Three out of every four police personnel believe that the police is justified in being violent towards criminals. Four out of five believe that there is nothing wrong with beating up criminals to extract confessions.

These are some of the findings of the “Status of Policing in India Report, 2019” by Common Cause, a civil society organisation that advocates for human rights, and the Lokniti Programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a research institute supported by the Ministry of Human Resources and Development.

The report looks at several facets of policing in India by interviewing nearly 12,000 police personnel from 21 states. The researchers also interviewed over 10,000 members of these police personnel’s families and studied long-term trends using government data.

This was done in order to understand the resources available to the Indian police, the conditions they work under, and their opinions and attitudes. Care was taken to ensure that the set of respondents chosen was sufficiently large and representative of the populations were being studied.

The new study follows the 2018 Status of Policing in India report which examined the performance of the Indian police and the perception in the minds of the Indian public about them.

Custodial deaths as a measure of police violence

Four hundred and twenty seven people died in police custody between 2016 and 2019, according to an answer given in the Rajya Sabha by the Minister of State for Home Affairs in June. The National Human Rights Commission recommended disciplinary action against the police in one case.

Police custody means that the police has physical custody of the accused, who is kept in the station lockup. This is different from judicial custody, in which the accused is the responsibility of the magistrate concerned and is lodged in jail. A person under either police or judicial custody is considered a suspect until found guilty and convicted in a court of law. As of 2015, two thirds of India’s 4.3 lakh prisoners were accused of crimes and awaiting trial, while only a third had actually been convicted of a crime. If judicial custodial deaths are also counted, 5,476 people have died in custody over the past three years.

A Human Rights Watch report from 2016 on India’s failure to end police custodial killings notes: “Police blame most of the deaths on suicide, illness, or natural causes. ... However, in many such cases, family members allege that the deaths were the result of torture.”

What the police think of violence

The police personnel surveyed were asked if they agreed that it was alright for the police to adopt a violent attitude towards criminals for the greater good of society – 74% either completely agreed or somewhat agreed.

The researchers deliberately used the ambiguous word “criminal” in the question, because a criminal could either be accused or convicted.

In a second question, they dispelled with the ambiguity by asking if the personnel agreed or disagreed with the statement: “There is nothing wrong in the police beating up criminals to extract confessions”. Here, since the police in the question is still seeking a confession, the criminal can only be accused and not convicted. Four out of five police personnel agreed with the statement.

The researchers also found, counter-intuitively, that the higher the level of education of the police personnel, the more acceptable they found violence.

People’s perception of violence

Fifty percent of Indians condone police violence, the Status of Police in India Report of 2018 found, of the over 15,000 people they interviewed. Sixteen percent of respondents did not answer the question, which left only 34% of people to partially or completely reject police violence.

The researchers found that this response was consistent across class and education levels. There was also no clear relationship between crime levels in an area and the acceptance of police violence. They did find, however, that if respondents were sympathetic to the stressful working conditions of the police, they were more likely to condone custodial violence.

Violence does not occur in a vacuum

The report points out that it is common for the police to work 14-hour days, and in many states, seven days a week. Only about 6% of police personnel were provided with in-service training in the past five years.

On the condoning of police violence the 2018 report also says:

“...a tendency depicted and glorified by entertainment industry about police turning themselves into judge and executioner seems to pervade both the self-image of many police personnel and the ordinary citizen. As a result, this study finds that the knowledge of police violence does not agitate the public much; on the contrary, it earns public approbation.”

Then, there is the matter of the length of legal process. There are 2.2 crore pending criminal cases in the Indian courts, and 60% of them have been pending for a year or longer. Such delays put paid to any idea of speedy justice.

While none of these are justifications for police violence, they do need to be taken into account when suggesting a solution. Passing the Prevention of Torture Bill, 2010, which makes torture committed by a government official a punishable offense, would be a step in the direction of ending custodial torture. The bill was introduced to ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture, 1975, to which India is a signatory. The bill was passed in the Lok Sabha in 2010, but lapsed when the government changed in 2014.

When police personnel were asked what the government could do in order to improve their job, the most common response was to hire more staff and to increase training. Facilitating the use of modern crime-solving methods is also vital, because as the Human Rights Watch report notes, a lack of these contributes to the use of torture during interrogations.

A variety of police reforms have been called for by the Supreme Court, the NITI Aayog, and the government-appointed Administrative Reforms Commission, among others. But as the reports drive home, police violence does not occur in a vacuum. It has social sanction.