A week ago, the Juhu police station released an image that summed up arrests during the Covid-19 pandemic. Four policemen flanked two handcuffed men in their early 20s wearing masks and face shields. Besides partially covering their faces, the masks and shields had a more crucial function — they protected the policemen from the risk of being infected.
Rising instances of police personnel testing positive after making an arrest have prompted changes in pre- and post-arrest procedures in police departments across the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. As on Monday, 1,596 police personnel in the state had active infections and 87 have died.
In Juhu, 19 police personnel have tested positive so far. The two men arrested by Juhu police are accused of stabbing an Amitabh Bachchan fan, who was camping outside the actor’s home.
Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh said while making arrests in serious offences is unavoidable, police stations and vehicles in the city are sanitised twice a day. “We are also deferring arrests in economic and property offences,” he said.
Officers at both police stations and crime branch units in Mumbai told The Indian Express that the pursuit of accused is fraught with risk during the pandemic. “Tip-offs aren’t reaching us like they used to before the lockdown because our informers are confined to their homes. When credible information of a serious offence does come, we take a call depending on the area we have to go. If it is an area with a high incidence of infections, we try to avoid going there,” said a crime branch officer.
Another officer recalled an instance during the early days of the lockdown when a witness arrived to record his statement. “After recording his statement, he had a heated argument with someone over phone and mentioned a hospital’s name many times. After he hung up, I asked him why was he so agitated,” said the officer. The answer stunned the policemen and sent them on a sanitising spree. “Turned out the witness was a social worker burying bodies of Covid-19 victims,” he said. “After he left, we sanitised the chair he sat on and every surface he touched. We even threw away the pen he used to sign his name on the statement,” recalled the officer.
Officers across MMR have also been left worried after those arrested tested positive. “During the post-arrest medical examination, we insist that the accused undergo Covid-19 tests. The 24 hours before report is released are very stressful,” said another crime branch officer.
Men arrested in a variety of offences, from theft in Andheri and murder and kidnap in Mira Road to the villagers accused of lynching three men in Palghar in April, have tested positive after their arrest. In the process, they have also infected police personnel who arrested them.
In Palghar, district police spokesperson, Sub Inspector Sachin Navadkar said the source of infection in 90 per cent of 135 Covid-positive police personnel was traced to those they arrested. “The SP (Dattatray Shinde) has now made it mandatory for arresting officers to wear PPE kits,” he said.
In Navi Mumbai, Police Commissioner Sanjay Kumar has devised a Standard Operating Procedure to be followed while making an arrest. The measures were necessitated by at least four instances of investigating teams falling sick, including one which travelled to Kerala for an inquiry. “We conduct medical tests of the accused, isolate them and keep them in lock-ups which have a separate entry. We also ensure that apart from the personnel who make the arrest, no one else comes in contact with the arrested persons,” he said. Preference is given to detaining persons at quarantine centres with armed guards wearing PPEs watching them, and to presenting them in court through video-conferencing.
In Thane Rural district, Kallu Yadav, the waiter arrested last month for allegedly murdering two colleagues in a Mira Road hotel, is currently detained at a quarantine centre after testing positive. “We had no choice but to send him there for treatment. The jail refused to take him in,” said Sanjaykumar Patil, Additional Superintendent of Police, Thane Rural.
In line with protecting older employees and those with existing ailments, younger investigators are preferably chosen for strenuous fieldwork. Interrogations also take place with mouths covered and tempers in check. “You tend to become emotional while interrogating an accused so it is necessary now to sit at least three feet away while asking questions,” said a Navi Mumbai police officer.
In Thane, the police also avoid serving notices to accused living in containment zones. “If such a person visits the police station for questioning in response to a notice, he will infect everyone else,” said Pravin Pawar, Additional Commissioner of Police (Crime), Thane.
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