Urban policing


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ONCE a land of villages, India, is now firmly set on the path of rapid urbanization. According to the report of the National Commission on Urbanization (1988), the urban population ‘quadrupled from 90 million in 1947 to over 200 million in 1988. In just 13 years, i.e., by 2001, it is expected to reach 350 million.’ There were nearly 3300 urban settlements which included about 422 district headquarters and 40 towns with a population of over one million each in 1988. The commission made a preliminary list of about 600 cities and towns. Barring some of the headquarters of rural districts, most of these cities recorded high rates of population growth and expanding economic activity.

Urban centres enjoy rapid growth rates due to a concentration of economic and commercial activities which pull in rural masses in search of employment opportunities. The poor have few means of livelihood in the villages, given truncated land holdings, undergrowth of villages, feuds, conditions of insecurity, instability and injustice. Thus, both pull and push factors lead to an accelerated growth of towns and cities and create pressures on urban areas.

The convergence of a large number of people to urban centres has pushed outward the periphery of the city, thus engulfing the countryside in its fold and extending the limits of jurisdiction to be governed and regulated. Since urban laws are often not extended to these areas, their merger into the urban complex creates serious problems of maladjusted settlements.

Urban areas are characterized by conditions of scarcity in relation to the sheer number of people. The rural masses need a living space, a basic minimum needed for a family. With no money to purchase land or pay rent, they squat on whatever space is available – parks, empty plots, grounds, pavements and along railway tracks.



The increasing pressure on scarce land has given rise to a breed of criminals known as the land mafia, distinct from the squatters. Whereas the latter are content with finding a foothold wherever available, the mafia is interested in making capital out of this phenomenon by occupying disputed lands or tenanted holdings over which they keep an eye and by striking bargains favourable to them, often by arranging a forcible eviction of the tenants. Second, the tenant-landlord problems have come to the fore due to the disparity between old and new rents and the anxiety of owners to get their premises vacated for further economic use. The land mafias have all the trappings of the drug mafia with their turfs, rivalries, transactions and power zones.

The sheer flow of people to the urban areas has sown the seeds of lawlessness, reflected in a large number of unauthorized/unregulated colonies, growth of slums on public land and encroachments on pavements. The growth of unregulated sectors has created strains on public services. The pollution, dirt and filth add to the irritations of life. There is a large-scale theft of electricity, municipal charges are not paid, and construction laws are flouted with impunity.

The urban areas are now witnessing the crimes of affluence committed by the well-off or those aspiring to be so. The streak of acquisitiveness, aggression, seduction, need for instant gratification – all combine to make a combustible chemical that has been the cause of many a crime (Jai Mata di farm, Tamarind Court, Tan-door and BMW cases). A new genre of ‘civilized’ lawbreaker or a ‘gentleman’ criminal has cropped up. The epithets ‘civilized’ and ‘gentleman’ are used to signify the category that has joined the ranks of criminals or the criminals who pose as such on the strength of money, the company they keep, their behaviour and the contacts they flout.



Another characteristic of urban areas is the proliferation in the number and type of vehicles adding to road accidents, congestion and pollution, besides the tensions caused by a shortage of parking space. The ensuing indiscipline is exacerbated by ruthless and unimaginative drivers who have little consideration for the safety, care, comfort or convenience of other people. The huge congregations of people for celebrations, demonstrations, protests and commercial activities in markets and bazaars create additional problems of managing the complex mix of people, vehicles and activities.

Several factors contribute to lawlessness in urban areas. First, the laws are hackneyed, weak and outmoded, carrying mild penalties that make little sense in an inflationary milieu and provide no deterrence whatsoever. The enforcement of even these weak laws is poor, either due to apathy, lethargy or corrupt practices.

Unfortunately, the culture of lawlessness has acquired a veneer of normalcy. It contributes to wrong-doing on a large scale which is further magnified due to its demonstration effect. When an act of blatant indis-cipline goes unchecked, people are prompted to follow suit, fear vanishes and the abnormal starts appearing normal. This leads to large scale ‘social sinning’ and makes the task of governance arduous. The gradual vanishing of a community spirit, absence of peer pressure and lack of social controls, coupled with anonymity of the heterogeneous and rootless population only adds to lawlessness.

The old methods of keeping check on the criminals through records and surveillance have become ineffective. The criminals are mobile and rarely commit crimes within the jurisdiction of their police stations. The chances of their being caught are low as they are conscious of not leaving a trace of the crime; they are professionals in the true sense of the term. Moreover, while the criminals possess weapons which they do not hesitate to use, continuing public apathy inhibits collective interventions even when the crime is being committed, as happens in cases of molestation or activities of gangsters using public transport who scare people away by brandishing arms. Nobody wants to take a risk.



Besides being centres of lawlessness and normlessness, urban areas are vulnerable targets for the designs of terrorists and saboteurs aiming to cause death, destruction, disruption and destability. This is a new dimension of the urban problem, especially in metropolitan areas which are abuzz with social, economic, commercial, political and diplomatic activity. Life and activity are interwoven in a delicate balance with intricate imbrications. All this adds to the security problems of important personages, vital installations and strategic locations.

So far conventional policing had concerned itself with crime and criminals. Its crime control strategy focused on traditional offences relating to the body and property of individuals. Hence its emphasis upon dacoities, robberies and burglaries which create a scare in the community. Second, the police gets into the act only after the occurrence of an incident. Its strategies are designed to react to crime and reduce response time.



All this needs to be reworked given the change in the profile of crimes. Whereas traditional crimes will continue to be a primacy focus, modern crimes of sabotage and terrorism, crimes against the dispossessed and vulnerable sections of society like the poor, Dalits, women and juveniles, and crimes perpetrated by the mafia can no longer be ignored. These differ from the traditional crimes which had, at best, an element of aggrandizement; the new crimes are designed to terrorize, exploit and control the vulnerable sections of society.

Policing in the urban areas is thus concerned not just with crime and criminals but equally with managing of the onslaught of scarcity, aggravated by the inundation or excess of everything – from pollution to congestion – which adversely affects the quality of life. Scarcity and surfeit are two sides of the same coin. Pressure of population on scarce resources creates tensions and conflicts which the police has to manage. Similarly, the police has to concern itself with problems of public order created by undisciplined traffic, encroachments on roads and public spaces, movement of processions, sudden disruptions and discontinuities caused by accidents, unforeseen happenings like fire, collapse of a building, floods, traffic jams and so on. It is imperative that the urban space involving flows of people, mobility, events and transactions is consciously managed by the police. ‘Urbanization and police... are almost synonymous ideas...Public spaces are prominent objects of police attention.’1

Another important aspect of urban policing is the need to recognise the sensibilities of people who are more aware of their rights and are sensitive to atrocities, injustice and inequities prevalent in society. The higher pitch of feminine voices regarding their problems and rights, the clamour of the dispossessed and the Dalits for a fair deal, or the safety of senior citizens are new areas requiring sensitive police response.



There is a demand for transparency, proper delivery of services, and decency in treatment generated by education, exposure to media, political conscientization and interventions by institutions capable of speaking on behalf of others. There are, thus, heightened expectations about the police from people who will no longer tolerate the high-handedness, apathy, or indifference of the executive. Though they may not be able to do much, they do create a noise, thereby maligning the image of police if the response is wooden.

The police must, therefore, learn to look beyond the spectrum of crime and criminals. Since it deals with a complex of concerns, it must evolve a rationale for doing so and doing it better, rather than considering them as mere adjuncts and a burden. Here the insights of Michel Foucault help. While discussing the rationality of governments, he hinted that the task of the government is to create ‘binding’. ‘It (the task) consists in forming and assuring the city’s unity. In short, the political problem is that of the relation of the one and the many in the framework of the city and its citizens.’2

This mandate subsumes everything – people, things, events. Things are meant for people while events are created by people and nature. Foucault uses Turquet’s expression: ‘The police’s true object is man.’ He further quotes Delamare: ‘The police sees to everything pertaining to men’s happiness’ and ‘The police sees to everything regulating "society" (social relations) carried on between men.’ ‘The sole purpose of police is to lead man to the utmost happiness to be enjoyed in this life.’3 Similarly, he draws on Von Justi who lays stress on the conduct of individuals to the extent they respect the law, besides their morals, occupational capabilities and honesty. ‘The police has to keep the citizens happy – happiness being understood as survival, life and imp-roved living.’4



Policing is thus a social activity that operates on behalf of the state to control or channelize the social conduct of its citizens. It has to concern itself with non-crime problems as well, which if not attended to at the initial stages may turn into crime. The problem of delinquent children, drug addicts, troubled family relationships, injustice by employers, threat to self-esteem of a person, minor bickerings and so on, are some symptoms of societal sickness.

These are problems which must be dealt with, directly or through an expert agency, expeditiously. Like public health, the police is responsible for public peace. ‘The job of a doctor is not to cure you but to keep you fit,’ goes a Chinese proverb. The police cannot shirk its responsibility by claiming that most such problems are non-cognizable. Such crimogenic causes have to be cured at the initial stages to prevent any occurrence or recurrence. This involves initiating timely action to check the spark or the event reaching a ‘flashpoint’.

The strategies for urban policing have to be designed in this context.



Increasing gaze and ensuring normalization through disciplinary controls: Since the benefit of cohesive communities is not available in urban areas and the problems of anonymity are endemic, the police must devise methods by which it increases its gaze over the aberrations of individuals. The introduction of technologies which enable scanning, penetration, communication, storage, retrieval and interception multiply the power of the police. The gaze has already been successfully activated at airports, where with the help of X-ray machines and CCTV, radars, metal detectors and sensors, the police is able to keep a watch.

The concept of ‘panopticon’ is amplified by Michel Foucault, which enables the authorities to keep a watch over inmates in prisons without their being seen.5 This method introduces an element of self-policing since everyone becomes conscious of being watched and under scrutiny. The police, thus, instead of depending only upon techniques of repression and direct control through entry, search, detention, arrest and interrogation, can resort to subtle techniques of disciplinary control. Gaze can be improved by encouraging people to inform the police on assurance of anonymity. Equally, it needs to improve its organization and do away with watertight compartmentalization. This method will improve both notice of violations of law and the response of police.

Two ideas are subsumed in the concept of ‘gaze’ or surveillance. One is the principle of ‘broken windows’ enunciated by J.Q. Wilson in his book Thinking on Crime.6 The main idea is to look for minor ‘quality of life’ infractions that increase fear, discomfort and inconvenience, and take action there-upon. Second, there is an assumption that if the police is unable to control small crimes, it cannot control more serious ones. Hence the need for creating a ‘dragnet effect’ which involves controlling the periphery to control the centre. In other words, when the police is constrained by various factors, it must then rely upon taking cognizance of minor crimes ‘as a means of managing serious ones.’7 By doing so, the police can make inroads into the activities of criminals committing heinous crimes.


These methods not only increase the probability of catching criminals but also result in making people conscious of the need of being law-abiding. By reducing the level of tolerance thro-ugh increasing gaze and expeditious action, the policeman in everyone takes over. The compliance with law becomes voluntary and automatic, without direct invocation of the repressive power of the police. ‘There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constructs. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will be interiorizing to the point that he is own overseer, each individual exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself.’8

Proactive policing: ‘The concept of proactive policing subsumes two main themes. One is the idea of preventive policing. So far, the police has been a reactive agency, activated only after the commission of crime. This incident-driven model of policing is like managing the "aftermath", i.e., the consequences of events that have already taken place. The police must now adopt a "problem driven" approach.



The core objective of the police is the prevention of crime and disorder, besides investigation of crimes. In other words, it must initiate measures which prevent crime from being committed. Since successful investigation of crime involves a huge cost, the resources must be preferably spent on activities that help prevent crime. The genesis of the model lies in management of the "beforemath", i.e., consequences of events that have not yet occurred.’9

The second theme pertains to participation of people in the task of policing. Public assistance and participation is implicit in law and structured in the system. A citizen has the power to arrest (Sec. 43 Cr.PC), duty to aid a law enforcement officer demanding help in arresting or preventing the escape of any person whom he is authorized to arrest (Sec. 37), an obligation to inform the police of commission of a heinous offence (Sec. 39), and the right of private defence (Sec. 97 IPC). The police must acknowledge that citizens and community have a role to play.

Public assistance must be secured for the reason that police has many tasks to perform and limited resources for those purposes. Hence, people must be involved not only in looking after their own problems but also to participate in the project of protecting themselves against crime. By empowering people, helping them share the responsibilities, increasing accessibility by establishing an institutional framework of police-public interface, and utilizing the talents of the community to deal with human situations – problems and conflicts which may be non-cognizable in nature but have the potential of becoming serious – the police can synergise its resources for a better impact on social order.



Strengthening the forces of order: The components of the criminal justice system are generally considered to be police, prosecution, courts, and correctional services. The first three are instrumental in establishing a liability after due process and award of punishment. The end-product in the case of conviction is incarceration or, in some cases, fine. The thrust, however, is on imprisonment. But the various components rarely work harmoniously. They operate as islands with at best only formal links, often too weak to sustain the pressures of their own burden. There needs to be increased cohesion among the three major agents to sort out operational problems without interfering with each other. Modalities can be worked out.

It must be appreciated that there are other agencies which enforce law – the various directorates, tribunals, executive authorities and the institutions of local bodies – which do not need the support of police for enforcement. These agencies are effective as their accent is on penalties, fines, demolitions, rectifications, and so on. The police must extend full support to these agencies in their enforcement effort. Such a collaboration will help bring about better social control and create a climate of law compliance.

Standardization of procedures: The police is meant to contribute to the happiness of people. Consequently, its endeavour must be to extend facilities to people by smoothening the processes and removing hurdles, delays and harassment. For instance, if an individual wants a document for purposes of insurance, for filing a claim for compensation, getting back his car involved in an accident or recovered by the police in the case of theft, a copy of the postmortem or injury report and so on, there must be in place a transparent system and set of procedures displayed prominently in police stations, to inform the public of the facility, the days involved and cost, if any. Similarly, verification for passport or character certificate deserves appropriate and expeditious attention. This is service-orientation in reality.



Securing police from temptation: The assumption all along has been that bureaucracy is honest and lax governance is a reflection of weak laws. This is a fallacy. Except for offences carrying small fines as punishment, all other offences involve adequate punishment. The problem is not weak laws but their inadequate enforcement because of apathy or connivance. Both are pathologies that must be dealt with.

The temptations of urban life leads to crime on the one hand and corruption on the other. But whereas common crime is at the forefront of public attention, the corrupt practices of the enforcement agencies are pushed under the carpet and rarely attended to squarely. There is danger in remaining apathetic to the wrongdoing of enforcement agencies. The ineffectiveness of governance is partly due to the connivance of officials who overlook violations and permit a regime of lawlessness. This is felt, experienced and understood by many discerning individuals. But when it comes to diagnosing the ills of bureaucracy, this theme is given a short shrift. The integrity of the services is an imperative for effective functioning; weak operation of laws is worse than weak laws, which if implemented will still create an impact.



Machinery for redressal of grievances: The police, to be effective, must have a mechanism other than the police station by which it is able to receive complaints or information pertaining to law-breaking by violators or criminals, as also acts of omission or commission by its own officers who connive at infractions. Equally, there are complainants who need information. They must be provided access to information regarding progress of their case and in case of denial, a redressal thereof from a higher agency.

Training and orientation: Policing so far has relied primarily on its attribute of force, i.e., an ability to use instrumental violence. This is an outmoded method of overawing the people. This colonial strategy is no longer valid. It has now to depend upon subtleties of power that catch the violator in its grip. It has to mould the force to a new paradigm that deals with the criminal through the process of solving the problems of a citizen who is harassed, robbed, insulted, injured, cheated, annoyed, inconvenienced, endangered, intimidated – in short, wronged by the acts of a criminal.

A trained police organization must appreciate the problems and sensitivities of people in distress and prepare its officers to handle the citizen with care and concern. The attempt must be to protect, serve, help, and maintain the dignity of the individual. All this means an emphasis on the recognition and enforcement of rights.

Example setting is one of the important tasks of the police force because by so doing it becomes a role model. A policeman who breaks the law diminishes the authority of law by his wayward conduct. Not wearing a helmet while driving a motorbike, not obeying traffic signals, aggressive driving, breaking queues, not managing conflict while in uniform, turning a blind eye to an incident, working in watertight departmental compartments, foul speech, uncouth and indecent behaviour – all reduce the moral authority of the police. Urban policing requires cultured and dignified officers who, by personal conduct and behaviour, can set the tone for law-abiding conduct. The London Bobby is justly accredited with creating law consciousness among the people of England.10

The need for professionalism cannot be stressed enough, not only in investigation but in whatever is done – writing reports, filling up forms, driving vehicles, communicating messages, making enquiries, managing conflict, lifting the injured from the spot, honouring the dead, dealing with juveniles, controlling crowds, dispersal of unlawful assemblies, securing VIPs without causing annoyance and inconvenience to the public and embarassment to the protectee and so on. Police actions must be informed by a knowledge of law, rules, procedures and the proper methods of doing things.

It is clear from the above that urban policing in particular and policing in general needs a new and fresh approach altogether. It is only by tuning itself to new methods, systems, styles and orientations that the police can help in humanizing the city by providing order, peace, security, harmony, convenience, and quality environment – all that makes for a happy, healthy and harmonious life.




* In memory of my wife Joginder who passed away during the preparation of this paper.

1. Colin Gordon, The Foucault Effect, Harvester Wheatsheof, London, 1991, p. 20.

2. Michel Foucault, Tanner Lectures on Human Values, University of Utah Press, 1981, p. 235.

3. Ibid., p. 250.

4. Ibid., p. 251.

5. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Pantheon Books, New York, 1977.

6. J.Q. Wilson, Thinking on Crime, Vintage, New York, 1995.

7. Social Forces 54(2), 1975, p. 441.

8. M. Foucault, ‘The Eye of Power’, in Power/Knowledge, Pantheon Books, New York, 1977, p. 155.

9. Stanley P. Davis, Future Perfect, Addison Wesley, New York, 1987.

10. Charles Reith, British Police and the Democratic Ideal, Oxford University Press, London, 1943.