For 40 years, the Los Angeles Police Department hasn’t been able to recover from its image as a police force that “shoots first, thinks later.” Globally, some of the highest police shootouts in recent years have been in countries like Brazil, Mexico and Philippines. The police forces in these countries are also some of the most corrupt according to several international reports. The direct correlation is not coincidental. When the police have the power to arbitrate whether a crime has been committed or not as well as judge whether a criminal is guilty or innocent, by applying law at their own discretion, a country becomes less a democracy and more a banana republic.

Over a period of time, the police force becomes increasingly corrupt, breaking the law they set out to uphold and planting evidence at will to suit their case. It may not be long before pressure from their political masters may force them to shoot down political opponents for a price. The recent encounter killing of the four suspects in the Hyderabad rape and murder case of young veterinarian is deeply troubling. While the courts and enquiry commissions will decide on whether the killing was justified, it appears prima facie that the police may have acted at the behest of their political masters, who have acted at the behest of an angry citizenry.

When the judicial system fails consistently, frustration creeps in, resulting in pressure to show quick results. As Julio Ribeiro, former Mumbai police commissioner and Punjab DGP poignantly argues in the Indian Express- “the public is unaware of the fall-out of this new practice of fake encounters: A whole new breed of criminals is born. They are known as ‘encounter specialists’. These ‘specialists’ are hero-worshipped by this puzzled society. Even films and biopics are made on their patently illegal deeds. In the process, they turn into criminals in uniform, willing to take on private requests for a price.”

The primary role of any modern police is preventive in nature and ideally non-confrontational. However, in India, we find that the militarisation of the police has seen a meteoric rise over the past few decades. Good policing is when you take a criminal by surprise, nabbing him at the liquor bar, brothel or when they are sleeping. A good police officer often looks a lot more like Hercules Poirot and less like Arnold Schwarzenegger. With these encounters, we are moving towards the Schwarzenegger model of policing and far away from global best practises employed by top police forces like the Scotland Yard of United Kingdom and the Japanese Police.

For crimes against women like molestation and rape, the police force in every state needs to conduct a detailed safety audit and identify hotspots where crime is more likely to be conducted. Data analytics can help reveal crime trends if a robust system is put in place. The more simple and fundamental solution though is to re-introduce on scale the police outpost system with ‘beat cops.’ Police outposts were common in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Manned by 2-3 constables, these outposts located in every community, were far more effective in preventing crime, rather than relying only on the police stations.

These are policemen who are familiar with a particular area and are typically aware of any untoward incidents that occur on their ‘beat’. As they reside in the communities, there is a far greater chance of them identifying the problem-makers and seasoned criminals. This sort of an ear-to-the-ground approach can help prevent more violent and heinous crime in the future. Today, the shortage of police officers has resulted in significantly scaling down police outposts. A criminal usually starts small and gets emboldened to commit more serious crimes when he gets away the first time. In brutal cases of rape, the criminal is usually first an eve-teaser or someone who is verbally abusive with his family, often when he is drunk.

Over a period of time, as he realises that he can get away without facing any consequences, he climbs up the ladder of crime. India reports about 35,000 cases of rape every year while America reports over 100,000 cases of rape. Does this mean that India, with a population more than three time that of America, is actually safer for women? There could be nothing farther from the truth. It is no secret that there is rampant under-reporting of crime since the police very rarely registers FIRs for crimes that have occurred. For example, with theft, statistics suggest that only close to eight per cent of FIRs are registered.

The remaining 92 per cent are not reflected in any form of official record. The incidence of brutal rape cases will only reduce when the police register FIRs for every case of women molestation and eve teasing. The current process of police refusing to file FIRs, has led to a system where petty criminals have quickly graduated to seasoned criminals. While I am credited for ‘wiping’ crime off Jamshedpur in the early 90’s, it is assumed that all I did was stage encounters. To be known as an “encounter specialist” is not a matter of pride.

It is deeply problematic and is a tag that I am continuously stigmatised by. In complete contrast, our success was a result of consistently ensuring that we did the fundamental and simple things right. For starters, I had and still have zero-tolerance for the police not filing FIRs. If it ever came to my notice that the police were not filing FIRs, for however big or small the case was, I would take the strictest action. Secondly, we would continuously monitor the status of a case and work with the Deputy Commissioner and District Judge to fast-track cases. Judges are burdened with several cases and cannot put-away criminals without the support of the police.

It is up to the police to present a strong case with forensic evidence, rather than rely on only oral testimony. Thirdly, we ensured that a system of preventive maintenance of police vehicles, equipment, arms etc. was put in place. I would also ensure that constables were taken off menial nonpolice duties and reassigned on policing duties. For example, in an SP’s house or any other VIP’s residence, 50 constables may be employed to serve him and his family. I reduced that number to only 2 constables and the rest were immediately assigned policing duties. We also tried to stop the flow of money to criminals.

In Jamshedpur, the mafia had pretty much monopolised Tata Steel contracts and tenders and nobody dared oppose them. Choke the source of financing to the criminal and it is likely that he gets desperate and makes a mistake. Lastly, shootouts with Naxalites were also a common occurrence. Over 300 rounds would be fired on both sides from a 100-300-metre distance. After every such encounter, I would personally welcome members of the National Human Rights commission to investigate and we would share all our data and information with them to ensure complete transparency.

While Bollywood might have romanticised the idea of police shootouts, in reality it is a terrifying experience and one small mistake can have disastrous consequences. With the recent glorification of encounters, our criminal judicial system as well as our democracy is set to face challenging times ahead. And just like the Los Angeles Police Department has struggled to rebuild its lost reputation, it might not be long before the Indian Police is faced with a similar problem.

For now, one can only hope that the perpetrators of the Hyderabad rape and murder case are not roaming scot-free, unable to believe their bloody good luck. When the opportunity arises, will they perpetrate a similar crime again with the same brutality? In the words of Bob Dylan, “the answer my friends, is blowing in the wind, the answer is blowing in the wind.”

(The writer is a former IPS office, a member of the 15th Lok Sabha and a member of the Aam Aadmi Party)