking against a rival political faction or a rival caste group now faces imminent threat. This in a region where there was until recently a fear of the law and an esteem for the police’s capacity to swoop on the offenders in quick time. Now, hired goons rule the day, and the police are afraid of them.
Styled as a conference on evidence-based policing (EBP), the gathering of academics and active police leaders at Cambridge endorsed the imperative to fine-tune traditional styles, which placed an emphasis solely on the mechanical use of police resources rather than an intelligent application of available skills.
Known as the father of EBP, Prof. Lawrence Sherman, the leading light of the Institute of Criminology, is a relentless crusader, who holds that mindless policing to appease the polity is wasteful and misdirected. He and his fellow scholars are pushing for rigorous experiments on the field and appraising their findings against the realities of the daily fight against crime. In their view, a controlled experiment will throw up any number of facts that could help sharpen police professionalism. They draw from the remarkable progress that medical science has made in recent decades by encouraging bold experiments.
Prediction and prevention
There are two areas in which EBP could deliver. These are prediction and prevention. The strategy is one of identifying ‘hot spots’ of crime and spotting problematic individuals in a community. The former task requires an analysis of events which are either crimes by themselves or border on crimes defined by law. There are certain geographic areas in each police jurisdiction which report more incidents than others. EBP goes beyond statistics and pinpoints the time and opportunities presented to a potential offender. As the seminal essay ‘Broken Windows’ carried by the Atlantic magazine several years ago pointed out, where there is public apathy and civic neglect, the prospects of crime are high. Fixing a street light that is not burning for several days, for instance, is an action that could contain crime. EBP studies phenomena such as these and highlights findings that are germane to crime prevention. Similarly, monitoring patterns of behaviour of a class of individuals who had come to the adverse notice of law enforcement is a logical way to predict whether they will again lapse into crime. Despite the unfairness in targeting those who had indulged in anti-social behaviour in the past and keeping a tab on their day-to-day activities, there is an expected benefit of being able to predict future criminal behaviour. It is not as if every convict will go back to crime once set free. Several studies have strengthened the belief that recidivism is not uncommon, and that many future crimes can be foiled by pinpointing who, more than others, could be expected to offend once more. There is a certain inexactitude in this approach that one should learn to live with.
These are the fundamentals to EBP, a discipline that is gaining credibility by the day. To dismiss it as pure academic hogwash would be irrational and blind to a fast deteriorating scene marked by high crime. I strongly believe that exposing our police officers to this concept would make them more professional, something that would certainly enhance the Indian police’s image, which is currently dismal.
R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director and a member of the International Advisory Board, of the Institute of Criminology, Cambridge University, U.K.