Monthly Archives: September 2013

Impact of Mass Media on Crime

After a slew of media reports on gang rapes and other sex crimes against women in the public space, there has been a good amount of TV debate and newspaper write ups and social media activity, on the issue of inadequacy of safety in public spaces, for women in India. Police, being the state agency responsible for public safety, has been the focus of such debates and chatter, if not directly, then certainly indirectly.

I recently read a 1983 research paper, ‘Effects of Mass Media Violence on US Homicides’ by David P Phillips, University of California, which quantified the rise in violent crimes, like homicides in the US, immediately following all popular and widely telecast boxing fights between 1973 and 1978. The study showed a 12.46% rise above average, in homicides within 3 days of the telecast championship fights and a 6% increase 4 days later.  If merely watching championship fights on TV can significantly affect the volume of criminal violence taking place in society, then the sexual attitudes towards women and the violence portrayed in our films and music and advertisements, must be having a significant impact on the viewers’ minds-enough to create an unsafe environment for women in homes as well as public places. We, as a nation, are not, however, debating this larger issue which could be triggering the spate of sexual violence against women, and instead only looking for the band-aid of better policing.

Though the sexual attitudes and violence projected in past and present Indian cinema and commercials, would be significantly influencing the viewers’ behavior and attitudes, by the normal psychological impact of ‘imitation’, the related governance issues like ‘creative freedom’ are not easy to tackle in public policy.  I wonder then, what solution can emerge for this problem-of attitude towards women- in our existing social environment. Aamir Khan’s very popular TV program  ‘Satyamev Jayate’,  has taken advantage of the same powerful impact of media, to create a positive social mindset for more equality for women. Similarly,  an Indian made you-tube video, ‘Its your fault’ which is a satire on attitudes on rape, has gone viral on the internet. I think we need to focus on many many more such media projections to change social attitudes towards women. It will have a more permanent impact than focusing only on the deterrent but short term effect of post facto police actions.

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More on Crime Victimization Surveys

Image From the responses I got to my earlier post on this subject on this blog and otherwise, I understand that the readers are seeing one of two possible benefits of Crime Victimization Surveys: 1. People will benefit from such surveys as they will get a tool to verify improving police performance, and 2. Police will benefit from such surveys as they get a tool to demand better resources for bettering their performance.

Both views are essentially saying that such interventions will make the  police more democratic(people-oriented) in its performance and it will be resourced with due accountability.  So if these outcomes  become a reality, the periodic surveys can become an instrument for the much desired ‘police reforms’.

Crime Victimization Surveys are not a new policy tool for focusing police’s attention on the actual victimization due to various types of crime taking place in society, irrespective of the police statistics on crime. Basically, the surveys bring into measurement focus the specific crime and safety issues that need attention locally. They have also been used to allocate resources to police to enable delivering better services.  In the USA, such surveys have been part of the process since 1973 (http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=dcdetail&iid=245). The Australian Government conducts this periodic crime victimization and safety perception survey through its agency, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/cat/4509.0). Similarly detailed is the Hong Kong Crime Victimization Survey.

A Crime Victimization and Safety Perception Survey envisages eliciting answers to simple questions, from a statistically representative number of people, randomly chosen, police station wise. It further envisages repeating the questionnaire after a gap of time like say, six months or a year, to a substantial part of the same set of people from the earlier data set, and adding a small percentage of new interviewees into the subsequent surveys. This gives a continuum for assessing the systemic improvements made by police on the safety concerns thrown up in the earlier survey. The Safety perception part of the survey questionnaire will have questions like, ‘What time of the evening will you start worrying if your daughter is not home yet?’ or ‘How many days do you feel safe keeping your home locked when you are out on a holiday?’ or ‘How safe do you feel living alone in the house as a senior citizen in your locality?’, and will give some sense of public perception of safety in each police station area. The findings will give the police stations and the supervisory police hierarchy definite goals with which to improve this public perception on specific concerns. Similarly on the crime victimization part, the survey asks questions about  experiences of being victimized by crimes, irrespective of whether they were reported to police or not.  These questions could be like, whether one has been robbed of one’s possession in public spaces, whether one has been a victim of house breaking, or whether women respondents have experienced violence-sexual or otherwise in public spaces or in homes, whether anyone has been a victim of violent, rowdy behavior in public spaces, whether one was threatened with injury etc. The survey delves into supplementary questions to each such experience reported in order to extract details of time, place and narrative of these incidents. The answers to these questions can give a sense of actual crime taking place in society, notwithstanding the police statistics on crime.

Periodic surveys could encourage more reporting of crime to the police by the public, indicating the building of more faith in the police portion of the criminal justice system. They would also encourage more registration of crime at the police station and lessen the police tendency to not register as FIR all the reported crimes, since actual crime victimization in the jurisdiction is being periodically measured.

Crime Victimization Surveys for Police Reforms

ImageInitiating the reforms process in policing in India has been a difficult issue to tackle. The efforts from retired police officers like Mr Prakash Singh and organizations like Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative resulted in directions from the Supreme Court for implementing police reforms. However, there has been no eagerness gushing forth on the implementation.

The recent few years have witnessed a growing distrust and lack of public confidence in police actions and inactions. However, it would clearly be wrong to view this public mood as being solely directed at the police. Public trust in police is actually a sensitive indicator for the levels of trust in government. Police functions within the confines of government and is expected to function strictly as laid down in the law, irrespective of the political parties in power. But have enough safeguards been built into the administrative and criminal law to ensure for the required level of functionality for ‘rule of law’? The fulcrum of political control on police is the administrative control which is exercised by the political setup on transfers and promotions. This control then, in practice, overrides the legal requirements of functioning strictly as per the laid down law.

So it appears that what is required is to either reduce the political control on police administration and/or enhance the judicial control on law enforcement. This could logically be done in two ways – 1. By creating autonomous Boards for transfers in police, public complaints against police and annual policies for police,  to distance political control on the administration of the police, as directed in the SC order on the police reforms PIL, or 2. By increasing multifold the level of supervision of courts, which are the guardians of the law, on police work, through speedy justice delivery.

The 2nd option is unviable in the short term, though extremely critical in the long term, as it would involve substantially strengthening the judiciary.  The  additional burden of court monitored cases is already further adding to the heavily burdened judicial system in India. The 1st option is relatively easy to implement due to minimal additional costs but is difficult to put in place without people demanding more accountability from politicians on police performance.

So how do you involve the people into demanding from the government that they are entitled to better police services? One possible way is through the method of iterative Crime Victimization Surveys at the level of police stations. The periodic measurement of actual victimization due to crime and also mapping safety perceptions of the people, in every police station jurisdiction, has the potential to make the police stations more focused on thinking of and implementing measures to reduce these numbers in subsequent surveys, which can lead to measurably better state of safety over a period of time. These surveys will also focus attention on the gaps in crime registration by police vis a vis the real crime taking place in each police station jurisdiction. The periodic surveys would thus have the potential to encourage police to record all reported crimes and investigate them to reduce the gap in subsequent surveys, rather than avoid registering crimes as is the trend now.

The survey measurements will clearly focus public attention on what needs to be done to improve standards of policing. And the resultant democratic demands from the people should increase the inclination of the governing political setup to willingly put in place mechanisms for better accountability, like improving the capabilities of police through providing better resources and simultaneously incentivizing prevention of crime and disincentivizing police performance that is not alleviating peoples’ concerns on crime and safety.

Social Psychology in Policing Strategy on Handling Riotous Mobs

ImageI was recently watching a couple of videos on the topic of ‘Obedience’ and ‘Conformity’ and I could see how wonderfully relevant those experiments and findings were in the context of policing in India.

In the current state of affairs, public ‘trust’ in governance systems is at an all time low. And consequently, obedience to the word of the uniformed policeman by members of the public, which was the norm earlier, has also reached its nadir. Clearly, the police leadership needs to rethink strategically on measures to bring in more trust into their functioning.

One area where the lack of trust is reflected in public perceptions is regarding the traditional methods of use of sheer force to tackle public disturbance situations. These  methods are perceived as crude and rough and insensitive. And neither do they seem  very successful in tackling mobs anymore, as seen from the visuals of many such situations, on mass media. Drawing from social psychology, and using that understanding to handle crowds could probably lead the police to a more sensitive and sensible way to handle mobs and riotous situations, among other things.

The videos I was watching pointed to two prominent reasons for why people behave without empathy- scientifically called ‘deindividuation’- Anonymity and Reduced Individual Responsibility in a large crowd. Clearly, these are also the important factors in a riotous mob and the tipping point for it to turn violent,  These psychological insights are important enough for the police in India, to redesign the traditional riot control drills in which they are trained. Clearly, measures to enhance individual identification like effective videography of the situation or use of colour dye sprays to demarcate individual participation in riots could reduce the intensity of the situation and encourage a more responsible behavior by the members of the mob. A similar thinking on the formations of police i.e the size of groups of policemen assigned to tackle the situation, and also the allocation of more specific responsibility- geographically- to the group leaders of such police formations, could lead to a more effective response from the police and improve public perceptions. Similar methods of individual identification used on the crowd, like videography, could also be used on the police to make their actions accountable.  Such measures are needed to be part of the police strategy and training. Presently, very few such measures are used occasionally, randomly and without proper training.