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Saturday, June 12, 2021

During Covid, an image makeover opportunity for police

In their compassionate response during the pandemic, police personnel have shown how community engagement and trust can be deepened. This must continue even after the Covid crisis ends

Written by SN Shrivastava |
Updated: June 10, 2021 8:27:18 am
These stories are a welcome change in our perception of the police. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Sunil Kumar, while rushing to work from his home in Najafgarh, noticed a woman asking for help at AIIMS. He stopped to find that her only child, a young man, was lying in an auto rickshaw, gasping for breath. On an impulse, he rushed the young man to a south Delhi government hospital. While driving, he asked his colleagues to arrange for a ventilator. In the absence of a stretcher, he carried the man in his arms to the ward where he was promptly attended to by the duty doctor. Before going to his police station, Kumar shared his contact number with the anxious mother. He continued to help her till the young man recovered. His mother had no words to thank him. It is another matter that Kumar, a Delhi Police constable, himself got infected and had to be admitted to a hospital.

Kumar is not alone. Head constable Sanjay, posted at a crematorium, helped carry bodies to the pyre. Assistant sub-inspector Sube Singh rushed filled-up oxygen cylinders to hospitals. A woman constable Priya served food to hungry and tired hospital attendants. These are some stories of members of the Delhi Police defying all odds and fighting their own fears to care for others during the pandemic.

These stories are a welcome change in our perception of the police. Dating back to my childhood, for me, like many others, the sight of a policeman evoked fear and uncertainty. After training at Hyderabad, I became part of the same police ecosystem. Without a clear understanding of the root cause of the negative public perception of the police, I tried to improve the “police service delivery” for citizens, hoping that it would eventually improve their image. Time flew by and, when I took over as the Commissioner of Police, I emphasised on two things in the force: One, improve core competence and, two, foster a helpful attitude.

A couple of months into 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic and the nationwide lockdown brought everything to a standstill. Fear forced people indoors. But, Delhi Police personnel continued to be on the streets. More often than not, they took up challenges far beyond the call of duty — from donating blood, getting oxygen cylinders filled, to cremating the dead and arranging for ambulances and hearse vans. A helpline was started to stay connected with residents. The welfare of senior citizens was closely monitored. A system of issuing online passes was launched to ensure mobility for emergency services.

In parallel, normal police work was reoriented as the pandemic threw up new challenges. The second wave resulted in a sudden spurt in demand for oxygen cylinders and concentrators, remdesivir, ambulances and hearse vans. Hoarders and black marketers tried to play havoc with an already fragile supply chain. Cyber fraudsters used social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp to offer services against advance payment. Many victims fell into the trap and lost not only their hard-earned money, but precious treatment time as well. Police teams painstakingly pursued whatever slender leads were available and apprehended culprits across the country with the help of the police in other states.

Delhi Police also took a hit due to the pandemic. More than 13,500 personnel tested positive for Covid and 77 of them succumbed to the disease. Many police personnel lost their family members and close relatives. Yet, showing remarkable resilience, they soon resumed their duties.

What is the reason for such a transformation? At its core is the need to help on humanitarian grounds, but the rank and file went far beyond this. Years of conditioning have taught the police that they have to stand up and be counted when the chips are down. This feeling is very difficult to explain. A police officer attuned to working round the clock so that people can sleep in peace, who willingly spends his or her Diwali and Eid on the streets, away from family, can understand this psyche very well. Like doctors in hospitals, the police were visible on the streets and symbolised hope for many in need. The positive role played by the police was appreciated by a grateful public. Though this went beyond the contours of conventional policing, the personnel not only derived immense satisfaction, but developed a newfound identity and purpose as well. The appreciation by the people was an added bonus. More importantly, the image of being arrogant, indifferent, and corrupt seems to have been replaced by one of courage, politeness and selflessness.

But this burdens us with an added responsibility. How can we sustain this image?

Eventually, for various reasons, the pandemic will abate. The Covid curve is on its way down. The lockdown is being progressively eased and soon it will be business as usual. In this city of over two crore people, the familiar noise, the exhaust fumes from vehicles, dust from construction sites, will be back again, raising and fraying tempers again. Friction and conflict, at present under the pandemic lid, will simmer and boil over. The police will intercede through prosecution, arrests and warnings whenever legal boundaries are transgressed. When that happens, unfortunately, the police will become a subject of indignation. All the appreciation earned during the pandemic may be spent and the negative public perception will be back.

The key to addressing this challenge is to improve the professionalism of our force. One way is to upgrade our core competence in areas of crime prevention and investigation and handling of complaints. But more than the action per se, it is the perception of having taken the right and fair decision that is more important. Most disputes are not open-and-shut cases, which makes the task of apportioning fault between parties difficult. Since the average police person is over-burdened with myriad duties, they cannot give equal attention to all. This is bound to raise questions about professionalism and the sense of fairness.

A solution to this dilemma lies in community participation in police functions. Progressive societies have developed robust mechanisms to address such issues. The resident welfare associations can augment police capacity through peoples’ participation. The recent crisis has brought the police and the public closer. This police-public participation, based on trust and compassion, should endure. If proactive participation from the community becomes a reality, the quality of police work will significantly improve. This will create more room at all levels for improving service delivery, focussing on core policing and eventually paving the way for an improvement of the police’s image among the public.

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 10, 2021 under the title ‘The force of compassion’. The writer is Commissioner, Delhi Police.

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