Crime, Commons and State Policy

In Police departments across the country, there is a good tradition that is still practiced – that of inspecting districts annually. In Maharashtra, the local supervisory officers-the Range IGs- inspect all the districts under their charge once a year, and the Additional DGs from the State Police HQ inspect 2 districts every year. This inspection, which lasts for 3 days, is meant for checking on the overall functioning of the district police. Besides checking the district functioning, it is also an extraordinary tool to mentor the young officers posted as district police chiefs. Most importantly, however, it gives a bird’s eye view of the issues in the districts and offers an opportunity for the police departments to propose policy changes that can genuinely reduce crime. This particular benefit of inspections has however not yet been actively taken up anywhere.

My inspections of two districts this year has made me think on those lines. Police needs to think like a problem solver using the ‘prevention’ hat to make a lasting and genuine impact on the problems of crime and public disorder. I’m convinced that if we can motivate the bottom leaders towards thinking ‘prevention’, criminality and corruption will genuinely reduce. And in many situations, thinking ‘prevention’ means tweaking existing economic and social policies to change behavior.

In one of the districts, I was invited to visit a young entrepreneur’s factory unit manufacturing fly ash based AAC blocks which are a variety of bricks made of aerated concrete. This youngster had worked with me in 2016-17 as a Fellow from the Maharashtra CM’s Fellowship Program and had contributed greatly to the Strategy Support System that we at the state police HQ use, for monitoring efficiencies in expenditure, crime , motor transport fleet etc. He told me that the bricks/blocks that his factory was manufacturing, were not made of mud i.e top soil, and therefore they were an environmentally friendly and yet 20% cheaper and equally strong substitute for mud bricks in construction.

The same evening at dinner, I met a young trainee IPS officer who told me about the severe problem of illegal river sand mining in the district and how he was undertaking frequent raids on the sand mafia to curb their activity. That got me thinking. The sand mafia illegally dredges river sand from the river beds as the government legally permits this activity only over a limited time and for limited amounts of sand. Since construction activity in India largely uses river sand for making concrete, river sand dredging is an extremely lucrative business @ around ₹7000 per metric ton. However, the dredging not only erodes the natural river bed and reduces the water table but also promotes crime and corruption since it is operated with muscle power and patronage. River beds are therefore an extremely lucrative commons in the area, and police enforcement actions can have only a limited impact on the crime. With police actions, the crime only shifts in time and place. Tediously repetitive actions on the sand mafia are therefore an inefficient use of the limited number of police personnel available.

It would be more useful for the police to think in terms of suggesting policies to the state, to make this extremely profitable illegal activity redundant through other means. Like making it mandatory to use manufactured alternatives to river sand and mud bricks in construction, especially in government works-which are a significant portion of the construction business in India. In the meanwhile, I suggested to the young ASP to call a meeting of the building construction companies and advise them to use the alternatives to river sand, like manufactured sand (m-sand) in their building projects. Similarly, if there are issues of illegal digging of mountains for mud brick kilns, encouraging cheap and available alternative products like the fly ash based bricks described above, can be useful to cut the economic incentives for crime and illegalities. Police have a certain authority in their areas and if this authority could be used to influence economic behavior, it could check river sand dredging from the ‘prevention’ point of view.

There are many such issues where police are intimately concerned due to the constant requirement of forceful enforcement and where policy changes could have an impact on crime – like slum proliferation & mangrove destruction in urban commons, human trafficking within and across states, etc. In Mumbai, the Mumbai Port Trust maintains a beautiful garden on the sea front on its property, where earlier there was a dump. Port Trusts across the country could be entrusted with creating and maintaining mangrove parks to prevent their destruction/encroachment by construction activity or dumping of debris. In human trafficking, a significant part of the problem is that the young victim and her parents get lured by the fake promise of a job and better future in the far away city, by the trafficker. The numbers in this crime could be minimised by creating local level call centres in the poorer areas of the state, where verified information on the location of jobs being offered to the young girls can be made available to her parents before they send her off to ‘work’ in the cities.

I believe police actions can be most effective when opportunities for criminal behavior are minimised through policy work. Therefore, ideas from policing must feed into state policy for a safer society.

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Research in Police

Recently I got to read two fine papers on Citizen Police engagement in Lahore and Citizen Safety as public policy – both produced in Pakistan and published after rigorous work required of an economics research paper. Most interestingly, they deal with the idea of policing as a public good and therefore, requiring due data and analysis to constantly calibrate the delivery of services for optimum results in public safety.

The papers show that the crime victimisation and safety perception survey in Lahore has thrown up very clear findings on what needs to be done as a policy measure to make citizens feel safer and make policing more effective. One of the papers has also used the data of the crime victimisation survey done in New Delhi by CHRI in 2015 for comparing victimisation rate of New Delhi with Lahore.

What insights do these papers from Pakistan give us?

1. Much more than Pakistan, India is a rapidly urbanising country, urbanisation being actively egged on by India’s 100 Smart Cities project. Policing in these transition times, to be really effective, needs quick and frequent inputs from scientific studies on the ground. These studies should feed into overall state policy so that the various impacting issues like labour, employment, urban housing, urban healthcare etc can get integrated for building safety into the evolving urbanisation.

2. Police, because of its mandate to keep crime and public disturbances at bay, is given enormous legal powers over members of society. The counter weight to these enormous powers is the judicial scrutiny over results of police investigations after they are completed, and the protection against misuse of arrest powers offered by bail and such other provisions by the courts while the investigation is on. This system of large legal powers and effectively appropriate judicial scrutiny should lead to great trust of the police by the people. However, the volume of the problem of crime is so much that these accountability measures cannot have the same level of effectiveness as envisaged and instead leads to fear of the police in the common man.

Clearly, the problem needs to be looked at from outside the box. Annual or 6-Monthly Crime victimisation and safety perception surveys offer one such alternative way to increase the accountability of police institutions at the people level-that is in the police stations. Therefore, in India we should use Crime victimisation surveys not only to understand ground conditions vis a vis police crime data but also to change attitudes of the power wielding police stations vis a vis the people. There is great hope for changing the policing culture in India with this methodology.

Urgently Needed: Crime Victimisation Surveys 

I was recently reading about the state of corporate governance in India and of the focussed way in which we have framed the issue for corporate regulators like the Corporate Affairs Ministry and SEBI over the years. Since 2000 and again in 2003 with 2 committees to formulate thought on corporate governance from the investor protection point of view for SEBI resulted in incorporation of certain compliances and public disclosures under Stock Exchange Listing Agreements for listed companies. In 2013, the new Companies Act was enacted which further strengthened the Board responsibilities for corporate governance. There are therefore a reasonable amount of safeguards around how companies are run-since ordinary and institutional investors are invested in them. Profitability is indeed a big driver for better regulation, as it is for innovation. 

What is the status of our other public goods-especially the state of security? From the consumer’s point of view, 1.every law abiding citizen should be able to see police as the first person one turns to in case one becomes a victim of crime-not as someone to fear and go to as the last resort, and 2. every law abiding citizen should feel a sense of safety in her city. 

Although there are a lot of anecdotal misgivings about non_approachability of police, there are no reliable measurements about the fulfilment of these consumer expectations. The data on policing is all one sided-that which the police records in their crime registers. There is no independent evaluation of the delivery of the above stated public expectation from security services of the state. 

I have been a passionate advocate for these independent evaluations in the form of annual Crime Victimisation Surveys at the police station level for many years but the cost of such surveys is apparently a factor to not undertake this program in our country. However if we want real and lasting ‘reforms’ in Indian police, money should be put on goals oriented performance and delivering satisfaction to people on the state of security. Currently the focus of financing is on shortfalls or upgrading of equipments, motor vehicles and infrastructure. Crime Victimisation Surveys can reorient financing to the deficits areas of people led demands and therefore lead to more public satisfaction with police performance. Fulfilling the funding needs thrown up from the Surveys will yield better output in police performance at the police station level-which is exactly what ‘police reforms’ sets out to do. 

Both the above stated goals are measurable for a year on year performance by the jurisdictional police stations in every city, town or village. And they will be a good metric against which to see the police dept’s statistics. The broad picture on the state of security will gradually become truer and therefore more trustworthy.  What it needs is the will to implement these reforms. 

Rains, Floods, Disasters and Technology

Yesterday Mumbai had a harrowing night with the downpour of 300 mm of rains in one day. Many office goers stayed back at their offices and others who braved the waterlogged streets to head home were helped by local residents and Ganpati mandals and gurudwaras and mosques, with offers of food/water and shelter. Each and every time, Mumbaikars respond to calamities, with a great display of collective humane behaviour that shows the city’s citizen resilience towards facing problems.

There are reports today of the good presence of the city police on the roads through the night and their work in keeping the traffic situation in control despite very slow movement of vehicles through waist deep waters at many places. The sensitivity and responsiveness of the Mumbai Police twitter handle during the entire ordeal was really good and has been much appreciated by the users.

What does this episode of natural disaster teach us to do better next time?

1. Mumbai has more than 4700 CCTV cameras across the city. Whatever are the informative images from these cameras could be linked to the Mumbai Police twitter  handle so that situational information of what’s happening further up the road, is better communicated to the road users.

2. Electronic Board displays on roads could be increased in number substantially-again for better information dissemination.

3. Motorists typically rely on google maps to show them the fastest possible route to their destination. But in disaster times, such routes could be impassable. And they have no way of knowing that. Police can use GIS maps integrated with CCTV network as one very useful tool to periodically update and inform road users of the state of road and traffic conditions. A single map based view of the city with the ability to choose what geospecific information you want to see could be a great boon to the information hungry citizen stuck in a disaster situation. Currently, for the road users, there is no aggregation of the ground information on a map of the city. Further, traffic policemen can take photographs/videos of the traffic congestion at waterlogged sites on the roads not covered by CCTV cameras, thereby fixing lat-longs of such sites across the city on the map and giving a holistic view of the water logging and traffic congestion problem across the city. . Motorists and home goers viewing the state of road traffic on the map can then take informed decisions for travel. For the police on the road, this information can empower their man on the ground to take measures on the basis of the larger picture on the map to divert traffic away from waterlogged cul de sacs in his local area.
4. GIS map-based visual information on the Police website can additionally be used to display information on food/water/shelter sites across the city. Such information of voluntary efforts by citizens was seen to circulate on Whatsapp and Twitter last night. Aggregated information of these volunteer activities as well as the official arrangements, helps to reassure and keep calm despite a disaster situation. Electronic display boards could also display such information.

5. Hashtags for specific themes like traffic movement or voluntary aid in food/water/shelter can be used by police for collecting information and pictures from the public users of social media. This  information could then be placed on the map for users to get information relevant to their needs. Such map based aggregation of information will also be very useful to the police control room to respond with useful guidance to distressed callers.

In disaster situations, people look to government for proper information and relief. And technology can provide that single point authentic source for coordinating an effective response.

Suicides, AI and Meditation

There have been reports of some really disturbing incidents in the past few weeks. The only son of colleague government officers committed suicide-apparently with no provocation. I was browsing Facebook and I saw a trending video of a young district collector recording his thoughts and reasons for deciding to commit suicide just before he actually does that! A few days ago, I read about a popular online game which encouraged people to commit suicide as its final challenge- and many youngsters were actually doing that!!

There is a lot of concern on humans becoming too addicted to the internet, living their lives online and in the process losing the warmth and support and empathic nature of face to face human relationships. Fears of computing machines subordinating humans in the not so distant future are also often expressed. The addiction to the virtual world of the internet and the consequent information overload is so stressful to all, and especially to young minds, that the worth of an invaluable ‘life’ is not really appreciated. There is a huge need to quiet the mental turmoil of our period and for individuals to find peace within themselves.

I am currently reading Ray Kurzweil’s ‘The Singularity is near’ – his futuristic take on the exponential growth in the power of computing through machine learning and artificial intelligence, that will happen in the coming decades. He believes that we will achieve one human brain computing capability (currently at 10^16 calculations per second) at the cost of one cent around the year 2037, and then we will go on to achieve one human race computing capability (10^26 cps) for $1000 around the year 2049. He believes that technology will be used at the intersection of information and biology creating pervasive AI systems. This AI will not ‘seize power’ but integrate into humans. He talks of Nanobots, the futuristic robots circulating inside human bodies and constantly adjusting various chemical/ hormonal parameters intelligently to keep the physical body healthy. Future humans will thus have become part machine and part biological and they will be leading longer, disease free lives, thanks to AI.

So the exponential growth of computing is here to stay. But in this futuristic scenario, even if we gain in longevity and health, will we lose in terms of the individuality of our mental makeup? Our individuality is based on our individual unique set of genes and their genetic expression, creating the chemical environment for the state of our physical bodies and for our psychological makeup. If nanobots normalise everything for the optimum will we become identical to each other? Even at today’s level of computing power, our psychology at the level of society, is deeply affected and some extreme consequences are the reports mentioned in the first paragraph. I think deep wisdom is needed to guide human capabilities in computing towards a stable future for humanity. The alternative to that will be the advanced technologies being used frivolously as a game.

What kind of humanity are we evolving into – a restless, anxious and mentally disturbed race? How do we get to that point where we feel safe and at peace despite the gadgets in and around us? I think we need to feel more connected – not the Facebook friends or Linked In connections variety. But the connectedness which will give humanity inner peace. Finding time for solitude with oneself could deepen our connectedness with the universe. It will improve our lost sense of belonging and bring us a sense of peace.

I think meditation is a requirement, not an option, for today’s and future generations. Schools, universities, families – all need to set aside some time to devote to meditation. It may keep the unease and the artificiality of today’s living at bay. And give us a chance to have generosity and compassion towards each other as the foundation for a peaceful and stable society of tomorrow.

New Needs of Effective Policing

I have just returned from a tour of two Police Ranges and a Commissionerate. The tour was for an assessment of effectiveness of the police hierarchy in the districts in detecting crime. So the focus was on the yet unsolved serious crimes of murder and dacoity over the last two years.

It was an interesting tour for me as I am a pattern spotting person. It helps me see evolving new features and also to get a bird’s  eye view on the problem. So what kind of patterns are emerging in these crimes?

One impact clearly seen is that of the hugely increased mobility of people. A great thing-this improved human mobility-but the fallout on the crime of murder is in the far flung location of unidentified dead bodies. In the past, murder was usually a local or near local crime. But this crime is no more a local problem. The Sheena Bora case is a well known example.

During my visit too, a check on dead bodies which had been identified later, showed murders or motives for murder originating in far away places-the most distant originated in Tamil Nadu-a distance of  more than 1200 kms from Maharashtra!! This particular case was a clever piece of investigation but clearly, murder is no more a local problem like in the good old days. With ease of movement because of good road length across the country and also due to bettering of peoples’ overall financial status , it has become easy to transport the crime of murder across long distances and make it nearly impossible for police working in geographical silos of police stations, to be able to trace the identity or origin of the murder using prevalent techniques. Of course the picking up of clues from the spot remains the essential step for investigation, but what should be the newer way to look at solutions for this crime?

Currently, the real and effortfull activities by police to trace the identities of such victims is limited to neighbouring police stations. Some tick box efforts are made to catch the attention of the state CID which maintains state wide data of crime and criminals. But due to this factor of mobility, the newer need is for aggregation of data on recorded missing persons, at the SP, Range IG, State CID and finally at the national level, since the murdered individual is likely to have been recorded as missing somewhere far away from where the body is found. There could also be a focus on analysis of cellphone data dumps from telecom towers around the location of murdered bodies so that any outsiders visiting the area could be identified and investigated.  IT, including investigation software which picks out patterns, is the only way forward for this. Matching computerised data on missing persons with the murdered victim’s description is one of the features of the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network which is currently under various stages of implementation across all states in India. But this feature is hardly ever used.

A refreshingly different view might emerge from a time series analysis of this type of problem, for identifying patterns. From the locations of the body of victims of all murders in a district, what is the dispersal in geographical distances of the motive/place of murder, what is the density pattern regarding location of dead bodies along roads in a district, is there any pattern in the manner of disposal of the dead body and the distance to the place of origin of the crime, and so many such analytical questions can show up patterns regarding disposal sites and inform on the probable sq km area to vigorously search for unknown victim’s identity, as also reveal information to take preventive steps for improving police vigil on specific patches of road. 

The ideas emerging from this are on the increasing need for computerised crime data, its useful aggregation and pattern analysis to solve the crimes of the future.

Anger

Currently, 44000 resident and teaching doctors in hospitals of Maharashtra are on strike. The triggering issue was the latest violent attack by patient’s relatives, on the doctor of a patient who had died of chronic renal failure, in a medical college hospital in Mumbai. The medical community, on social media, is expressing their disbelief that even the Hon’ble High Court is not sympathetic to their manner of protest-mass leave-on grounds of poor security at their places of work. The Hon’ble High Court has stated that state doctors cannot resort to strike/mass leave, as a means of protest in the same manner as factory workers. 

Incidently, police routinely face mob or individual violence during the course of their duties – like enforcing traffic rules – or during public protests-which may be against deficits of service or against government policies . Many a times, policemen get injured or killed during action on such violent protests. But it is taken for granted that duty of a policeman may involve such risks! It is for another day that we may talk of risk compensation to policemen. But I want to point out the similarity in situations faced by both professions in their dealings with public ire, though the difference is that it is the job of police to face and deal with  public violence, while for a doctor, it is not. For both, however, it has become a professional risk. 

Doctors practice the most benevolent of professional roles in all humanity – that of dealing with saving and nurturing human life and health. Clearly, it is a basic need that hospitals should have secure workspaces for them. And their demand of better security in hospitals starting with visitor management, is very valid. The administrative response to that demand, that armed security will be deployed in large numbers at hospitals, however, may not be sufficient to ensure peace from violent relatives in hospitals. One must remember that, besides cures, hospitals will continue to deal with death of patients too. Armed security in large numbers, alone as a measure, will not be useful in those circumstances, to deal with affected relatives. Hospitals, like educational institutions, are peopled with a unique psychological profile. A fine tuned, multi pronged approach is required, to put in place a mechanism that will work. 

The problem, to my mind, needs to be looked at from two perspectives- 1) immediate work on well trained, sufficient number of security personnel to be deployed for effective visitor management in public hospitals. This, currently, is a visibly deficient area. The police is not the agency for guard duties, but the same should be fulfilled through non-police security agencies of the government – like the Maharashtra Security Corporation or the district guard boards or the Armed Forces retired persons Resettlement Boards. Security in public hospitals needs better resourcing. 

The second viewpoint is more important in the long term. What can public hospitals do to reduce anger in its visitors, since this is clearly a problem needing to be tackled? Can the hospital spaces, more so in areas of greater mortality, be designed differently to evoke calmness – with better seating, different lighting, more greenery/ water fountains in open spaces? Can there be better use of the existing para medical manpower, like nurses, by training them for communication with patients’ relatives and even for reducing the work-hours burden of resident doctors? I think equal importance needs to be given to psychological designing as to feet on the ground security, when solving the problem of hospital based violence. I’ve heard of pet dogs and pups being made available in some universities abroad, for students during exam times to reduce their stress. Some out of the box solutions are warranted in India too, for problems like this one. 

I am especially impressed with the work culture at Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital-a public hospital in Mumbai. It is amazing how the patient-focus is so visible there. And everyone including a lift operator is so unfailingly polite and considerate- despite the massive patient load. Do they train their manpower differently? How do they achieve that organisational culture of service?