The recent spate of police-related shootings and anti-police brutality marches in the United States has shaken public trust and confidence in the nation’s policing establishment. Tensions remain high and both citizens and officers have good reason to fear for their safety on neighbourhood streets.

For police administrations in India, this breakdown in citizen-police relations in the US should serve as a reminder of what can happen when local policing becomes disconnected from the communities they are meant to serve and protect. If we are to bridge the gap between the policing machinery and our citizens, given the challenges Indian policing faces, we need to explore more effective strategies. Community policing, one such strategy that has been gaining ground across the world, and our experience in implementing it in Bengaluru, offers some solutions.

The challenges of policing India's cities

Here in India, fear of policing authorities is deeply engrained in its citizens. After more than a century of colonial-style policing, the uniformed officer retains a reputation for being coercive and arbitrary, less so as a figure of support or protector of the people. Such perceptions do little to increase feelings of safety in communities at a time crime rates are worsening in India’s rapidly expanding cities. Between 2009 and 2013, annual incidences of crime in India’s mega cities jumped from 343,749 to 556,024, amounting to a 9% increase. In 2014, Delhi alone accounted for 22.7% of the total crimes reported in 53 mega cities across the country.

Police departments also lack the resources and capacity to tackle security challenges on their own. A study conducted by the United Nations has revealed that while, on average, there is one police officer per 333 civilians globally, the Indian ratio is one officer per 761 civilians. Furthermore, national work force studies not only report high vacancy rates in state police departments but also low morale and exhaustion among existing officers.

Community policing can serve as a tool to improve relations between police and citizens, and augment the existing capacity of law enforcement. Numerous state bodies and commissions have encouraged its use.

Doing it like Bengaluru

In 2013, the Bengaluru City Police, with the support of the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, initiated a community policing programme in seven police stations across the city. The programme is designed around the concept of a ‘beat constable’ who keeps in regular touch with people in the respective beat in a police station jurisdiction that is assigned to them. They are assisted in this task by area suraksha mitras. The area suraksha mitras are volunteers from the local community. They also keep in touch with members of the police station jurisdiction and serve as intermediaries between the community and the police, organising safety awareness meetings and other informal meetings to discuss safety and security. Their efforts are supported by policing committees, also known as jana suraksha samithis, who meet each month to discuss local safety issues and, in doing so, provide a formal touch-point for communication, problem solving and relationship building between citizens and police.

According to follow-up surveys conducted in the 18 months since the programme was launched, the general perception among police officers stationed in community policing areas was that crime and safety had decreased in their own neighbourhoods. Similarly, while citizens living in community policing areas felt like crime had gone up in Bengaluru as a whole, roughly the same percentage of citizens felt that crime in their own neighbourhoods had remained steady or had gone down. A higher proportion of citizens living in community policing areas also reported that the police were successful in solving major and minor crimes.

Beyond the study’s findings, there are countless reports and success stories of local community policing advocates making their mark across the city. In Yelahanka district, it took a dedicated team of area suraksha mitras and police officials working in cooperation with local parents to ensure that dropouts stayed off the streets. In a jana suraksha samithi-organised awareness workshop held in a women's hostel in JP Nagar, area suraksha mitras were made aware of street lighting issues, which were then promptly addressed by local authorities. Such examples, of all kinds of issues being addressed, be they big or small, highlight how community policing can bridge gaps between the community and the police.

Overall, the vast majority of the programme’s stakeholders [police, area suraksha mitras and citizens] felt that community policing activities were successful in helping resolve conflicts, fostering positive relationships with police, improving beat security and increasing police responsiveness and effectiveness.

Making people feel safe

As the evidence has shown, community policing is proving to be an effective strategy for resolving local safety concerns, improving police-citizen relations and making people feel safe in their neighbourhoods. Kerala’s community policing programme, known as the Janamaithri Suraksha Project, also shows us the same. Moving forward, it is imperative to consider using community policing models to guide public safety efforts in more of our growing cities.

However, reaping the benefits of community policing will take more than increases to neighbourhood patrols and mandatory public meetings. Rather, drastically improving safety and security in India requires its stakeholders to change the culture of policing into one of community policing. For police forces, this means welcoming input from the community and prioritising the citizens’ needs in all facets of their work. State and Central governments should provide the police with the resources necessary to address local concerns effectively, which would also increase job satisfaction and retention within the police force. Furthermore, keeping India’s cities safe and livable in a resource-challenged environment also requires its citizens to take more ownership and responsibility for public safety in their communities. Lastly, changing state legislation to better reflect community policing commitments will not only improve local crime control measures but will also ensure police forces are accountable to the communities they serve.

The writer was an intern with the Research & Insights team of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, and a Masters student [Public Policy, Administration and Law] at York University, Canada.