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Saturday, November 2, 2002

The recent episode of a high ranking official personally intervening in a case in Hyderabad once again brought to the fore the problems of policing in our society. As a result of colonial legacy, there is a perception that the police think and function as an oppressive force instead of fulfilling their role as guardians of law and order. In reality police perform their duties honestly and every year hundreds lay down their lives in the line of duty.

And yet, not a day goes by without allegations of political interference in crime investigation or physical abuse by police. The common man is terrified of dealing with the police. We need to create a system and culture where the citizen will start looking at the cop as a friend, and which restores the trust and integrity in the police force. The need of the hour is to take a fresh look at the policing needs of our society and create a modern, accountable, transparent and efficient force to fulfill those needs.

There are many bright youngsters who enter the force with high ideals, but are quickly demoralized by the insensitivity and humiliation they encounter at work. Quite a few of them end up with very low self-esteem. There is a sense of impotence and despair enervating the constabulary.

In most western democracies, there is a clear separation of crime investigation, with simple functions like traffic regulation, patrolling and other incidental functions handled by a force under the control of the local government. Public order is usually entrusted to a separate riot police. It is this independent crime investigation process which ensures that everyone, no matter how mighty and powerful, is truly equal before the law. No wonder Tony and Cherie Blair had to humbly appear before a local inspector to receive sermons on child-rearing when their son was caught drunk on the streets of London! It is this insulation of crime investigation from political vagaries, which sent the niece of President Bush to jail for violation of parole conditions, and his minor daughter to court facing criminal charges for purchase of alcohol.

Unfortunately in India, we don't distinguish between various types of policing as the same force is used for regulating traffic controlling, crowds, VIP security and crime investigation. Consequently, we have a force, which is not only inefficient but also grossly unprofessional and lacking in the modern skills of crime investigation.

Crime investigation is a quasi-judicial, highly skilled function, and we need to create an independent force with proper regulatory mechanisms. Traffic and local functions can be under local governments. Riot control can be under the state government. Instead of being mindless, obedient machines in a brutalized hierarchy, constables can be constituted into functional teams with clear lines of responsibility. Local courts and crime investigations can work in tandem instead of being at loggerheads and blaming each other for breakdown of criminal justice system. And the community and police can work in harmony, instead of at cross purposes.

Increasing urbanization is imposing an enormous burden on the already overstretched police force. We need practical, sensible, humane reforms. Good and credible policing with community participation is a great challenge of our times. All of us have a stake in it.