After 74 years of independence, it is clear that India’s political class is not interested in police reform. The power to misuse police authority for personal and party objectives is too alluring to be diluted. As well understood, police officers, particularly the SHOs (Station House Officers), exercise extraordinary discretion and clout in their functions. They determine registration of crimes and who to arrest, harass and threaten; they even extort funds from businesses. Compromised officers facilitate these decisions and no wonder, politicians demand their ‘man’ at the right place and in all important positions.
Major efforts by the National Police Commission and then by the Supreme Court judgment in Prakash Singh case have failed to bring any meaningful reform. Today, politicisation of the police accompanied with criminalisation of politics is destroying rule of law in the country.
What can be done? Is there some path that can reduce political interference? I present a creative idea that seems feasible, and which does not depend on the government for implementation.
Postings to police stations are the cynosure of political control, but this can be easily circumvented at the state as well as district levels. The DGP (Director General of Police) can stipulate that subordinate personnel be permitted to list their top three choices for posting to any district of the state. It will also be the policy to let personnel serve at the district till the next promotion when again they can choose districts where posts are available. It seems reasonable to believe that having their own choice of posting will prevent police personnel from running to the politicians. For serious emergent situations, officers can be and are deputed to specific regions, but these are short term arrangements. Letting officers choose the district for their posting does not affect organizational norms and will also help improve satisfaction with working conditions.
At the district level, the SP (Superintendent of Police)/ Commissioner could organize the personnel not spatially in terms of police stations, but functionally. Each personnel will be posted not to a particular police station but to a team for specific function. Thus, officers and teams will be assigned a unit dealing with robberies, burglaries, vehicle thefts, crimes against women, law-order duties and to criminal intelligence units. Each team will have office space and other facilities at all police stations but no affiliation with any particular police station.
In this mode, there will not be any designation of SHO at all. Citizens would be able to seek police assistance by calling the control room without requiring going to the police station. The control room will record the complaint and send the patrol vehicle to the crime scene. The patrol leader will determine if the complaint needs to be registered as a crime and if so, send it to the concerned team leader who will register it at the police station having jurisdiction over the crime scene. Police stations will now be a place for officers to work and assemble and not to receive citizen complainants.
Under this system, specialised teams will carry out the responsibilities of the police station: serving local populations, receiving their complaints, providing security through patrolling, resolving conflicts and maintaining order and importantly, knowing local offenders. Additionally, we can consider the post of a reception officer as a first contact for any citizen coming to the police station; a system already followed in many states.
This idea is a generalization of what many states have already implemented: the division of officers into law-order and crime control functions. A major difference will be to delink the officers from affiliation to a police station. This will enable the SP/Commissioner to depute officers to different teams depending upon requirements and their performance. Most importantly, it will break the demand to seek posting to a particular police station as it will become redundant.
Such a system prevails in all Western countries where the precinct i.e., the police station, serves as office space to hold suspects and provide amenities for conference, communications and records. No citizen goes there; requests for police service are fully conveyed over the phone. Indeed, the hallmark of a modern professional police force is that the police go to the citizens, not citizens pursuing a police officer.
Already, the “112” call system is prevalent in most of the states and citizens are increasingly using it to call the police for their complaints. In UP, the police control room receives more than 50,000 calls every day and police typically respond within a time span of 10-15 minutes, even in rural areas. In today’s India, mobile phones are ubiquitous; a large number of functions, including banking, are carried out online through them, and seeking police services is not an exception. Police Control Rooms are going to be the main contact medium for citizens seeking police service in the coming days. Accordingly, the role of police station as the contact place for the people will slowly diminish and end.
The biggest reason why such a system will succeed is that it will not require any kind of government notification. Even today, the SP/Commissioner control postings of officers to police stations, and they have the power to keep them assigned to their office or at the police lines. They do not need any government sanction for this organisational change. This system will also address many of the corrupt practices and abuses of authority. At present, police station personnel and the SHO in particular are virtual lords of their jurisdiction. Supervision of their functions, daily activities and interactions with citizens is minimal and distant. No wonder, we often find torture, hafta collection, illegal detentions, unwarranted registration and more commonly, refusal to register FIRs happening at the police station level.
It is hence not surprising that officers seek political support to get posted to a police station. If the allure of working at a particular police station is taken away and officers get to choose the district for their work instead, then political interests in transfer posting will also reduce. The use of political power to manipulate police functions will get adversely affected. As seen, attempts to select the DGP in a fair and transparent manner and to provide operational freedom have failed. All political parties have steadfastly refused to accept the Supreme Court verdict. The efforts to reduce political control over the police must continue, but bypassing mechanisms through which politicians can interfere in police functions requires innovative solutions. It is time for the IPS leadership to seek such alternate and creative paths to bring professional transformation.
 Arvind Verma and Asim Arun, “Counting Crime in India”, In John Eterno, Arvind Verma and Eli Silverman, Counting Crime: An Exercise in Police Discretion, Routledge [forthcoming]
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.