Covid-19 created a range of unforeseen and unprecedented challenges for police across the world. The pandemic-induced lockdowns brought police personnel into direct contact with the people in need of urgent help and assistance, and to a large extent modified their primary role and nature of duties they used to perform in ‘normal’ times. In this backdrop, Lokniti-CSDS-Common Cause conducted a study on ‘Policing in the Covid-19 Pandemic’ in 19 cities spread across 10 of the most affected states in India after the first wave of Covid-19 to look at the challenges faced by the police during pandemic.
Despite having no time in hand to implement one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world, and in the absence of any prior experience of handling such pandemics, the study found that by and large, the police in India enjoyed the support and confidence of the citizens. At the same time it also found that, with a large ambit of discretionary powers available to them and a general sense of perplexity among common people about the contagion, the police used threat or fear as their most common tool to make people abide by the lockdown regulations and to prevent the movement of migrant labourers and families, who were left with no option but to march towards their homes.
Image of police among common people
Starting with the positives, the study found a huge proportion of respondents from the general public rating police personnel highly on the efficiency and capability quotients. Two in every five persons (40%) believed that the police were highly efficient in controlling the outbreak in their cities, and more than two in every five believed them to be somewhat efficient (46%). Only one in every 10 people (11%) said otherwise. Further, among two of every three citizens (65%), the perception regarding the police was found to have improved since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Two out of three people feel that the image of police has improved after the pandemic, more so in Tier I cities
Image of the police after the pandemic: Common People’s Response (%)
This positive assessment of the police by citizens is significant, considering that minuscule funds are available for preventive policing, community policing, and citizen outreach programs, and lack of training and experience of police personnel regarding the same.
Understaffed, overburdened, and exhausted
Stressing at the need to increase the strength of the police, which seems to be a perennial issue across the states, as many as four-fifths of police personnel (78%) reported working for at least 11 hours a day during the initial phases of lockdowns last year. This was 16 percentage points higher than in normal times. Over a quarter apparently worked for more than 15 hours a day (Figure 2). Corroborating this, over half of the police personnel (52%) found ‘shortage of staff’ a major challenge while dealing with the outbreak.
Figure 2 | Four out of five police personnel reported working for more than 11 hours a day during the lockdown
Number of working hours for the personnel deployed: Police personnel’s response (%)
The survey also found that about a quarter of the police personnel (23%) suffered from pre-existing ailments or chronic conditions like respiratory disorder, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, diabetes and others. Notably, 72% of such police personnel claimed to have worked more than 11 hours a day, increasing their vulnerability of contracting the virus.
What’s more, the occupational hazard of regular Covid-19 duty took a toll on the mental health of most of the police force. Nine in every 10 (87%) said that they were greatly impacted or somewhat impacted by this. With the unanticipated scale of the spread of the virus, frontline workers were left with little choice when it came to be present on duty during the lockdown. The already understaffed police forces across the states were presumably fully exhausted owing to the implementation of the nation-wide lockdown. One can imagine their state of mind as when police personnel were asked whether they would have taken leave during the lockdown, if given a choice, the extent of fear of the virus was such that two-fifths of police personnel were willing to take leave if such a choice was offered.
Attitude and behavior towards general public and migrants
Overall, 55% people were found to be ‘fearful’ of the police while going out of their homes to buy essentials or for work. Predictably, those belonging to the poor, lower, and middle classes were far more fearful of the police, compared to the rich. The privilege of ‘working from home’ was rarely available to poor, especially the ones engaged in more manual labour jobs. Thus, while 58% of poor were compelled by financial constraints to go to work during lockdown, among rich, this proportion was just 28%.
Regarding the perception of fairness of police, a significant proportion, nearly one-third of the general public (29%), claimed the rules and regulations were not equally imposed on everyone and that some people easily got away. Once again, poorer people were more likely to believe that curbs were not imposed equally on everyone. Echoing this perception, a quarter of the police personnel (26%) also felt that the ‘rich’ section of the society comfortably navigated through the strict rules and regulations of the lockdown.
What’s more, with the plight of migrants occupying the center stage during the first nation-wide lockdown, as high as 82% police personnel found it difficult to control migrants walking towards their homes. Alarmingly, nearly half of the police personnel (49%) reported frequently having used force against such migrant labourers (Figure 3).
Figure 3: One out of two police personnel report frequently having used force against migrants travelling back home during the lockdown
How often did the police had to resort to the use of force to control the migrants walking towards their home: Police Personnel’s Response (%)
Further, about a quarter of police personnel (23%) admitted to have faced confusion regarding who needed to arrange for shelter for stranded migrants. In fact, in big Tier I cities, an even higher proportion, 31% of police personnel, reported this confusion. One-third of police personnel (33%) frequently encountered situations where the migrants were trying to enter shelters but police used force to prevent them from doing so.
Finally, on being given two contrasting statements, close to two out of three common people (64%) agreed that “had the government given some time before enforcing lockdown, the issue of migrants stranded at different locations would not have arisen.” In contrast, a smaller proportion, one out of three (31%), supported the government’s decision with the view: “if the government had given some time before enforcing lockdown, the basic purpose behind lockdown would have been defeated.”
Police were seen as a crucial interface between the government and the citizens with an unprecedented and the most challenging virus in the backdrop. The absence of any pandemic handling training in the past and the lack of preparedness owing to a sudden declaration of the nationwide lockdown put the police in a position of great disadvantage. However, despite the insuperable odds, overall, the relationship between the police and the citizens does seem to have improved, with a good proportion of the general public applauding the efforts of police personnel.
Even though the declaration of lockdown was unprecedented for both the police and the citizens, the study highlights, in the absence of well-established practices and unclear guidelines, the police appear to have used their discretion arbitrarily, especially against those who were already vulnerable — the poor, and the migrant labourers. Some of the grey areas of concern, like the police being understaffed or overworked, are due to the pre-existing ailments in the system, and have been brought up time and again by the reformers. These gaps further widened during the pandemic, and it’s high time the government pays close attention to them, and put safeguards in place to check police excesses.
Manjesh Rana works with Lokniti-CSDS. He is the lead researcher for the ‘Study of Policing in India Report 2020-2021: Policing in the Covid-19 Pandemic’. The report can be accessed here: https://bit.ly/3AVZPLW. He tweets @ManjeshRana_. Views are personal.