Recently, one of my students defended his doctoral thesis based on research done on a police department in Alaska. In that cold region, it is not unusual to find a large proportion of the population drinking liquor on a regular basis. Not unexpectedly, such consumption of liquor leads to a variety of problems, ranging from fights, drunk driving, to people passing out on the roads in extreme cold. All these problems have to be dealt with by the police, who need to break up the fights, escort drunks home, and deal with drunkenness on public property. Consequently, most officers believe that 90 per cent of their workload is related to this wanton addiction to liquor, and the department approached the authorities to impose more punitive fines on drunken behaviour.

In the US, the formulation of public policy is often based on empirical evidence, which is collected through research by university departments. Accordingly, the municipal government provided funds to the department of criminal justice of the local university to study this problem. It is here that my student got involved and researched this problem for his doctoral study.

He collected the data about work being done by the officers, examined their daily diaries, and made observations of the officers going around in their patrol cars to log what work is induced by alcohol consumption. The analysis of the data revealed that barely 12-15 per cent of the working time and events were related to alcohol. But the police department and all the officers would not accept the findings, maintaining their belief that alcohol abuse formed the basis of nearly all their workload. Despite the clear empirical evidence and the rigorous analysis based upon records maintained by the department itself, the officers rejected the conclusion arrived in the research study. The police, like many other professionals, maintain myths about themselves and their work.

Such myths in policing exist everywhere, and not only in the remote mountains of Alaska. For example, a common myth is that officers think of themselves as crime fighters, and believe the objectives of policing are to combat crime and deal with disorder. Research suggests very clearly that police officers everywhere think that tasks like dealing with beggars, runaway children, handling petty disputes amongst the citizens, escorting processions, handling crowds in sporting events etc. are all 'useless' chores that take them away from their real work of dealing with crime. Accordingly, they are resentful when citizens and the society expect them to do such work in addition to their other responsibilities. A Deputy Inspector General (DIG) once reprimanded me for 'wasting' time in rescuing bonded labourers instead of focusing on dacoity and robbery.

Myths in the Indian police

There are several myths embedded in the Indian police, but here I am going to focus on two that are widely prevalent. One is about political interference in police work. It is widely believed that politicians interfere constantly and in every aspect of police work. Almost all officers complain that they cannot function properly due to direct interference by the politicians. All police personnel, from the lowest constable to the highest ranking Director General of Police, lament the fact that police organisation has been badly affected by politics. They complain that every decision has to be 'cleared' by politicians and that their ability to take decisions independently in accordance with the law has been eroded. Consequently, every demand for the reform of the Indian police begins with the cry for doing something about political interference in policing. The National Police Commission made this its single point agenda and recommended a Security Commission that would give tenure to the DGP and shield the department from interference by the ministers.

Unfortunately, there is little research on policing in India and empirical data is often not available, making a lot of research into police work difficult.

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Another widespread belief is about the objectives of policing. All officers believe themselves to be crime fighters and that 'law and order' work hampers crime control functions. Indeed, several committees dealing with the reform of the police have strongly suggested that the police officers be divided into two categories - those dealing with law and order problems and the other group exclusively focusing upon crime. This is intended to relieve the officers from mundane tasks of handling order maintenance problems and thus giving them more time to investigate criminal cases. In view of the fact that law and order problems are ubiquitous and the police have a poor record of investigating crimes, this belief is supported by many police officers themselves. Crime investigation is also an arena where the politicians clearly have no role, so it is hoped that such separation will also minimise the politicisation of the force.

Unfortunately, there is little research on policing in India and empirical data on such matters is just not available. Accordingly, it is difficult to test these beliefs in the manner done by my student for Alaska police. However, there is considerable knowledge of police work that can perhaps help refute these two beliefs prevalent in the Indian police.

The numbers don't lie

Around 56,000 riots are reported annually in the country, and religious festivals, political demonstrations and bandhs are everyday occurrences; in light of this, the claim that police are heavily burdened with law and order duties seems justified. However, if one were to count the total number of days in which such major events take place then the proportion is not more than 20-25 per cent. Moreover, the burden of dealing with such major order maintenance problems falls largely upon a few selected police stations. Generally, the town police stations lying in the heart of metropolitan and large cities have to face these problems. Major processions and demonstrations are held in the central part of the city and not more than two to three police stations are affected. Most rural and moffusil police stations rarely have to deal with law order problems. Accordingly, the overall workload of police station officers in handling disorder problems is a small proportion of their work.

It should also be remembered that large numbers of armed police - in the form of various reserve units (CRPF, BSF, RAF, ITBP, CISF) and the state armed forces - are available and routinely used in trouble-prone areas. These forces are not mandated to handle investigations, and thus in some ways they are exclusively law order forces. The excuse by the local police that order maintenance problems divert its attention from crime wontrol work is largely misplaced.

The empirical evidence comes from the fact that the load of criminal investigation is barely 2.3 cases per investigator per month. The failure to investigate cases is not because of law and order problems but because the officers are apathetic towards this responsibility. Except in cases that attract media attention and where senior officers take interest most other cases are barely investigated. Furthermore, additional empirical evidence similar to the one collected by my student is available in the general diary and personal diaries of the officers. These records will show that a large proportion of the work at police stations concerns service functions demanded by the citizens. Matters such as small disputes amongst neighbours, obstructions left on the roads by telephone, power and other authorities, missing people, stray cattle, encroachments, minor accidents, arrangements for marriages and religious festivals are reported and handled by police regularly. These form around 60-80 percent of the day's work depending upon the area.

None of this is insignificant since this enables the officers to work with the citizens and gain their support. It is this work that lets the police know about their area and the people - all useful information in solving crimes. Criminal investigation cannot be done without the cooperation of the citizens - they provide intelligence, identify the suspects and come forward as witnesses. If the police were not providing the service functions it will be impossible to get citizen assistance and this will badly affect investigation of crimes. This was well established by the Rand research study in the US which demonstrated very clearly that good investigation is dependent upon police officers working with the people and being involved in their daily problems. Accordingly, involvement in law and order duties is beneficial since it helps police officers establish contacts and relationship with organizers, local leaders and other citizens. Order maintenance and crime control roles are inter-related; if any separation is made then it is going to adversely affect the quality of investigations.

The complaint of political interference is even more of an interesting myth. In an article titled Politicization of the Police: Where Lies the Blame [Indian Police Journal 2001] I have argued that "a large proportion of political interference of the police can be traced to the mismanagement, lack of professionalism and improper supervision within the department".

I go on to show that political interference occurs in three forms: as the public, the general and the special form of interference. The public nature of political interference comes with some politician being asked by a citizen to intervene in a matter where the police department is unable to provide satisfactory public service. The special form is one where the politician intervenes with the police administration and attempts to gain favour for someone known to him or to oblige a person for some future gain. The general form of interference is a case where a politician is not directly interested in the matter but takes it up as a social cause and to assert his power as a community leader. Politicians intervene since police officers do not function professionally and citizens are unable to get relief by going to the police stations.

The empirical evidence for the above argument comes from the examination of police station records. A simple analysis of general register kept at any police station suggests that in a 24 hour period around 30-50 entries are made indicating the various work done by the police station officers. Even if politicians are constantly sitting at the police station they will barely be able to take direct interest in at most 5-10 incidents occurring at the station. Mind you, heavy-weight politicians are few in numbers and hence their ability to influence the work of the officers can occur at most in very limited number of cases. Similar is the case of crimes registered at the station. Even the most busy police station will not register more than 10 crimes per day [we all know lot of burking occurs in the registration of crimes]. Clearly, the politicians can at best interfere in only 2-4 cases if they are very active and constantly peeping into the police station. Realistically, they take interest in 2-5 cases in the entire district comprising 15-20 police stations.

Thus, a large proportion of criminal cases are such where there is no direct interest by any politician. The officers therefore cannot complain of reckless and abundant political interference since a good proportion of their work remains outside the interest of the politician. What may happen is that the officers learn to anticipate the interests of the politicians and deal with every case as if the particular politician is interested. However, this is happening without direct pressure from the politician. If one were to calculate in this manner it is clear that almost 70-80 per cent of the work done at the police stations is free of direct political interest.

Like the situation in Alaska, these issues remain and prevail as a myth and are widely believed both inside and outside the department. The problem is serious, for it is not a case of simple misconception by the officers. The problem is that such myths influence and guide every act and perception of the officers. Police officers believe strongly that they are crime fighters and that all other work is unnecessary and waste of their time. They maintain that politicians are destroying their department and that they are helpless in this regard. But analysis of work logs don't back this up; the police must look inward to their own failures to find their way out of these myths.