Thursday, August 21, 2014

Police-Public Relations

Cops, who see themselves the world over as the custodians of law & order and personnel ensuring security for the people, have rarely evoked confidence as such, and of late, have found themselves at the receiving end of rebuke from the very public they are paid to protect. While such a situation would visit only rarely in the past, it has become worryingly frequent of late, everywhere – from the streets of Gangtok, or for that matter Rangpo a few days ago, to the suburbs of St. Louis in USA, to the Assam-Nagaland border villages. Policing is increasingly, and not always without reason, attracting allegations of atrocities and excessive use of force.
People are the most comfortable when cops are in the background, it is when police presence is overt and overpowering that public responses can turn hostile. Overt and overpowering are not always about sheer numbers and can also manifest through attitudes, and no one will contest that cops tend to swagger around with an overbearing air. While people let this slide during “normal” times, when a situation turns tense, the backlash can be strong. Sikkim saw this in how the college situation collapsed and the nation witnesses this in the continuing trouble along the Assam-Nagaland border. Listen to the debates and discussion around the public-police confrontation at Ferguson in distant USA, and one will notice many echoes of the emotions and situations seen in Gangtok last month. Agreed, the severity of the situation and the history of atrocity, perceived or otherwise, is much deeper there than here. Returning then to the point that people are most comfortable when cops are in the background, one realises that this is not always the case and sometimes not even possible, neither in Sikkim, nor anywhere else in the world any more. Khaki meanwhile ends up inspiring more discomfort than security because just about every business activity operates on the borderline of legality, not only in Sikkim, but in most parts of the country. The police, which is authorized to investigate and take cognizance of misdemeanors makes people uncomfortable because the moment the cops start digging, something ‘illegal’ will turn up. The Rangpo protest by shopkeepers alleging overbearing policing harks back to a day in Gangtok some years ago when a police raid ran from MG Marg to Ranipool early in the morning to ‘nab’ people dumping waste at unauthorized locations. Perhaps in the over-zealousness, but most probably because they were not even briefed properly, the constables “arrested” even people who were waiting by the roadside waiting for the garbage truck to arrive. Something similar appears to have happened a few days ago at Rangpo, but things have changed in the intervening years and while some years ago in Gangtok, people meekly paid the fine for “public nuisance”, in Rangpo, the people protested and pushed back.
The point being made here is the force is in desperate need to be trained and briefed better. Police wields enormous powers, there was never any doubt of that, and clearly shoulders enormous responsibilities as well; it is thus in its interest, and more so in public interest, for the personnel to be better trained and routinely briefed about their role in society. Closer community participation in the managing of neighbourhood outposts and police stations is perhaps an involvement which can now be taken up formally and at an official level so that the police and public learn to work together instead of, what is increasingly becoming against each other.

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