March 06, 2013

Policing in PPP Mode


The Indian police are routinely criticized for giving into political pressure or falling prey to gender bias when registering cases involving violence against women. While we have all heard of cases involving both, what if there were some other factors that explain police apathy? First, there is no political interference when the police don’t know the accused, and still avoid filing a First Information Report ( FIR). Second, gender insensitivity sounds plausible, until we make the shocking discovery that the police simply don’t like filing FIRs, regardless of the type of case. This is because they are accountable for action taken on the FIR to a magistrate, and that increases their workload. To verify, simply ask someone you know who has ever submitted a written police complaint and you might learn that FIRs are almost never filed without pressure, and most complainants just give up.

It is tempting to insist that the police must file an FIR for every written complaint. That would result in the policing system breaking down immediately — for there just wouldn’t be people and time to do high-quality police work on every case that comes in. To remedy this, we have to look at the bigger picture and attempt to find the root cause of the problem. Perhaps it is that those receiving policing services do not think of these as services to be valued, but as a right. That puts the police in an impossible situation — being grossly underpaid, under appreciated and overworked, and still expected to put themselves in harm’s way for others, while also effecting deep inner transformations that should have happened yesterday.

Using child psychology, our attitudes are very similar to those children who believe that it is their right to have all their needs addressed by their parents, and are upset when their parents don’t have enough money or time. The same children, when abroad to study, stop complaining and start stepping up to stand on their own feet. They suddenly discover that they can deal with their own problems. What if we could get rid of our paternalistic expectations from the state, and start stepping up? We would need to view policing as a service, like any other service in society that must be valued by those who receive it for it to survive. Such a view would open the doors to entrepreneurship and, if anything, Indians have demonstrated that they are second to none in entrepreneurial acumen. A big shift like this raises two questions. First, are there models from other societies where people who intrinsically value dignity and public safety have stepped up to create locally funded values-driven police departments? Second, would such models have legal standing in India?

The answer to both questions is yes, and there are two broad models. The first is that of Stanford University, which funds its police department composed of officers deputized by the Sheriff in the county’s public police department. Stanford’s police department is remarkable in its strong emphasis on values, treating all people with whom they come in contact as clients, even those they arrest. To ensure that officers treat people fairly, video cameras in police cars go off whenever someone is pulled over. A microphone on the officer’s body records the conversation, so any allegations of ill-treatment can be promptly investigated. Although the university funds the police, it cannot access any police records without following due judicial process that is available to all. This private-public mechanism is already legal in India according to Section 13 of the Police Act, which stipulates that individuals can request for police services and pay for them. The request must be authorized by a magistrate and the police officers deputized must work under the direction of a police functionary, such as an inspector general, deputy inspector general of police, assistant inspector general of police or district superintendent.

The second model is based on citizen’s arrest rights, whereby individuals have the right to apprehend law-breakers. Canada’s Intelligarde agency is a private policing company that is entirely premised on these rights. The agency is hired by neighborhoods and businesses. When there is a disturbance, the agency responds quickly, prevents a situation from getting out of control, and even makes citizen arrests if necessary. Those arrested are handed over to the public police with evidence, thus reducing the public policing burden. This is also legal in India, according to Sections 37, 38, 39 and 43 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Section 37 authorizes individuals to assist magistrates or police officers in executing an arrest. Section 38 authorises individuals to execute warrants if the person against whom the warrant is drawn is in the vicinity. By extension, it is legal for private agencies to link up to warrant databases, which should not be secret. Section 39 authorises individuals to share information with the police on offences. Section 43 goes the furthest, with 43.1 literally giving individuals the right to arrest law-breakers and hand over the arrested people to the police as soon as possible.

These two ideas can open the gates for entrepreneurship and bring in competition. If neighborhoods are not happy with one organisation’s effectiveness, they may give the next year’s policing contract to a different organisation. A question may be raised on equity and how poorer sections of society can utilize such models. First, the so-called poorer sections of society are already bearing the incidence of indirect taxes whenever they touch the market. Second, the rest of society is paying taxes partly to support those who need help. The government can make their tax allocation for public safety transparent and give it directly to neighborhoods in the form of a voucher that can only be encashed by a voluntary police organisation, either in the deputized or in the citizen’s arrest model.

The deputization model and the citizen’s arrest models can greatly reduce the burden on public police. Neither model will work if the core values of public safety and dignity are not upheld. But if they are, we may have an approach that addresses the underlying policing failures behind crimes against women. Police departments with dinosaur-age attitudes toward women will finally feel market forces in the need to modernize or go bust.


This is a slightly edited version of an article published in the Business Standard on Jan 31, 2013, republished here with the author’s permission.


6 comments to Policing in PPP Mode

  • While I agree that the police need to be treated as a service, it is not a service we are availing for free. We pay for it with our taxes. So if the police have a problem filing FIRs, we also need to look into making the process of filing and updating an FIR easier. This will mean computerization, reducing irrelevant red tape, increasing the police work force and finally educating the police officers that filing an FIR is a part of their job.

    While police can quickly make a decision on whether a particular complaint actually breaks the law, we cannot ask citizens to simply stop filing FIRs. When in doubt I would recommend that the victims attempt to file a FIR rather than not.

    • Somik Raha

      You make very good points, and they should all be done. I agree with you that citizens shouldn’t stop filing FIRs, but the issue is that they can’t even start it. It is only the police right now who can file an FIR.

      The problem is that you don’t have much say into how much of your taxes should go into the police system and you can’t take your money back for poor service. If you were to treat policing as a service, and not a right, then you’d be able to ask for your money back (from your taxes) and give it to an organization you trust. That would allow feedback from the users of police services to shape the services of the future, and encourage entrepreneurs to start departments that are based on the values of dignity and public safety.

      Now transparency in taxation, there’s an idea.

  • Koyel

    Well, this is provocative.

    While your proposal to PPP-ise the Police force of an entire country scares the hell out of me (admittedly, I am sceptical about the magical powers of the market), I am very glad you draw attention, however briefly, to the fact that the Police force is overworked and underpaid.

    As a society, we have very little empathy for our police women and men. Without condoning their treatment of sexual crimes, amongst others, I think it is also imperative that we think more seriously about Police reforms.

    • Somik Raha

      Koyel, I agree with you. In my mind, is not public or private/market structures, but the values that people operating in those structures hold dear that ultimately determines their quality. If the values are not in the right place, both structures perform terribly and devastate society. But if they are, then my observation has been that the private structure accords more freedom to serve efficiently.

      The point you raise is so important that I have written another piece, focusing just on values in policing:

  • Rahul Siddharthan

    Good article. I agree our police is overstretched. They are also undertrained. And there seems to be significant regional variation — eg, my experience with Chennai police is very different from the horror stories that come out of Delhi. And I fully agree about the sense of entitlement our citizens feel in general (that the government has to take care of all our needs), but am not convinced it applies to the police: most people avoid going to the police until absolutely forced to do so. Private policing already exists in the form of vigilantism (local goondas, etc) and we don’t need more of that. Analogues to Stanford police also exist in the private security agencies that are ubiquitous now. What we need is a police force that treats people humanely and politely (the Chennai police does that with educated folks like me, but not so much with the uneducated), and DOES NOT TORTURE SUSPECTS UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE (what would it take to achieve that?) We also need the police to be free of political influence. All these are hard problems…

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