Research will lead to Police Reform

Hardnews Bureau Delhi

Dr. Arvind Verma is a former IPS officer who served in Bihar. He holds a PhD in analysing criminal justice data using a variety of mathematical techniques, from Simon Fraser University, Canada. He is currently the Associate Professor in the Department of the Criminal Justice Programme and the Associate Director of the Indian Studies Programme at Indiana University. He has written extensively on the Indian police system, with several papers and books to his name. He has also worked as a consultant with the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPR&D). In this interview with Hardnews, Professor Verma talks about the urgent need for police reform and the systemic problems faced by the public institution.

Many years ago, Justice A N Mullah called the police an organised gang of criminals. Did you agree then? If so, has anything changed since then? Is there more accountability?

Justice Mullah’s comments were widely criticised and even the National Police Commission expressed concerns at such a sweeping and severe indictment. Criminological research suggests that the deviance of policemen is of three kinds: individual deviance which is usually called 'the rotten apple in the system'; pervasive but unorganised deviance, which involves some individuals but is not organised in any manner; and finally pervasive and organised deviance. Justice Mullah castigated the Indian police and said that they belonged to the third category but even today there is little evidence of this being the case.

The first two categories of deviant policemen unfortunately still exist. Extortion, bribery and corrupt practices at all levels are very much in evidence and frequently reported in the media. If misuse of force and violations of legal procedures are considered criminal (which they are) then the extent of deviance is certainly even larger but still unorganised.

The system which holds a policeman accountable remains unchanged since 1861. That was when the present system was enacted. However, greater citizen and media scrutiny empowered by social media technology such as cell phone cameras have forced the police to act with greater restraint. Indicting a guilty cop for wrongdoing remains difficult even today.

Do you think that the form of the FIR and the power it gives to the police is responsible for the current state of affairs regarding the institutional violence faced by Dalits and Muslims?

Institutional (or rather systematic) violence against Dalits and Muslims is not due to the problems of registering criminal complaints by the police. Even when an FIR is registered, follow up action against the accused remains mired in non-legal issues. The minorities are targeted by powerful segments of the society and the police role in preventing such violence is lamentable. Indeed, no meaningful preventive action is taken unless an immediate threat looms large; then, some patrolling may be initiated in their neighbourhoods. Professional action to curb criminal conduct right at the beginning, before violence occurs, is just not taken.

I believe the real failure on the part of the police occurs in not enforcing ‘social’ laws that largely affect the minorities and the poor sections. Laws criminalising untouchability, bonded labour, minimum wages, exploitative labour practices, gender discrimination and child exploitation are meant to protect the weaker sections for they are the most vulnerable. However, the police would rather choose to concentrate upon laws protecting the property and an individual's body to the exclusion of such legislations. The poor are ‘policed’ to keep the well-heeled and entrenched segments safe. Consequently, the police are perceived as acting on behalf of the rich and designated to subdue the poor.

Registering a FIR under these 'social' laws is rare and the police remain indifferent to their enforcement. To this extent, yes the police are responsible for the violence against weaker sections. But my experience suggests that most police officers remain ignorant of these laws and do not consider them to be real ‘crimes’.

In my book ‘Understanding the Police in India’ I present several case studies to illustrate how action under these social laws has a major impact in preventing violence against these vulnerable groups. 

What is at the heart of police reform? What is that one thing in your reckoning that needs to be done to change the Indian Police?

There is no single magic bullet that can kill the beast of poor policing of the country. This major institution has been systematically destroyed and made ineffective over a long period. But if there is any step that can help stop and perhaps reverse the process of destruction then it is through rigorous research of policing the largest democracy in the world. I explain the reasons for this innovative approach at length in my book ‘The New Khaki’.

But here are some talking points - research is needed to understand the challenges and weaknesses of the current state of policing. Most of the public and in-house discourse is based on unfounded assumptions and impressions rather than hard empirical facts. For example, the demand by the IPS calling for a 2-year tenure for DGPs (proclaimed by the Supreme Court in Prakash Singh case) is hardly a major hurdle in reform. In many states where specific individuals enjoyed tenure, more harm was done. IPS officers do not talk about tenure for subordinate ranks, for they too use this power of transfer as reward and punishment within the organisation.

Other examples of unfounded and ill-considered assumptions are about police functions - research suggests that common patrolling and deployment are ineffective in crime prevention. Criminal investigations are neglected, and the present system of policing is unable to deal with crime in a developing society. A lot of service functions that local police perform are undocumented and not even understood. All these are issues that need research. These would ultimately enable us to find ways to operate in an effective manner.

In my book, I also compare [the Indian situation] with the situation in the US where, too, the police system is heavily politicised, but they have been able to reform their system through research.

Consider the situation in the US - every year more than 3000 research papers are presented that question, evaluate, assess and criticise police functions, administration, attitude, training, culture, management and so on. Research involves gathering empirical data and its analysis, which in turn uses and promotes new technologies. Predictive policing, evidence-based policing, process-oriented policing, computational criminology. These are new methods that force and usher in change. No police chief in the US can be ignorant of these new developments and findings for he or she will be questioned in public and can be criticised for lacking basic knowledge of police work. This, in turn, leads to professionalism within the organisation and accountability.

I believe this is the best path for India as research involves employing external agents who begin to ask questions about basic foundations and assumptions of policing (as described above). They bring in new ideas and help bridge and strengthen police-community relations; force professionalism and transparency within the organisation and hold it accountable to the public. Most importantly, in the Indian context research provides an unobtrusive and indirect method of reform. No politician or bureaucrat will obstruct research of any kind but when the process is started and institutionalised its implications will be far reaching.

So much technology has been introduced at all levels in policing. Is it changing performance and mindsets? Has it helped bring about accountability?

Technology is certainly making a difference. Cell phones have made internal communication much more direct.It has not changed the mindset though. Even though technology is widely available, methods to use it for better performance, effectiveness and accountability have not been experimented with and thought of. Computers adorn every police officer's desk today but officers simply do not use it to enhance their productivity.

What is the impact of majoritarian politics on policing?

Policing cannot be divorced from politics and in any democracy, the police plays the role of state power. I think whomsoever controls the levers of power uses the police to further its hold and objectives. Policing is an exercise in discretion, and this is what is controlled by the party in power. The concept of police functioning within the ambits of law is ridiculous for the law itself provides extraordinary discretion to the officers. The impact of politics on police is the price of policing a democracy!

 

The police force in our country is largely seen as status-quo-ist, exploitative and an entity that feeds grievance against the Indian state. Why has democracy failed to check this? 

Indian democracy itself is limited and illiberal in nature. The political leadership controls all public institutions including the police. Failure of the police is clearly a failure of the political leadership. Furthermore, poor and exploitative political leadership is an outcome of citizen apathy and indifference to the democratic functioning of the state.