The Challenge of Law Enforcement Post-COVID-19

The police will have to think of ways of dealing with new challenges in maintaining law and order

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. There is hardly any aspect of our life that has been left untouched by the pandemic. In a society struck by a deadly virus, strict maintenance of public order is most essential. Only then can those affected by the disease be looked after and given the best medical care.

Enforcing lockdown

Law enforcement is therefore next only to healthcare in its criticality. The police have taken enormous risks during the lockdown to ensure strict observance of guidelines, including physical distancing, which in India is among the most difficult rules to enforce. Policepersons need to be commended for their hard work and restraint, instead of being chastised as a force for the overzealousness and indiscretion of a few of them.

How will COVID-19 affect future law enforcement and how will new patterns of crime be managed, especially given that the virus is here to stay for a long time? Apart from policymakers, the police leadership will have to introspect on its recent experience and draft a comprehensive Standard Operating Procedure that will educate all policepersons in the country. This will take care of future virus waves, if any.

How did the police manage to garner all the resources – manpower and material – to enforce the lockdown in all the States? In this context, we did not hear the usual complaint of lack of manpower and mobility. What helped the police greatly was public cooperation, without which there would have been chaos. In this experience lies a lesson, a building block for future police-public relations. It is a different matter that some disorderly sections also behaved themselves, possibly out of sheer fear of the virus’s lethal potency. With the bulk of the population keeping off the streets, the police could bring in equipment and manpower to handle this unusual situation. They also skilfully used social media to disseminate all relevant information to a majority of the population, both in urban and rural areas.

Overall drop in crime

What greatly helped the police was the fact that roads were deserted and there was nearly zero traffic on major highways. This ensured a sharp reduction in traffic accidents and fatalities caused by such accidents. Antisocial elements could be kept at bay. With anti-social elements confined to their homes, trespass and burglary also became more difficult crimes to commit.

A survey across nations has indicated a measurable drop in overall crime. Major cities that generally report a high number of crimes found a drop in crime levels during the lockdown period. Only the New York Police Department reported an uptick in murders and burglaries during the pandemic. London reported an appreciable decline in non-violent crime, especially stabbings. The National Police Chiefs Council in the U.K. reported a drop in burglary, vehicle crime, serious assault and personal robbery in the four weeks up until April 12. In India, the Delhi Police reported a 70% fall in heinous crimes (murders and rapes) between April 1 and 15 compared to the same period last year. In Chennai, the total number of crimes dropped by 79% in the March 25-April 15 period over the February 25-March 15 period. Even giving due allowance to wilful non-registration of cases by the police and the general reluctance of the public to report crimes, particularly during difficult times such as a pandemic, the police force can be proud that it managed to keep the peace during these times.

Uptick in domestic violence

However, this period saw a worrying surge in domestic violence cases. The Tamil Nadu Police, for instance, reportedly received 2,963 calls on domestic violence in April alone. There are two major factors for this rise. Most men are at home, either without work on in fear of losing their jobs. Data show that domestic violence increases when there is greater unemployment. The fear and insecurity of these men cause tension at home and unfortunately, women become the victims of this tension. The second reason is the non-availability of liquor during the lockdown period, which caused frustration among those men who are habituated to drinking daily. There was a similar increase in sexual and gender-based violence in West Africa during the 2013-16 Ebola outbreak. As health workers are busy combating the pandemic, there is little help for domestic violence victims during times such as this. This shows that epidemics leave women and girls more vulnerable to violence.

A few members of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a network of prominent law-enforcement, governance and development practitioners based in Geneva, believe that the pandemic is both a threat to, and an opportunity for, organised crime, especially illicit drug trade. Travel restrictions across borders, especially in Africa, have made international trade in drugs extremely difficult. Gangs have therefore been at work to innovate and adapt to the changing nature of the illicit market. The Global Initiative believes that organised gangs will infiltrate health services and make profits through the sale of prescription drugs that are not otherwise easily available to the public.

Another new trend is the rise in cybercrime. New portals have been launched to get people to donate money for the cause of combating COVID-19. Experts say that many fraudulent sites are designed so well that a large number of people are easily taken for a ride. Besides this, there is large-scale manufacture of ineffective masks and hand sanitizers.

A major challenge for public officials is keeping prisons free of the virus. Many prisons have taken steps to insulate prisoners who reported positive for the virus from the rest of the inmates. A number of human rights activists have said that we need to consider the premature and temporary release of prisoners. This is a tricky issue: should prisons be totally emptied or should they adopt a selective approach? Some human rights activists ask for complete evacuation of prisons, irrespective of whether a prisoner tests positive or not. But such a drastic move will make a mockery of the criminal justice system and expose society to many unrepentant violent offenders. On March 24, the Supreme Court directed the States and Union Territories to constitute high-powered committees to consider releasing convicts who have been jailed up to seven years on parole, in order to decongest prisons.

The pandemic and the lockdown have ensured that many crimes have gone down. However, many other crimes have gone up or will assume new forms in the near future. As we enter unlock mode, it is incumbent on law-enforcement officials to think of ways of dealing with new challenges in maintaining law and order.

R.K. Raghavan is a former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.


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