Public safety is a distant dream

The latest Central budget brought a fresh cheque for the Nirbhaya fund, leading to debates about existing fund utilization and efficiency. At both the Central and state levels, the efforts around women's safety are focused on front-end solutions - closed-circuit televisions, street lighting, women police and even an increase in the quantum of compensation for survivors of sexual assault.

By ANTHONY KHATCHATURIAN
  • Published 19.04.18
  •  

The latest Central budget brought a fresh cheque for the Nirbhaya fund, leading to debates about existing fund utilization and efficiency. At both the Central and state levels, the efforts around women's safety are focused on front-end solutions — closed-circuit televisions, street lighting, women police and even an increase in the quantum of compensation for survivors of sexual assault.

This masks the debacle that is the back-end of fighting crime in general, of which sexual assault forms one part. Attempts at introducing new (albeit only to India, since western agencies have had solutions for decades) technologies, the merging of existing databases and a mammoth try to digitize every police station in the country have failed at the hands of leaders of all political hues.

At the core of policing lies the collection of, and real-time access to, information. The categories are many, but the key components are photographs, names, addresses, DNA, vehicle details, intelligence and crime records. The benefits of having a single, large and quickly accessible database are innumerable. For example, the Automatic Number Plate Recognition system is a simple CCTV camera connected to the database, photographing and processing hundreds of number plates per minute and flagging vehicles that are stolen, involved in crime or have expired insurance, all at the touch of a button. The same applies to DNA, fingerprint and photograph databases. Wherever these exist, the police solve decades-old crimes by running people's details through the central database and getting instant results. The critical component — the feeding of detailed information into the system — is time consuming, but the front-end capability is an invaluable resource.

The Metropolitan Police Service — the Scotland Yard — launched the highly-effective Homicide Prevention Unit. It closely monitors reports of domestic violence and tracks their escalation through the Crime Reporting Information System and the CrimInt (criminal intelligence system), with an intervention when a threat to life is imminent. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has had the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program for decades. It is a database of violent crimes across the United States of America, used as a learning tool to apprehend outstanding or new violent criminals, mostly repeat sexual offenders and murderers, commonly known as serial killers. None of this would be possible without central databases.

The Indian scenario is in a shambles. The Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems is ineffective owing to a lack of implementation. Some states have introduced it, but most have not, thus making CCTNS useless. It relies on basic infrastructure such as broadband internet, trained staff and a reliable electricity supply, most of which are not available in our districts. The DNA profiling bill has been stalled on account of privacy, security and oversight issues. It is worth noting that DNA data has indirect benefits; people processed for minor crimes have been flagged as being closely related to someone wanted for major crimes. This helps the police move in on the target quickly.

Vehicle databases suffer from segregation. Each state has one, the Centre has another and the police are locked out of all without any real time access. A Central vehicle insurance database remains a dream. In an age of terrorism, facial recognition has failed to make an appearance at our public places. The antiquated Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Penal Code, combined with a dearth of university courses in criminal and forensic sciences, has left the Indian Police Service blind and toothless. It is legally and academically unable to investigate anything. Sergeants, sub-inspectors and inspectors are the only police personnel legally empowered to investigate, while the IPS is limited to a management role instead of being specialist detectives. Various states send a few IPS officers to the US, Israel or the United Kingdom for courses, but those countries have the databases required to turn training into delivery in the field, which the IPS does not have. Forensics are equally dismal: laboratories are few, high quality ones fewer, and trained forensic evidence collectors are almost non-existent. The Information Technology Act was passed in 2000, but the government examiner for electronic documents has not yet been notified, leaving the question of digital forensics hanging in mid-air.

The absence of central databases weakens public security in other branches of life: doctors, teachers, taxi drivers and maids can all move freely between jobs with no system in place to monitor either criminal activity or professional problems. We recently saw what the banking sector is vulnerable to on account of a lack of monitoring. The nation prides itself on providing IT architecture to foreign clients. But the public security solutions provided by such facilities remain in the theoretical stages at home. This leaves India vulnerable to more crimes like the Delhi gang rape.