Bengaluru: "No political party would like to surrender their power and privilege to meddle," with the police, N. Ramachandran, founder and president of the Indian Police Foundation (IPF), and a former police chief, told IndiaSpend. This is one of the reasons, he said, that no state is fully compliant with the Supreme Court's seven directives on police reforms from 2006, which asked that the political establishment not interfere in operational matters of the police. "Change will happen only when there is a groundswell of public demand for a clean-up".

In November 2021, the IPF, a think-tank for police reforms and research, conducted a survey on SMART Policing, the quality of policing and the level of public trust in the police. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had used the term SMART policing in 2014, to refer to a police force that was sensitive and strict; modern with mobility; alert and accountable; reliable and responsive; and trained and techno-savvy.

While a competent police provides reliable, accessible, responsive, technology-driven, trained and reliable police services to the citizens, an ethically driven force will promote integrity, set standards of conduct, make efforts to reduce corruption and discharge their duties lawfully, fairly and impartially, Ramachandran said.

Andhra Pradesh and Telangana topped the SMART policing survey, but Ramachandran said that there was "huge public dissatisfaction and displeasure over perceptions of corruption" in the police across the country.

Ramachandran is a former police chief of Assam and Meghalaya, and was part of the Special Protection Group for more than a decade. He has worked on issues like insurgency, terrorism, illegal immigration, and transnational weapons and drugs smuggling. In an interview, he spoke to IndiaSpend about the challenges around policing, the need for an authority to regulate technology-based surveillance and police encounters.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

It has been 15 years since the Supreme Court passed judgement on the Prakash Singh case on police reforms. No state is fully compliant yet. Why do we see delays and how must the judgement be implemented?

Even 75 years after Independence, we have not been able to discard our colonial legacy. The British used the police to further their agenda and suppress the natives. Sadly, every political party that comes to power considers it legitimate to use the police in furtherance of their political agendas. The extent of the meddling depends on the level of toxicity practised by an individual political leader or a party. Apart from routinely interfering in postings and transfers of personnel, many politicians pressurise the police on matters like arrests and investigation of crimes, making a mockery of the independence of the criminal justice system.

You know how the police in some states register cases and even arrest and incarcerate people on trumped up charges against political opponents, while the same police is reluctant to move swiftly in the face of blatant violence and criminal activities perpetrated by those proximate to the ruling dispensation. Those police officers who are too scared of discharging their constitutional responsibilities and allow such interference in exchange for favours are equally responsible. Luckily, we still have police officers who stand up and resist illegal political interference, but their numbers are dwindling.

The essence of the Supreme Court ruling on police reform was that the political establishment should confine themselves to exercising democratic oversight over the functioning of the police, but they should not interfere in operational policing matters. The reason for non-compliance of the Supreme Court order is loud and clear. No political party would like to surrender their power and privilege to meddle. Many states have technically complied [with the judgement], but effectively subverted the Supreme Court order.

Obviously, change will happen only when there is a groundswell of public demand for a clean-up. For example, in Kerala, where the people and the local media are extremely vigilant, even the smallest lapse on the part of the police is highlighted, and political parties are forced by the people to respect the rule of law. This means that while the media and the judiciary play their part, it is equally important for the people to be vigilant and demand effective, fair, and impartial policing.

IPF released the findings of its SMART Policing survey 2021 in November. Can you tell us about the initiative, your findings and whether there are worrying issues?

The survey research postulated that trust happens when citizens have the confidence that their police are professionally competent and that their actions and behaviour are guided by principles of rule of law, accountability and professional ethics.

The data threw up several interesting conclusions, the most important being that citizens tended to trust police forces which had higher index scores [that were based on factors such as police sensitivity, strictness, good behaviour and accessibility]. Interestingly, while both police competence and professional ethics contributed to perceptions of trust, citizens attached more importance to ethical values of the police like integrity, accountability, fairness and impartiality. There is a general perception that policy attention, today, is on hard professional skills and competence over ethical values, and this needs correction. One other disquieting finding of the survey has been the huge public dissatisfaction and displeasure over perceptions of corruption. Perception indices on police accountability, fairness, and impartiality were seen to be lower than other competency-based indices.

An important part of IPF's mission is to bring the police and citizens together and we strongly believe that the police should listen to what the citizens have to say. While perception surveys may not be an accurate measure of the ground situation, they do provide a general sense of the sentiments and pulse of the people. The survey could be an effective strategy to nudge state police organisations to strive for continuously improving their professional competencies, soft skills as well as the quality of policing. This could also be an effective way to enable citizens to provide feedback on the quality of policing in their locality, providing an opportunity to citizens to participate in and exercise their accountability role.

Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are the top two states based on the SMART policing index. Hyderabad Police has been using facial recognition and reportedly collecting fingerprints and photographs of people detained under 'Operation Chabutra'. Your comments?

Technology is a big boon to policing, especially in crime investigation. Some states have leveraged technology in a big way to enhance public security, solve difficult crimes, and tracking and reuniting missing children with their parents etc. Today, making use of technology, many state police organisations have streamlined their services like police verification for passports etc. Technology-based evidence and digital footprints left behind by criminals have substantial value in successful prosecutions.

What is important is to ensure that technology is used with responsibility, in the public interest and strictly as per provisions of the law of the land. There have to be strong accountability mechanisms to prevent the misuse and abuse of technology. At the same time, just because there is a risk of misuse, police cannot be prevented from using technology. The answer is not in throwing away the baby along with the bathwater.

In 2020, Delhi, Indore, and Hyderabad were reported among the top 20 most surveilled cities in the world, while Delhi reported the most CCTV cameras per square mile. With an increasing use of technologies like facial recognition, and limited or no data and privacy protection legislations, how do we ensure that policing does not erode personal privacy and freedoms?

Like it or not, we live in an era of omnipresent and perpetual surveillance and this is true of almost every country. For policing, CCTV is tremendously helpful in security practice, countering terrorism, investigation of crime and the gathering of electronic evidence and it undeniably deters crime. Today CCTV systems are deployed in almost every place, be it airports, railway stations, and bus stations, shopping malls, large public gatherings and even on the streets. It is not only the police or government agencies that deploy CCTV. Shops, residential houses, private and corporate establishments also do so.

CCTV usage is still a largely unregulated area in our country. They may contain sensitive personal information. Our laws on data security and protection of privacy remain inadequate. There are no clear laws and regulations about how long the CCTV recordings are to be stored, the criteria for their access and the sharing of video feeds to unauthorised persons etc.

Let us face it; technology is getting more and more invasive by the day and the police are required to use and integrate technology in their everyday work. When everyone else is using technology, even criminals, it is important that the police have access to cutting edge technology to keep pace. Facial recognition technology is of immense value to the police, when used in a restricted manner. For example, using this technology, many crimes are resolved on a daily basis and every year, thousands of missing children are reunited with their parents.

The problem arises because in an unregulated environment, when there is an unrestricted and blanket usage of powerful technologies like live facial recognition systems, the information so generated can be misused and abused for an array of purposes. Similarly, the problem arises when such powerful technologies fall in the hands of unscrupulous and criminal-minded officers who may misuse or abuse such power. This is the reason why we need to have an effective regulatory authority and a statutory code of practice to prevent the abuse and misuse of CCTV and other emerging technology like facial recognition.

The Constitutional guarantee of the right to life and personal liberty of citizens under Article 21 is not absolute and subject to reasonable restrictions. At the same time, our constitutional principles require the establishment to have effective checks and balances, including judicial and legislative oversight, to prevent the arbitrary and insidious use of data. They should also ensure accountability of officers and the government.

In a July 2020 tweet, the IPF said that a "culture of 'encounter justice' has been killing the rule of Law, procedural justice and all that the Constitution of India stands for". Why do we continue to see such violations of law, and how difficult is it to prosecute officers in incidents of extrajudicial killings and custodial deaths?

There are innumerable situations when police act on pinpointed intelligence or go in search of terrorists, gangsters or criminals, when they get drawn into encounters. The use of force by police in situations when they come under attack would be fully justified. In such situations, police officers themselves are often in danger, even as they take the plunge in total disregard of the serious threats to their own lives.

The problem arises when police officers take it upon themselves to dispense instant justice to deal with the so-called terrorists, gangsters, and criminals. The travesty of justice involved in these stage-managed killings require no elaboration. I personally believe that the killing of the so-called bad guys in such fake encounters is no different from the shootouts between mafia gangs, because they happen in total violation of the rule of law. There are occasions when encounter killings become cold-blooded murders, in pursuit of private profit, as it happened in the Sachin Vaze episode. Unfortunately, the widespread perceptions about a failing justice system has led to a section of the citizenry supporting the encounter culture. Often, the political establishment and the police leadership support such a culture and protect so-called 'encounter specialists' when it becomes difficult to punish the guilty.

Police officers turned rogue are infinitely more dangerous than the criminals they pursue daily. They enjoy the protection of the uniform and consequently become a law unto themselves.

Police forces across the country continue to be under-staffed and inadequately trained. Lack of adequate forensic support is a major problem during investigations. What are your recommendations and where must the government focus its funds in policing?

There is research evidence from across the world that good policing, a robust criminal justice system and reasonable levels of peacefulness are essential prerequisites to economic development and even to attract investments. It is therefore necessary that governments pay careful attention to allocate sufficient resources for creating infrastructure for the police. Many state police organisations have large vacancies, causing huge manpower shortages. Forensic and training infrastructure are woefully inadequate in some states.

Policing being a state subject, it is important that state governments allocate adequate resources for building police infrastructure and for equipment. In many states, after payment of salaries of personnel, police departments are left with very little money for meeting other important requirements [such as infrastructure and training].

One of the major problems afflicting our forensic sciences laboratories has been the perennial shortage of qualified experts. The National Forensic Science University at Gandhinagar has created substantial capacities to meet the requirements of experts in various disciplines of forensic sciences in different states. The Central government should focus on building more forensics training institutions and laboratories, and strengthen institutions for police research.

One area of extreme concern is the exponential increase in cybercrimes and financial fraud and the serious inadequacies in terms of capacities on the part of the state to deal with this. While the big global players have been investing billions to keep pace, India's police forces are yet to put their acts together. There is a need to build a concerted national strategy to deal with this problem.

During the last few years, allocation for police modernisation provided in the central budget has progressively reduced. Policing is a highly dynamic profession. Just as the challenges are evolving rapidly, the police need to continuously finetune their soft and hard skills as well as technological capabilities to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

There is a feeling that police training puts in copious efforts to build hard professional skills, while there is inadequate focus on soft skills, social sensitivity, professional ethics, integrity and principles of accountability. This calls for a complete rethinking of police training and substantial investments by the Central government to raise the training capabilities of police.

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