Training and Gear, Not Lathi-Charges, Would Help the Police Fight COVID-19

In order to enforce the nationwide lockdown to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19, Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar reportedly said that the police “have been given a free hand to deal with the situation”.

The state government also issued a five-page notification which said that “no suit or legal proceedings shall lie against any person for anything done or intended to be done in good faith under these regulations”, a worrying statement given that police is a word that spells fear for the innocent, accused and guilty alike. At a time when what is needed is sensitivity by the state and its foot soldiers, we instead are seeing too many reports speaking of how the police is using violence against people.

All of us need to remind ourselves that this is an unprecedented situation for everyone – the people and police are all in it together. Everyone is scared. But the public looks to the state in the form of the field level police for protection, assistance and advice. They must see and be able to rely on a compassionate and facilitating state. Brutality, aside from being illegal, is simply counterproductive. It will alienate people from being part of joint effort between the state and citizens to halt the spread of this virus.

Cooperation on the part of the public is key for the government’s disaster management plans to function smoothly. Highhandedness must not hinder this. The police must recognise that they are not being asked to arrest people for violating a lock down but to arrest the spread of the virus.

Without going into a detailed deconstruction of the reasons for police’s behaviour, what we need to understand is that even in normal circumstances, personnel shortages test the entire system. However as we witness on a daily basis, in a pandemic, the situation is exacerbated by overworked, ill-trained and insensitive policemen.

While this is the time to criticise the police and hold it accountable, it is also a time to take stock of their own situation. According to the India Justice Report, according to figures from 2017, the police is understaffed by nearly 25%. A deeper dive into states reveals an altogether more worrisome picture: Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, was functioning with less than 50% of the required constabulary and less than 40% of its required officers.

Other states didn’t much fare better – Gujarat and Jharkhand, for instance, had constabulary vacancies of at least 30%. The latest BPR&D report shows slight improvements. But West Bengal, for example, still has the highest constabulary vacancies of about 42%, while Bihar’s officer vacancies stand at 53%.

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Any critique of the police must take into account the conditions that they themselves work in. A recent report by Common Cause highlights that the police already work 14 hours a day on average – often without a weekly off. The added task of ensuring the lockdown is going to increase the pressure on them.

Add to this the growing number of coronavirus-related transgressions: thefts of medical supplies, manufacturing of unsafe masks, hoarding, cyber crimes, etc. Further, the same report also highlights the lack of training these personnel have received. Over the last five years, on average, only 6.4% of the police force has been provided in-service training.

Articles from around the world point towards the very real possibility of personnel leading the fight against the virus, whether doctors, nurses or police persons, falling ill, sometimes fatally. In New York alone, more than 500 officers in the police department (11% of the force) have been infected, with three deaths reported. In India too, at least one policeman has tested positive in Maharashtra, the state with the highest number of COVID-19 positive cases.

Delhi police distributing relief food material on April 1, 2020. Photo: PTI

But besides ad hoc measures, presently there is little publicly available information on the situation here in regard to ensuring the safety of police personnel themselves. The Delhi traffic police, for instance, has claimed that its personnel have been provided enough extra masks and hand gloves. In Bihar, however, the police association has pointed out that personnel are on the street without masks and sanitisers.

Online photos and videos from across the country affirm that police have to interact with people on the streets without either. One could also not find guidelines for police personnel interacting with those who may have contracted the virus, or guarding quarantined patients on whether they or their families are being tested or not. The safety of the police, in addition to medical and sanitation workers, must be seen as essential.

Niyati Singh is lead researcher, India Justice Report.

Featured image: Police personnel in Mathura stop commuters during a nationwide lockdown in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic in Mathura, April 3, 2020. Photo: PTI