THE INVESTIGATION into the custodial deaths last month of a father and son in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi has brought under the scanner a 27-year-old community policing initiative in the state, Friends of Police (FOP), with demands to dismantle the system that is “widely misused”, especially in small towns and rural areas.
The probe by the state’s Crime Branch-CID into the deaths of shopkeeper P Jeyaraj and his son J Bennix in Sathankulam police station on the night of June 19 has zeroed in on the alleged role of six FOP members who had been “helping the Inspector and Sub-Inspectors in routine affairs”.
“We suspect that all six of them had a role in the custodial torture that happened on June 19 night and similar incidents in the past. We have identified them, and all six will be arrested,” an officer linked to the probe told The Sunday Express.
Police have so far arrested five officers, including one inspector and two sub-inspectors, in the case, while the government has transferred all the other officers posted at the Sathankulam station. The CBI is expected to take over the probe soon, following a recommendation from the state government.
“One of the arrested officers said they had beaten the father and son the same way they had been beating others. What we are now probing is the nature of the crime that lasted for several hours in the night, and how these FOPs also engaged in it,” said the officer.
FOP, a voluntary system with no salary, was started in 1993 in Ramanathapuram district to bring the police and the public closer. It is estimated that there are around 4,000 active FOP members in police stations across Tamil Nadu.
“Volunteers can apply, and there are minimum criteria like no political affiliation or criminal background, etc. Those who apply are mostly rural youth from poor backgrounds. It is not the salary but the proximity to police that is an attraction. Some with criminal tendencies take advantage of a favourable environment in the system,” said another officer.
The Sunday Express spoke to three IG-rank officers and six SPs over the last two days on this initiative, and all of them agreed that FOPs “have grown like a cancer in the state police system”.
“It is being widely misused in small towns and rural areas where police officers keep FOPs as sidekicks…to buy tea or food, help in vehicle checks, take seized vehicles to stations, or take people in illegal custody. In recent years, especially in southern districts like Thoothukudi, the police system is facing challenges from officers with strong caste and religious identities, who rely on the support of FOPs,” said an IG-rank officer.
The officers pointed out that the police force has benefited from similar initiatives like the Home Guard for traffic regulation and crowd control, and Village Vigilance Committees for contact tracing in Covid-19. “But the FOP system alone has faced charges,” said an officer.
For instance, the 3rd Tamil Nadu Police Commission Report submitted in 2008 said: “FOP scheme has not been evaluated by an independent body and its usefulness is doubted by a section… There are complaints, however, that some undesirable persons enroll themselves under the scheme and misuse the position…”
Recommending that the scheme should be modified as Citizen Volunteers Scheme, the report said that “the effort of Police must be to develop such rapport with the public that all citizens are friends of Police, and not only a designated few”.
K Chandru, former judge of Madras High Court, said: “This is the proper time to implement the police commission report on community policing.”
In a statement referring to the charges against FOPs in the Sathankulam station, G Lourduswamy, state administrator of FOP, said: “They were not members of FOP but volunteers hired for corona related work.” According to him, those who are facing charges had not attended any training session and did not have FOP identity cards.
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