Cops, covid and the citizen

JACOB PUNNOOSE

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COVID, along with its prevention, puts citizens in double jeopardy: if it spreads unchecked, millions will die; but total lockdowns deprive people of rights and livelihoods, driving the marginalized to abject poverty, destitution, malnutrition and other diseases, which too will cost millions of lives. When, all on a sudden, we set out to contain the virus by a lockdown, we could not fully fathom its far-reaching consequences. It is indeed a Hobson’s choice. We are fated to be victims either of Covid or of Covid defence – and perhaps of both. This dichotomy affects government policy, public attitudes, and the responses of those affected by restrictions.

The police are not Covid experts. The National Disaster Management Policy 2009 considers the police as the first and key responders due to their reach, 24-hour presence, local knowledge and organized capability for immediate response. As early as 1980, the National Police Commission had recommended that ‘the police should... be trained and equipped… in providing relief to people in distress situations.’

These recommendations should have resulted in special training for the general constabulary in disaster rescue, but that has hardly ever taken place. With neither vaccine nor medicine in sight, the urgency of the situation led to a sudden lockdown declared in end March 2020. In form, if not in purpose, it was akin to curfew and social distancing was akin to crowd control. In these the police are presumed to have domain knowledge. So, without special training or much preparation, the cops suddenly found themselves in the role of Covid fighters. And their early responses reflected that.

 

The lockdown presented an opportunity for a style of policing that relied on soliciting and emphasizing cooperation to achieve a common good. This is materially different from a curfew approach, where threat or use of force is the conventional systemic option to achieve the immediate purpose of quelling a riot. The goal remains the same: to get people to obey the rules.

Happily, at several places, many police leaders looked for non-confrontationist approaches alongside traditional enforcement. Constant vigil, social media propagation of proper Covid defence behaviour through innovations like dances, songs, dramas, interaction with people, distribution of food, sanitizers and essentials to the poor, outstanding acts of compassion, community engagement with NGOs were reported from all over India. The sincere work of field level officers catering to the needs of women, children, the aged and the disabled touched the hearts of many and was highlighted in the media.

For the first time law enforcement was understood and perceived as a need of the people, rather than that of any ruling class. An appreciation of the risks the police had to endure evoked admiration and sympathy. Organizations donated PPE kits while others were happy to ensure creature comforts at duty points. The goodwill for police personnel as virus-fighters far exceeded what they are used to muster as crime fighters!

In a country where for centuries the police has been held in mistrust, two factors contributed to the image change. First, the obvious hard work and innovation that departed from customary style policing. The other was the perceived role of the police as guardian and risk taker on behalf of the community. When gripped by a new fear the one who guards becomes the hero of the dependent. The public admired a bit of excessive zeal and accepted that there was no practical option but a limitation on civic freedoms and leeway in adhering to procedural safeguards. Temporarily, trust levels zoomed.

Yet, it is idle to pretend that everything was hunky dory. Nearly all the basic rights of the people were negatively affected by the lockdown. To the very poor, the sudden loss of livelihood signified a bigger threat than the virus. Compliance with Covid protocols was often too burdensome or impossible. This made policing tasks very difficult. In most places, for want of any better alternative within the conventional behavioural and response system, aggressive domination, the bane of all post-colonial policing systems, governed police response.

In addition, the continuous nature of the duties, the occasional threat of violence toward themselves, the lack of sufficient manpower and resources coupled with lack of proper sensitization often made policing seem mindlessly non-empathetic. Arresting the vulnerable, harassing migrants, shaming people by frog jumps, using force on worshippers or even health workers were reported from many parts of India.

 

The pandemic might take more than a year to spend its fury. It will inevitably cause more economic devastation especially to the already poor and marginalized and to the aspiring young. Promises of improvements in quality of life will sound hollow as new norms and new styles of work eliminate these people from the workplace. This may impel young people to gravitate to crime or extremism and will impact law and order. Public security may also become a major concern. Such a social situation will have serious consequences for policing styles and priorities.

The unilateral police domination over the citizenry pressed upon the public ensured protection from Covid. A police force under a good king would have done exactly the same. But in a democracy the ‘saviour’ image will be difficult to maintain over long periods. As people prepare to coexist with Covid, interference in daily life to make restrictions effective through continuous aggressive domination extracting unquestioned obedience, is bound to generate resentment and lead to the recurrence of all the evils that mar police public relations – including custodial violence and resultant injuries.

 

There is another danger too: the newly minted trust can quickly turn to antipathy as people realize they are fated to simultaneously suffer Covid, poverty and oppression. The weakest may swallow their dislike because they have no other option. But others will chaff enough to question whether the contagion could have been better contained by soliciting the healthy cooperation of the people and by acting in consultation with the community.

Inevitably then, in order to be effective, the style of future policing will have to be modified to accommodate a more meaningful consultative, proactive approach with the community. Any changes in future policing though will have to contend with their long held self-perception. Police sub-culture rather than legal maxims shape this. ‘Being tough’ with the public is seen as vital to ‘prestige’ and efficiency. Contrary to what many assume, because of the surge in trust levels, Covid related police activity mostly reaffirmed their self-image of superiority and authority.

Police got unprecedented powers for regulating personal behaviour relating to, among others, movement, wearing masks, keeping distance, queuing, going to shop, and temple visits. In normal times, these would have been deemed interference in personal liberty; but now it was ordained by law. Tracking people through digital technology or body stamping or tagging or drones was common.

 

Government functionaries, without taking care to verify whether their diktats were in consonance with the logic of spread reduction, issued orders mandating a plethora of modifications in individual and public behaviour. Persons were prohibited to be outdoors, without working out what the homeless would do. ‘Go back home’ directions were given without corresponding provisions for transportation.

Simultaneously, ‘nothing should move’ orders brought everything to a standstill. Shops were closed without thought to how essential supplies would be provided. Opening hours were restricted, creating a rush during their limited opening hours. Travel passes and restrictions, certifying protocols, quarantine rules, containment identifications were left to individual bureaucrats without any rigid standards or standardized logic causing several authorities to work at cross purposes, resulting in much misery without yielding any significant dividends in easing Covid spread. Such impromptu ‘social engineering’ by bureaucracy and the attitude that ‘the government knows best and the citizen has to merely obey’ dominated much of Covid control. Little was done to take communities into confidence.

True, there were exceptions. For instance, Kerala organized community kitchens for the stranded when inexpensive hotels closed their doors and government took over the several thousand labour camps hosting more than a million migrant labour. A similar approach, systemically carried out all over India, could perhaps have mitigated the migrant related confusion. But elsewhere the confusion of sudden and contradictory diktats necessitated decisive and speedy exercise of police authority to ensure unquestioned obedience. This has reinforced both the justification for toughness and the associated belief that efficacy is more important than respect for procedure. The taste of sweeping powers whets the appetite for more, unless it is sobered by accountability, due procedure and review.

 

Willy-nilly, technology is changing everything including policing. Covid provided a taste of what the future might bring. It showed how digital identity was necessary for movement between states and districts in many places and how fast everyone got used to the idea of e-passes, quarantine monitoring, and Covid alerts through mobile apps.

Available technology already enables digital surveillance of public spaces. It also allows the state to gather huge amounts of data about each individual. Already each day sees the widening of technology to cover every aspect of the life of the citizen – banking, travel, credit cards, consumption and internet use help know opinions, relationships and preferences. Supercomputers can be programmed to correctly identify a person, garner views, predilections and inclinations. This data can be used to regulate behaviour, formulate policy or manage public thinking. Permanent and continuous surveillance can transform one’s own residence into a digital open prison.

In a digital environment, the power of the state and the police over the citizen will increase manifold as policing systems are enabled to micro-monitor and micro-manage behaviour. Control and deterrence in the digital eco-system enables coercive steps, which were impossible in the past, to be come entirely real: illustratively, blocking access to banking, travel, communication or supplies. In an extreme eventuality, one’s entire digital existence can be terminated.

With criminals taking to technology to commit crimes which would have been conventionally impossible, the digital mode of crime fighting will be a mainstay of policing. Citizens will readily agree to this – and may even like it – if greater safety is promised in the name of prevention of terror or serious crime, as they do with regard to airport security or Covid protocols.

 

The march of technology can’t be resisted and the dangers of such capabilities being misused for denying democratic rights cannot be wished away. Inevitably the centralization of authority into the hands of a few will tempt their misuse. The administration of justice with procedural norms intact will probably be seen as a non-pragmatic ideal. Therefore, it is essential that the adoption and evolution of technology by the police force is enabled within the democratic space, under conditions which permit transparency, accountability and adherence to the norms of rule of law.

When faced with intense economic and social stress, as this Covid time and its follow on portend, human rights, the rule of law, and due process are likely casualties. The preferred style of policing will likely privilege anything that allows for immediate restoration of some semblance of order, to achieve absence of overt and manifest violence.

We had once logically believed that respect for liberty and equality will ultimately prevail. But now, partly driven by the possibilities above, individual liberty and tolerance for diversity which are the hallmarks of democratic policing seem to be in danger worldwide. Tribal loyalties, religious injunctions, racial prejudices, and vigilantism stemming from partisan moral fervour now hold sway.

 

But it need not be so. Technology has augmented democratic space. The speed, accuracy and inclusiveness of technology make population size and geographic remoteness irrelevant to governance. Social media allows for unlimited avenues of self-expression and vertical and horizontal interactions. Replicating the Athenian model of great citizen participation in civic life – and in policing – is entirely possible.

Already there is enough technological capacity within the country to ensure that every citizen can be in touch with his police station instantly as well as be familiar with the general policies at headquarters and the functioning and capacities of his local police station. Combined with allowing personnel greater discretion at all levels of public interaction and imparting better problem-solving skills to police personnel through training interventions, a different kind of policing with a stress on community cooperation can be nurtured.

In the first few months of the Covid onset, the significant success of Kerala in containing the spread of the virus was partly due to its ability to rely on community cooperation. The police were first responders in a coordinated multi-agency response that relied on them getting the public’s willing support in preventing spread. To a large extent this was possible due to long years of steady efforts of the police to interface with the community through the Jan Maithri Community Policing Schemes, Student Police Cadet Project, Senior Citizen Programmes, Child Friendly Policing and Traffic Safety programmes.

The pre-existence of active police-public interaction included habitual participation in local services and organizations like schools, hospitals, residents’ associations, student groups, senior citizens, women self-help groups and the willingness to solve day to day pre-security issues such as drugs or women’s safety or traffic safety or juvenile issues or elimination of public nuisances.

 

The goodwill, trust and the linkages with the community consistently developed over the years created a model of policing for ensuring Covid defence measures that involved several lakhs of cooperating persons in every nook and corner of the state. It turned Covid defence into community defence rather than a force-based police intervention thrust upon an unwilling public. Despite ten months of Covid, densely populated Kerala, with a high level of domestic and international travel, still has one of the lowest fatality rates.

This model – Democratic Policing – stresses policing through consent, consultation and cooperation. A sense of partnership must dominate the manner of delivery of policing services, treating citizens as allies rather than as antagonists. The success of this partnership depends upon the ability of the police to secure and maintain public approval and respect. Police systems must be seen to be consciously seeking the willing cooperation of the general public in the voluntary observance of the law, and personnel must be seen as active members of the community with a stake in its well-being and safety.

Force, must be an exception and not the rule. For this police forces need to change from taking pride in being fierce and feared enforcers of the law to being accessible people-friendly officers of the peace, who provide security as a service to all. It is a well accepted policing principle that, in a democracy, the police carry out duties which every citizen ought to perform if the citizen had the time and disposition to do so. Community policing – policing alongside the community – requires continuous contact with the public. In turn the community spares resources like time, energy, facilities, for solving safety and security related problems. Instead of doing everything themselves, motivating local communities creates force multipliers. This helps conserve resources, enhance reach, provide services to vulnerable groups, get information that affects personal or collective security, and assist in the policing processes in mitigation of local pathologies – whether they be disease, disaster or crime.

 

However, community policing must not validate any unlawful act or omission and must not go outside the pale of proper control and accountability. The pretext of partnership with the community cannot be used to serve partisan or majoritarian objectives. It cannot mean the community substitutes for the police and it must not be a cover for either moral policing or for unlawful vigilantism. None should dilute the procedure warranted by law or any measure of enforcement to placate anyone. Most importantly, neither the collective nor the individual must dictate whether this or that case should be registered and charge sheeted. It is preventive in nature without being discriminatory or punitive.

Truly, no civilized society can live in peace without policing of some kind. Whether that should be a policing of the kind which heavily relies on weaponry, intimidation and militarized conduct or whether it is one which enters into a partnership with people to ensure the security of all, is for us to decide, depending on the extent to which we are committed to democratic principles. In a democracy policing by consent is a much better option to secure safety and the fearless and lawful enjoyment of freedoms by everyone. Still, reflecting on the manner in which Covid prevention systems were, in general, enforced, we are forced to wonder whether as a nation we will ever come out of the vestiges of pre-democratic policing styles, within which we have been trapped since the dawn of independence.

On a historical time scale, democratic policing is a comparatively new phenomenon. It is too early to say that despite the great dignity it confers on the citizenry, the notion will ultimately survive. Yet a police group which flaunts authority and threatens immediate punitive consequence can effectively extract compliance only at those places and times where they are physically present. Given the manpower constraints of the Indian Police, not even a fraction of the population can be covered in this manner. Inflicting enforcement on an unwilling population will weaken democratic empowerment of the people in general. For democracy to survive, democratic policing must succeed. And for democratic policing to succeed, the policing policy, practice, provisioning, and performance have to change.

Over the past four decades, several reform suggestions and initiatives to make this possible have been put forward: far-reaching reforms in the structure, training, accountability and supervision have been suggested. But also steadfastly resisted. Police reform is a crying need, but sadly it still remains a cry in the wilderness. A humanized, responsive, people friendly police service is a democratic right of the citizenry. For how long can this right be denied?

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