I was on holiday in Florida this September (2015) when I heard of the Ride Along program that several Police Departments offer all over the United States. This is an initiative to encourage Police Public Partnership so that people can see life from the other side of the fence and see what a Police Officer typically goes through every day. When I discovered that one of these was the Clearwater City’s Police Department which was nearby, I applied. The first cautious reaction was, ‘You are not an American citizen so let me check.’ My response was, ‘I am happy to become one temporarily if that is what it takes.’ I love my Indian citizenship to give that up but just for a one night stand, that was not such a big deal. As it happened, I didn’t become an American citizen even for a night but was invited to participate in the program. Here’s a link to the program so that I don’t have to explain all this stuff.
Now a word about why I was interested in this program anyway? As many of my friends know, I have been involved with the Indian Police – IPS in particular – as Guest Faculty on Leadership Development at the SVP National Police Academy, Hyderabad, AP Police Academy, Hyderabad and the SSB Academy Gwaldam. I taught my first course at the SVP- National Police Academy in 1991. Since then I have worked with IPS Trainees (Indian Police Service Officer Cadets) and Senior Officers (of the rank of Deputy Inspector General and Inspector General) as well as Commandants of the SSB and Trainers in the SSB Academy Gwaldam on Train the Trainer Programs. So I have a deep and abiding interest in policing. In particular of the need for Police Public Partnership in fighting crime. In today’s climate of terrorist activity, public participation becomes even more important. I am not talking about informers but of the need to build trust among the general public where they feel comfortable talking to a police officer, going to a police station or helping police to solve crime because they see police as one of themselves and not an alien force to be avoided by all decent people.
Why do I say all this? That is because of a statement that I heard from one of my own students at the NPA in 1991 when I asked the class, ‘What is the Police?’
One of them replied, ‘It is the coercive arm of Government.’
Now that was not an outrageous answer at all but rather succinctly defined the perceived role of the Indian Police both in the eyes of the public as well as themselves. I am not sure if one could get such a close agreement on role definition in any other profession so easily. The big question of course was, ‘Is this definition good to have? Is it how we (police officers – I’m not one) want to be perceived? Is this how we want people to think of us?’ The answer at least in my mind and the minds of many of my friends in the police is a resounding ‘No!’
How did this happen? Well, that is a long story but in short this is the legacy both of 150 years of British colonial rule where the Police was the tool of Government to enforce their will on subject people as well as our own feudal history as a nation where the police in our own states did the same thing. Police were feared. And policemen enjoyed this. Going to a Police Station was something only a criminal did and so was something which was (and is) seen as not something any decent person ever does. If you have to do it because you were the victim of a crime, you do it and then all your worst fears come true.
I have had the occasion to go to my local police station once. In my naiveté I decided to be Mr. Ordinary Citizen and lodge a complaint. All that I wanted to do was to get my complaint registered. After being rudely told to sit on a bench and then made to wait for over two hours, I decided to become Indian. So I made one phone call and the senior officer of the Police Station came looking for me, took me into his office, gave me a cup of tea and ordered the same Circle Inspector who made me sit on a bench, to register my complaint while I had my tea. When I was leaving and passed by the desk of the Circle Inspector, he told me in a very injured tone, ‘Aray Saab pehlay nain bolna kay aap kon hain?’ (Sir, shouldn’t you have told me earlier who you are?) Meaning that the fact that I got treated like an ‘ordinary citizen’ was my own fault because I am not an ‘ordinary’ citizen and should have made that known to him. The fact that I feel an ordinary citizen and am very proud of it, is obviously a sign of the early onset of dementia because who but a madman would want to be an ordinary citizen in India when you need not be? I learnt my lesson but thankfully haven’t had to go to a Police Station since and hope never to have that privilege till the end of my days.
So there I was in the United States and decided to see what it was like for an ordinary Police Officer. I was asked if I had any preference for the time of day I would like to go on a Ride Along. I chose 9.00 pm to 3.00 am. The officer, Paul Bosco told me, ‘You want to see all the drunks and druggies? No problem. I’ll show you.’ As it happened we didn’t see any but I had a very eye opening experience nevertheless.
My poor brother was landed the job of driving me to the Police Station at 9.00 pm and the even more unenviable job of picking me up at 3.00 am. Talk about accidents of birth. But he was nice enough not to complain about it.
We met Paul at the station. He gave me an introduction to the program; do’s and don’ts (basically all designed to ensure my own safety), a memento of a Deputy’s badge and I got into the police car – in the front seat – not in the back. You don’t want to get into the back of a police car, believe me. That is bad news. I was riding as his partner in this case hoping of course that he would never need me to really back him up. He didn’t and I am alive to tell the tale.
I am not about to give a blow by blow account of all that happened that night but just want to share some highlights which drew for me the difference between a police officer in a democracy compared to a police officer in a feudal colony which has not yet woken up to the fact that it is now a democracy and not a feudal colony. I want to mention three incidents.
1. The officer stopped a speeding car. The whole thing was very exciting with the officer checking the speed on his laser scanner which gives an exact reading. The man was doing twenty miles over the limit so the officer drove after him with his flashers on. The man pulled over. The officer’s onboard computer gives him all details of the car and driver including the record of any encounters with the law in his entire life. It was great to see how technology makes life so easy. Then the officer walked over to the car and asked for the driver’s license and registration of the car. To my great surprise the man was not only angry at being stopped but when he realized that he was going to be given a ‘ticket’ he became abusive and used some very bad language. To my even greater surprise, Paul Bosco, who is built like a prize fighter, didn’t lose his cool at all.
He continued to speak to the man politely, gave him the ticket and sent him on his way. And there I was chuckling to myself and saying, ‘Ha! Lucky you are not in India bro!! You would deserve what would have happened to you there!!’
2. As we were sitting at an intersection a can drove up and the driver leaned out and told Paul about some young people who were drag racing on the boundary of his territory which was potentially dangerous. Paul thanked him and told him that he was aware of this and someone had already been dispatched to take care of that. Then the man says, ‘Thanks pal. You guys are doing a great job.’ I guess Clearwater Police deserves that. It was a random unsolicited comment from a citizen who was just driving along and stopped to talk to the policeman because he saw a police car.
3. We pulled into a gas station for what I like to call a ‘fluid adjustment break’ – put fluids in and put fluids out. This was past midnight and there were twenty or thirty motorcycles and their riders just hanging out, drinking sodas and chatting. As we came back out of the convenience store attached to the gas station and got into our car, one of the motorcycles was having some starting trouble. So one of the friends of the rider gave him a hefty push to get him started. As the bike rolled forward with the push the rider accidentally applied his front brake with predictable results. The bike almost went head over heels and then keeled over and the rider fell off. Paul says to me, ‘Just watch this.’ Then he turned on his loud hailer and says, ‘Hey guys, if you want training wheels tell me. I’ll get them for you.’
All the young motorcyclists were in splits, yelling with laughter. The rider who fell off got the ribbing of his life. And I saw all this in stupefied silence. I laughed of course but asked myself, ‘This is the relationship of a police officer with ordinary citizens?’
Last story, this is not part of the Ride Along but something that happened as I was about to return home to India. There was an announcement that some Islam-hate group was organizing ‘Protests’ at all the mosques they could, one of which was to be the masjid we prayed at. Florida is a state that permits people to carry weapons so it was expected that some of these Islam-hating people would come armed. Clear and present danger. What about the police? So I asked some people.
This is what I was told. “The police will be present. The Sheriff will be there. There will probably be a SWAT Car in attendance. Reinforcements will be a call away. They will ensure that nobody enters the mosque property. They will be allowed to stand on public land, roadside and so on but will not be allowed to enter the masjid’s land as that is private property. If there is any threat of violence from them, they will be arrested and charged according to what they may do. If they fire on anyone, the police will shoot back at them. The police will protect the one who is being harassed, not the one harassing. Even if he belongs to the Republicans or Democrats or whoever is in power at the State or Federal level.”
I was so intrigued that I almost changed my return ticket just to be there and see this in action. The actions of a police force, policing. The actions of upholders of the law, upholding the law. The actions of defenders of the Constitution, defending their Constitution and the Rights it grants all citizens. Such an unusual sight that would have been. Had it not been for the fact that I couldn’t afford Emirates ticket change penalty, you would have had an eye witness account.
Why am I sounding so surprised? I am sure no Indian needs any explanation. As for others, do your own guessing. I don’t like to wash dirty linen in public. It is my own country after all even if some of those who walk the corridors of power today want to debate that.
Indian Police must define its role. Are they upholders of the Constitution? Are they partners of the public in protecting them from crime? Are they members of the public playing an incredibly important and honorable role of protecting the oppressed, the weak and the poor? Or are they agents of those in power, enabling them to break the law with impunity; aiding and abetting crime by the powerful and protecting criminals because they belong to this or that political party which is in power. Indian police need to define what patriotism means. Does it mean loyalty to the nation and its law abiding citizens or loyalty to the political party in power?
We like to talk about Police Public Relations in the Indian Police Service. In fact the first course I taught at the SVP National Police Academy was about that. However in reality it is impossible for a member of the public to actually contribute to policing. Police is seen as something to fear and the distance that police officers maintain from the public confirms this impression and promotes alienation. The more senior the officer, the more intimidating he is and the more distant and difficult to reach. There is no system for the ordinary citizen to build a relationship with his local police personnel or any encouragement for him to do so. I am not talking about personal friendships with police officers. I am talking like the Ride Along program as an example. Granted that we can’t have an exact replica of that program in India because our police constables don’t ride in cars to be able to take anyone along but we need systems where ordinary people can contribute in different ways to help police officers to solve crime and make our living spaces safer.
For a start as a test of my claim that police officers maintain an intimidating distance from the people which discourages participation here is a checklist that you can give to the SHO of any Police Station to fill out. The results will be enlightening, I hope and encourage the seniors to do something about this.
- How many prominent local people do you know personally?
- How many of them without political affiliation and from minorities or Dalits?
- How many of them do you visit socially at least once a year?
- Do you invite them to any function at the PS – e.g. Independence Day flag hoisting?
- If not, why not?
- Do you participate, even if by simply wishing, in any festival not your own?
- If not, why not?
- Do you visit any schools, hospitals, NGO’s, places of worship in your area?
- If not, why not?
You can add any more questions as you wish but I believe the results will be the same. Police don’t have a relationship with the public because they don’t want to.
If Indian Police really want to be partners with the public, then they have to define who they are and what their role is. You can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. You have to decide where you belong and act accordingly. Jai Hind.
Very well written. Not surprised at all. In India we are still pondering over the benefits of cow urine and what people are having for dinner, the police actively involved in finding that out, the results are there for all to see.
Wow, I always wanted to drive by a police man in police car. Maybe, I should visit as well 🙂
I think the problem of a disconnect between the govt's "coercive arm" and the peoples it polices is a global phenomenon, varying only in degrees from country to country. Having said that,I think a greater integration and day to day interaction between people and police will not only bring down the crime rate but make the lives of the police themselves much better with a lot less stress. One need not be a hound and the other a hare! Or can I not see the obvious….?
Nice experience… Wish such narration reaches the police corridors our country….after all our police force came into existence to carry somebody else's agenda during imperial rule unfortunately it continues to remain same peoples republic