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In a seminal paper, ‘Complexities of 21st Century Policing’, published last year, Professor David Bayley of the State University of New York, Albany was categorical that the traditional notion of police professionalism was dead, and that the plea for ‘policing with consent’ must be rethought.

In the paper, Prof. Bayley, whose association with the Indian police goes back 50 years, makes a plea for new institutions within the police so as to draw benefit from public inputs, accompanied by the engendering of a new professionalism based on rigorous evaluation of existing strategic and managerial policies. Reliance should be more on institutional wisdom and memory rather than on individual experiences. In sum, he argues for taking the police out of the rut it had got into the world over, through a break from past practices which were becoming dangerously archaic in a divided and strife-ridden world.

What Prof. Bayley says has immediate relevance for the Indian police, especially after what we saw in Bengaluru on New Year’s Eve, when an already poor image of the Indian police deteriorated further because of an apathetic urban police force standing by even as some women were being molested. It was not just the Bengaluru police that failed that night; the criticism levelled against it applies to the police at large, even while giving allowance to varying standards of policing in our megacities.

In specific terms, what is required now is to restructure existing police arrangements for special occasions such as New Year celebrations. The average law-abiding, tax-paying citizen cannot any longer be expected to be passive or to condone sloppiness in maintaining law and order. He is tired of alibis for non-performance, especially in dealing with uncivilised brutes going on a rampage without any provocation whatsoever. This is especially so at a time when even the most insensitive and uninhibited politician in the country will refrain from exploiting a New Year celebration to promote his cause. The Bengaluru police stand alone in this hour of ignominy.

Outnumbered on the street

Even assuming that media reports have exaggerated what happened, there is video evidence of at least another incident that happened in  Kammanahalli, where a woman was groped and pushed onto the road by motorcycle-borne miscreants. There is still no evidence of what took place on M.G. Road and its vicinity in the upmarket heart of the city. There is nothing to suggest that the police were surprised at the happenings or were unprepared. There was indeed substantial deployment in traditional hotspots, taking into account past experience. What is now learnt is that the police were outnumbered in a few places, where the congregation of revellers was more than usual. The local police stations could have possibly made an assessment late in the afternoon so that extra policemen could have been directed to localities where the crowds were pouring in. There was therefore an element of failure on the part of city police intelligence.

The police were reluctant to use force against the antisocial elements. Their response is a moot point; policemen at the spot are shy of employing strong methods without the approval and direction of senior officers going all the way up to the numero uno — in this case the Commissioner. This unfortunate situation has developed over the years because of many complaints of police excesses and the judicial enquiries ordered as a sequel. This is where politics creeps in. Many belonging to the Opposition lose no time accusing the police of overreaction, only to embarrass the ruling party even where there is consensus that the situation on the ground did warrant police opening fire or using batons. Unless this situation changes, one will continue to hear complaints of police failures.

Leadership deficit

There is the other factor of inadequacies of police leadership that have become glaring over the years. They look up to the Chief Minister or Home Minister for approval of even minor and routine field decisions. Even where there is an enlightened Chief Minister who stays away from field decisions, a weak DGP or Police Commissioner takes no chances. Can there be anything more damaging to the swift handling of explosive threats to peace? Is not granting more autonomy to the police a futile exercise if there are such hesitant DGPs and Commissioners?

In the ultimate analysis, it is only strong public opinion that can bring a sea change to the styles of policing. In the Bengaluru incidents, the citizenry has a significant role to play by bringing enough pressure on the government to identify the accused and bring them to book. If they do not rise to the occasion, not much will happen.

This brings me to the fundamental question of enhancing police sensitivity to the task of protecting our women. There was a lot of noise after the horrific Delhi gang-rape case of 2012. There was also a laudable effort to make the law on sexual assaults on women more stringent. Whether this has helped to improve the quality of police protection to women is debatable. New methods of training will certainly help, but only moderately. Imaginative day-to-day interaction on the subject between the higher echelons and policemen at the grass-roots level will alone help. How often do Commissioners of Police and the numerous deputies visit police stations and talk to the constabulary? That is a chasm that will remain un-bridged as long as senior IPS officers believe that it is enough to pander to the ego of a Chief Minister for going up the ladder.

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