The ‘State Capacity & Access to Justice’ webinar series sits within IDFC Institute’s Access to Justice initiative. The series is conceptualised as a platform for sharing learnings that enhance the state’s capacity to deliver a more equitable and accessible form of justice. The third session featured Dr Arvind Verma, Professor, Centre for Criminal Justice Research, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur on 22 July. Dr Verma discussed the imperative for building partnerships between police and researchers in India. He presented the case of the nineteenth-century American police, and the role that research played in building the momentum for their reform through improvements in effectiveness, transparency and accountability. Arguing that research is an enterprise that fosters creativity and new ways of looking at problems, Dr Verma suggested it may be a ‘path to reform’ for police in India as well.
Dr Verma explained how policing is inherently political in nature due to the discretionary powers of arrest at the disposal of police personnel. While political interference could be in the form of general directives, the ultimate decision to arrest or conversely to not enforce a law is always with the police. Accordingly, Dr Verma argued that politicisation is the price of democracy. Instead of focussing on politicisation as a form of political control where police officers are helpless, Dr Verma suggested that politicisation should be thought about as a system. This system should have a mechanism to help control and supervise police discretion and hold the police accountable for their actions and inactions. Against this context, Dr Verma delved into the historical underpinnings of research-led police reform in the United States.
The nineteenth-century American police were fraught with issues of corruption, inefficiency, low trust from citizens and a culture of brutality and discrmination. Two approaches emanated successively to address this. The first was borne out of the progressive women-led movement that demanded political reforms. The police leaders of that time demanded centralisation of power in their hands to limit political interference. However, this led to adverse consequences, including the isolation of the police system from citizen involvement altogether and rampant police excesses. The need for an altnernative approach, based on the understandng of how to police a free society was demanded. Under the second approach, a President’s Commission was set up in 1967. The Commission included researchers and universities, and paved the way for a research revolution in the American Police. Although the American police today is far from reformed, and issues including racial profiling and abuse of force remain, the institution has made advancements in police-technology and built greater trust among citizens. These outcomes indicate that the research-partnership based approach started bearing fruit. Parallely, in the 1970s, India set up its own Commission to investigate police reforms. However, this Commission did not integrate research partnerships into its process, and ultimately recommended professionalising the police, reducing political interference and strengthening power in the hands of police leaders. This, as we know from the American example, has perverse implications.
The case for research-led reform stems from the fact that research brings in new knowledge that forces the police to be transparent. It leads to experimentation that can enhance the professional capabilities of police officers and open it to external scrutiny, paving the way for accountability. It brings in new stakeholders, challenges policing assumptions and poses questions on improving efficiency. Research has the potential to bring in oblique but desired consequences, which are unlikely to be anticipated by the politicians or the bureaucracy, and therefore likely to succeed.
The recommendations for building research partnerships in India include the need for research to be indigenous, for police leaders to take the first step in appreciating the value of research, and better communications and trust building for fostering partnerships, among others. Thinking about research partnerships from the lens of community oriented policing will also yield positive results. This requires making citizens an equal partner in policing their own neighbourhood. Police leaders should determine neighbourhood policing strategies in consultation with citizens. In doing so, the police can work with young enthusiastic citizens, researchers, students and young local leaders.
Dr Arvind Verma is a Professor at the Centre for Criminal Justice Research, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. He is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Associate Director of the India Studies Programme at Indiana University. He has been a member of the Indian Police Service (IPS) and has served for many years in the State of Bihar, holding several senior positions in the organisation. Dr Verma recently established a Centre for Criminal Justice Research at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. His current research interests are in policing; criminal justice policy issues, Indian police, research methods, mathematical modelling, and agent-based simulation.