|Chinks in the armour
India has made rapid strides in many spheres in the 55 years since it attained independence, but there has been a sad decline in the sphere of law enforcement. This has impaired good governance and weakened our democracy. The police, the most important component of the criminal justice system, is often held solely accountable for this decline in the quality of law enforcement. This criticism of the police, though not entirely unmerited, is somewhat simplistic and does not take note of the many structural and systemic problems of the force.
The Indian police is governed by the Police Act of 1861, which envisaged the police as being “politically useful”. In other words, the police in India was to act as a defender of the establishment. Unfortunately, even after independence, this character of the Indian police did not change. The police remained alienated from the public and continued to be viewed as the coercive arm of the government that merely punished and did not befriend.
A number of police commissions set up by different state governments in the Sixties made recommendations to strengthen and reorganize the police. Some of them were implemented but many were left in the cold storage. The national police commission (1978-80) was appointed by the Centre under the chairmanship of Dharam Vira. Along with other reforms in the management and organization of the police, it recommended the establishment of institutional mechanisms to insulate the police from extraneous influence. It felt that without internal autonomy and accountability to the law, the police would not be able to function effectively and safeguard the rights of the people.
The national human rights commission endorsed these recommendations, saying that there was a yearning in the country for an “upright police force functioning with propriety and fairness which can be relied on to protect the rights of the citizens”. The NHRC filed a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court asking it to issue directions to the Central and state governments to implement the NPC’s recommendations. But the apex court is yet to decide on the matter.
But the police must also take steps to bring about a qualitative improvement in work culture, to streamline the organizational structure and to bridge the gap between the police and community.
The problems of law enforcement in the country today have become difficult with escalating crime, increasing violence, falling rates of conviction and the growing criminalization of the political system. The police are proving unable to cope with all this with their limited resources. Given all this, the police will have to rely on public support. In fact, the public has to be seen as collaborators with the police in maintaining safety and order.
Community policing emerged in the Seventies and Eighties in the United States of America and other Western countries with the realization that the professional bureaucratic model of policing was lessening contact with the public and was not leading to any reduction in crime. Officers were losing touch with those they were meant to serve. Community-oriented policing breaks down the anonymity of the police and diminishes the distance between the police and the public. It puts a face to the uniform.
Those who cooperate with the police may fear reprisal from criminals. To win their confidence, the police must show that they sincerely seek the community’s help in combating crime.
Of course, crime cannot be prevented only by law enforcement agencies. The police’s capacity to reduce and to control crime is limited by social and economic forces over which they have no control. Thus for meaningful crime prevention, the role of the police has to be transformed. The range of police activity has to expand from mere law enforcement into actively suggesting solutions to social problems to several levels of the government. The police, once regarded the defenders of status quo, have become the best hope for those who want progressive social change at the grassroots. To this end, the police bosses must think of developing new proactive strategies to effectively face new challenges. They will have to re-evaluate core strategies, organizational structures, management practices, occupational culture and democratic accountability.
There should be concrete efforts to upgrade the quality and skill of the constables or reduce their number. The mostly ill-motivated and ill-trained constabulary is the Achilles’s heel of the Indian police force.
Most constables retire in the same rank, without any promotion. The NPC recommended that the promotional structure of the police force should be radically altered to permit smooth and quick promotions. But two decades after the publication of the NPC report, no meaningful steps have been taken to empower constables or improve their career prospects. Unless something is done about the predominantly mechanical role assigned to constables, the cutting edge of the police force will remain blunt.
The police must also become more professional. They must acquire new skills and constantly endeavour to refine and improve them, especially since the police will become more of group motivators and agents of change in coming times.
Then there must be decentralization of the command structure. Though the police is a hierarchical and centralized organization, very often officers lower down the order exercise considerable discretion when they are working alone and need to take decisions fast. The work of the police is thus beset with a fundamental paradox. The formal and informal structures of authority in policing are thus not congruent.
There should also be manpower audit and the increasing use of civilians in non-enforcement jobs. In many countries, civilians are now replacing police officers, reducing costs by about a half. At present, over 30 per cent of police employees in Britain and 27 per cent in the US are civilians, who have taken over administrative chores like report-writing, data-entry and other non-enforcement jobs from the operational forces.
Note must also be taken of new global trends towards privatization of police services. In the US in 1990, private security agencies employed two-and-a-half-times as many people as the police force. The phenomenal growth of private security services clearly shows that the public do not expect the police to deal with all kinds of situations and crimes. In India, especially, there is much scope for partnership between the police and private security agencies.
But these in-house reforms need to be supplemented by enlightened political will in order to improve policing standards in the country. Or else, the promise that independence brought with it will not be fulfilled. Social and economic progress cannot take place in the midst of chaos after all.