Policing during a pandemic
New protocols must be evolved to meet law and order challenges that are coming up during the COVID-19 crisis while keeping the police force safe and active
The news of the death of three New York cops due to COVID-19 and infection of another 700 did not draw the required attention in the face of the larger human catastrophe of the century facing mankind. But these deaths should worry the men in khaki and policymakers in India. The pictures of cops physically pushing thousands of migrant workers to contain their movement with the aim of containing the virus, unmindful of their own personal safety or fear of contamination or transmission of the virus, should set the police leaders, administrators and policymakers thinking. Most of the policemen have the protection of only a mask and a 'lathi'.
Even though they were unprepared, the police were quick to respond to the call of an unprecedented lockdown to support the implementation of the nationwide public health advisory. No police force in the country can claim to have anticipated such an affliction impacting the entire population in one or the other way. The frontline staff took to the job without having been provided masks, sanitisers, etc., and awareness about the pandemic. There was no time available to strategise and secure logistics before mobilisation. Like the medical and paramedical staff, the police also took on the challenge first and then started preparing with the limited resources available to them. Paramilitary forces are better placed as they do not come in to direct contact with the public like the civil police. Paramilitaries generally have better resources and availability of doctors and the paramedical staff in the units are helpful as well. Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) is successfully operating the largest isolation camp in its Chhawla campus in Delhi. However, despite the lack of such resources, it is quite creditable that the police forces in India, as a whole, have risen to the occasion at great personal peril.
The current situation and the aftermath of the pandemic hold several challenges for the police. Personal safety is first and foremost. A minimum equipment list for frontline police should be prepared in consultation with medical experts and all recommended equipment should be provided post haste. Financial delegation to the District-Superintendents of Police must be ensured to expedite procurement of essential equipment. Providing personal protective equipment to nearly two million policemen will be a humongous task when this gear is in short supply even for the medical and paramedical staff. Jails have substantial human resources that can be utilised for preparing masks and sanitisers for law enforcement agencies.
Police stations and police lines are where most of the policemen live. These must be properly sanitised if we are to expect uninterrupted service from the police forces. Besides, there is a need for taking safety measures for families of cops who mostly stay in residential quarters in police stations and lines.
At this hour, emphasis should be on contactless policing. Complaints should be registered online and people should be discouraged from visiting the police establishments for the safety of all stakeholders. In the case of visits, proper social distancing and sanitisation should be maintained. Complaints and crimes may lead investigators to scenes of crime, unidentified dead bodies and uncooperative individuals. New guidelines of spot visits and handling of dead bodies and injured must be put in place.
Mass exodus and migration back to home are the biggest challenges before the police. State and Central governments have banned such movement. There are still attempts to violate the instructions to reach home by whichever means necessary. Dealing with such desperate groups poses a threat to all for somebody in the group could be a carrier of the deadly virus.
Police forces are also engaged in the distribution of food. A lot of jostling can be seen at such locations to be the first to get to the food packet. Such disorderly behaviour can also be seen outside ration depots and even shops to buy scarce food items. If the supply chain is disrupted or slowed down, the unrest among people will increase. All such situations need to be handled carefully while maintaining distance.
It has also been noted that police forces are bearing the burden of enforcement of the lockdown single-handedly. What happened to the concept of community enlistment? There does not seem to be any engagement with volunteers of Civil Defence, NCC and NSS. Minor regulatory duties could be assigned to these volunteers while the police focused on main policing and enforcement duties. The police are required to be in constant communication with opinion leaders, community elders and panchayat representatives to maintain lockdown and calm in their respective jurisdictions. Forceful evacuation of public places and use of force on citizens who come out on streets draws adverse publicity and public ire. Policemen must be constantly advised and trained to handle such derelict behaviour without wielding the 'lathi'. Communication with the citizen through official social media platforms will be key to the success of police 'bandobast'.
Normal policing cannot be sacrificed during the pandemic. Reports of burglary and theft in the unattended houses have started appearing in the print media. Smuggling of scarce items, spurious protective equipment and medicines, profiteering and forming of mafias in such times is not uncommon. As the slowdown of the economy pushes up unemployment and panic about livelihood starts to hit the poor, migrant labour, illegal immigrants and such other marginalised groups, the police must brace for a spate in crime in the days to come.
Proper and effective intelligence gathering in these troubled times can save the governments a lot of awkward situations. Scarcity of food and medicines, rumours, incitement of sections of people for vested interests, dissatisfaction over some local issues, poor maintenance of shelters, hoarding, overcharging, etc., can all be brought to the notice of the concerned departments to initiate remedial measures.
Should the pandemic escalate as predicted by some experts, the law enforcement agencies will have to not only protect the public health facilities which will be overwhelmed but also effectively address resultant societal unrest. The police need to work closely with the health and civil administration to cover all the likely Coronavirus hotspots and isolation facilities. Contact tracing will become more and more difficult and time-consuming in such a situation. Online and telephone frauds and fake news will escalate. Deployment requirements should be worked out beforehand to avoid a kneejerk reaction. Police should start augmenting emergency response helpline lines to cater to increased traffic seeking all kinds of help. Adequate staff will have to be earmarked to record and respond to the distress calls from the citizens.
This environment where the attention of all agencies and governments is diverted to COVID-19 management is the most suited for forces inimical to India to take advantage of. The internal and external intelligence agencies will have to keep their antennas up to thwart any attempt by such forces. Summer has set in. Snow will be melting to open passages of opportunity for the terrorists from across the border to step up infiltration. The police forces, whether on the borders or on the streets, should not lose sight of this possibility of terrorists exploiting the current situation.
In a nutshell, the task for the police is cut out for the coming months where maximum alertness and synergy will be required to keep our country safe. The police and policymakers should take this opportunity to prepare SOPs for handling such pandemics even if these may visit only once in a century. The codified wisdom acquired from learning while handling the current pandemic will help the next generation of policemen to deal with such a crisis in the future.
The writer is a serving IPS officer and an alumnus of National Defence College. Views expressed are strictly personal