Home / Opinion / Towards building a people’s police

Modern policing traces its origin to the philosophy of Robert Peel. He laid the foundation for future police forces way back in 1829, which continues to guide them even on . Peel believed that the police must derive its legitimacy from the people it serves.

It is only with their trust, consent and cooperation that a police force may assume any authority over them. These ‘Peelian principles’ are regarded as the cornerstones of contemporary policing.

The fundamental thought underlying these principles was that police must prevent crime and disorder for the safety of citizens, rather than repress people by military force and severity of punishment.

London and New York’s Metropolitan Police Forces were established on these Peelian principles. This strong and amicable relationship between the public and the police in London was reaffirmed in the recent terror attacks.

In India, however, the police force was founded on a different set of principles. The Indian Police Act of 1861, that governs the police till date, was set up in the wake of the mutiny of 1857—India’s first war of Independence—which threatened the exercise of British power over India.

The mandate given to the First Police Commission in 1860 was to secure the authority and economic interests of the Sovereign over the people and suppress all challenges to its power.

Quantifying the public’s opinion of the police can help gauge the current scenario in India. A household survey conducted by IDFC Institute, a Mumbai based think/do tank, attempted to assess people’s opinion of the police.

The survey titled “Safety Trends and Reporting of Crime (SATARC)" asked 20,597 households across Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru about their experience with the police, incidence of crime, perceptions of safety, in addition to their views about the police.

The questions posed to the respondents ranged from their opinion on respectful treatment by the police, its effectiveness in maintaining a safe environment in the city and its understanding of local issues, the sense of safety that comes with police presence in a secluded area, reliance on police in times of need, to whether they believed police is underpaid and overworked.

The results from the analysis show that about half the population in Bengaluru (47%) believe that the police will treat them with respect when they reach out to them. The number stands at 59% in Delhi, 71% in Mumbai and 77% in Chennai.

In Delhi, 59% of population feel that the police are doing a good job in maintaining a safe environment in the city. Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru fare better with 76%, 80% and 64%, respectively. Across the four cities, 75% to 91% of people believe that the police can be relied on when needed. Thus, the level of trust varies from city to city.

When these questions are looked at through the lens of a victim of crime versus a non-victim, there is an interesting observation. In Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai, victims have an equal or even marginally better opinion of the police than a non-victim. However, in Mumbai, victims are vastly more mistrustful of the police than non-victims.

The survey also asked respondents whether they are more comfortable approaching a male or female officer to report an issue.

Almost half the population of the four cities, male as well as female, is indifferent about approaching a male or female police officer. Of the remaining population, among females, 20% prefer approaching male officers, while 29% prefer approaching female officers.

Among males, 43% prefer approaching male officers, whereas only 4% prefer approaching female officers. Such results can be useful inputs for concerted campaigns to build confidence in the public of the effectiveness of women officers.

The weakest response overall is to the question of ‘whether the police is underpaid and overworked’. For example, a mere 28% of people in Delhi agree with this view. These numbers cannot be seen independently. In addition to the people’s opinion of the police, we must simultaneously understand the circumstances in which the police must operate.

The lack of capacity and funds available to the police are a severe impediment. In a report released by Niti Aayog on strengthening the police force, we learnt that police officers and staff members at police stations, that the public often interact with, work more than 11 to 14 hour-shifts per day, often without weekly offs for months on end.

Besides the capacity constraints, it is important to gauge public opinion about police, as with any other public institution. Using such surveys as inputs towards bolstering confidence building measures, is an important step in building mutual trust.

Surveys and studies can help put numbers to the people’s opinions about the police machinery and can be used as a tool beyond the official crime data.

Earlier this year, the New York Police Department (NYPD) was set to roll out mobile phone surveys, using location technology, to gauge New Yorkers’ sentiments on safety. The survey also included questions on their views of the police.

Studies also find that communities that align their values with those of their police force are more likely to comply with the law. After all, police officers are regarded as citizens in uniform.

Avanti Durani and Neha Sinha are, respectively, associate and assistant director at IDFC Institute, a Mumbai based think/do tank.

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