Curbing Crime: Can surveillance alleviate security concerns

Published September 18, 2013
Pakistani paramilitary soldiers stand guard outside the mosque where gunmen shot dead Pakistani lawmaker Sajid Qureshi in Karachi on June 21, 2013. – AFP Photo
Pakistani paramilitary soldiers stand guard outside the mosque where gunmen shot dead Pakistani lawmaker Sajid Qureshi in Karachi on June 21, 2013. – AFP Photo
Rangers officials vehicles enter for targeted search operation 
at Manghopir area in Karachi on Saturday, December 01, 2012. — PPI Photo
Rangers officials vehicles enter for targeted search operation at Manghopir area in Karachi on Saturday, December 01, 2012. — PPI Photo

On the 5th of September 2013, an article was published on Dawn’s website titled:

“Nisar says Karachi ‘operation’ to start in two days”

Excerpt: “The federal cabinet empowered Rangers on Wednesday to lead a targeted operation in the next "one to two days" with the support of police against criminals already identified by federal military and civilian agencies in hundreds of lists for their alleged involvement in targeted killings, kidnappings for ransom, extortion and terrorism in Karachi.”

It is undeniably true that Karachi is going through tumultuous times. Some say Pakistan, and specifically Karachi, is on the precipice of implosion. Crumbling security on its own is bad enough, but coupled with uneven infrastructure, increasing overpopulation, unrestrained inflation and some questionable policies, it doesn’t paint a very vibrant picture for the future. The problem is complex and that by definition means that there is no one correct course to chart.

Comparisons have been made to cities with similar problems at various points in time throughout the course of history. Solutions have been sought, experts have been consulted, reports have been submitted, proposals have been drafted and yet the situation has only deteriorated. In such dire straits, any initiative to curtail further deterioration is good, but is it the best?

Looking back at the excerpt from the article, is there a quantifiable goal? Is the operation open-ended? Does it have a time limit? What about the costs associated with the operation? The financial costs, the human cost and the opportunity cost? Surely, not all of it is sensitive information that cannot be disclosed. If the solution is akin to making a surgical incision and removing something whose origin, influence and complexities are already known, then why hasn’t it been done before?

How much waste will this possibly result in, and what is the contingency plan if this doesn’t work? In the start-up world, waste is sometimes defined as “any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value”.

Using this stringent definition, there has already been a lot of wastage in recent times in this vein; the fallout of which has not only been frustrating, but deeply embarrassing. I’m certain the agencies have what they believe to be a concrete, foolproof plan but as history has repeatedly shown, there are almost always parallax errors. The question then becomes: how do we use these resources more efficiently to improve the situation?

Contrary to popular belief, when disorder permeates through an organism, it works from its core to its peripheries; that is from within outwards. If Karachi is a microcosm for the country, then it is almost certainly it’s epicentre as well. The current situation is an ominous sign that this anarchy won’t be contained to Karachi. Given that labour, capital and time are limited; the question of efficient utilization becomes even more important. To be frugal yet effective, and not devise a strategy based on a self-rationalized belief, both a holistic view and an up-close assessment needs to be collated. Below is an impressive infographic detailing the scope and prevalence of the violence along with some of the underlying reasons.

Eight most violent flashpoints. - Dawn
Eight most violent flashpoints. - Dawn

Using this as base data and looking at the location of these eight hotbeds visually, it’s easy to see that the two that are the most isolated, thereby less prone to a spill over, are Korangi and Quaidabad. Out of the two, the more industrialized and less populated is Korangi. The data being used is from the 1998 Census but can be extrapolated for this purpose. Additionally, Korangi is the only flashpoint of the eight which doesn’t have ‘Land’ or ‘Drugs’ listed as the primary reason for conflict, the intricacies of which tend to be more diverse. Lastly the affected area is listed as 9.7 sq km which probably hasn’t changed. To summarize, Korangi is:

a) More isolated
b) Free of drugs / land mafia (so far)
c) Less populated (easier to manage)
d) More industrialized therefore more of an economic contributor (an unfortunate but bitter truth which factors in the evaluation process, whether admittedly or not)
e) Smaller in physical size.

Lean methodology allows start-ups to refine their product by making incremental changes (iterating), and testing, till it gains market acceptance. This means that they use their already limited resources extremely efficiently by extracting the maximum utility from them, all in the shortest possible span of time.

Fewer Resources

Using lean methodology to conceptualize a solution, one hypothesis to test would be to deploy a video surveillance network first in Korangi to monitor the area around the clock. Why the need for surveillance?

For starters, having archived footage means it can be accessed on-demand for verification purposes and to ascertain details relevant to occurrences, not to mention evidence. Secondly, a monitoring cell can access strategically placed cameras during an operation or track suspicious targets before assigning human force. Thirdly, a network acts as a deterrent as it provides a much-needed element of vigilance. What happens under the current scenario once the Rangers-led operation ends? Do the ‘miscreants’ stay away and stop committing ‘heinous crimes’? Fourthly and most importantly, in conjunction with a revamped, seamless reporting system - of incidents and criminal activity - it provides an extremely accurate view, using which manpower could be deployed and rerouted more efficiently.

Karachi has a paltry 25,000* police officers for a city of at least 17 million*, which translates to approximately 1 (one) police officer for every 680 civilians. These are conservative estimates yet they’re still abysmal figures. Assuming that all 25,000 are emphatically defending the city, and none are assigned to VIP protocol etcetera, this still leaves them spread too thin if all locations are targeted simultaneously. The manpower simply isn’t there to cast a city-wide net for any length of time, even if the funds were made available miraculously.

The data gleaned from a hybrid surveillance network / reporting information system would be invaluable for a number of uses, both current and future. Yes, there will be inconsistencies in the data, and its integrity could be compromised, but any amount of data is by far better than no data, especially if it can be verified by cross-tabulation immediately. Using data visualization over a time-limited period will provide a transparent dashboard to gauge the effectiveness of the program. Adding a semantic (logic) engine could illustrate patterns which could be used or tested in other areas thereby further reducing the incurred expenditure of time and capital in any subsequent deployments.

To summarize, It would cost less money to setup, save time since it’s a small area, require less manpower to patrol and monitor, and quickly determine whether it makes any sense to continue or not.

Falsifiable Hypotheses:

It isn’t enough to assume ‘An operation will reduce crime and bring stability’. It is, however, testable to say ‘deploying and monitoring a network will lower reported incidents by 50% within 14 days’. Now the reality may be 38% in 19 days, but that is where the ‘iterating’ (tweaking) part comes in.

At the time of this writing, the closest ‘metric’ I have is the arrest of 30 suspects.

Qualitative validation first:

Let’s assume that the plan is an utter and complete failure. In this (unlikely) scenario, either the city has spent a nominal amount of time and money, and ends up with an asset that can be used for other purposes - traffic monitoring and street crime - if the equipment has been purchased. In the event of a lease, the damage is almost negligible. That is the worst case scenario. No unnecessary loss of time, money or life. No demoralization or dejection.

On the other hand, if the operation is successful then there exists a process which can be duplicated in multiple areas - concurrently or in succession - while its expenditure will be justified on all fronts. The city would also be better off for it and could focus on addressing other pressing concerns which would continue to make it more and more conducive to productivity.

Correlating results to actions:

This is harder to do at the outset but gets substantially easier as time goes by. When you iterate daily - example 1) rework reporting channels and procedures till the time between an incident and its report being merged with the existing data is reduced to almost nothing, or 2) test deploying personnel in different areas daily and see where they prove to be the most effective - the process of refinement becomes progressively more effective.

In addition to this, a cohort analysis would be convenient and useful here, as a tool to statistically prove the affect such an undertaking would have on the level of reported street crime, or theft / robberies etcetera.

In influential adjoining areas, the boundary walls surrounding houses have gotten higher, more private security guards are employed and residential security firms are thriving. Paying for a false sense of security is deluding one’s self. It will be a matter of time before some personal connection is impacted by the breakdown of this city’s security apparatus.

Communicate Knowledge

Apart from the element of transparency, it is absolutely imperative to debrief periodically. Not only does this ensure that course correction takes place in the midst of an experiment, it also ensures that learning is spread throughout the team(s) and instituted in the training of future employees.

Lastly, the citizens have a right to know. Anything less than specific details should be considered unacceptable.

Summary

I’m told there are many CCTV’s currently in operation in Karachi today. Where they are, what condition they are in, how much do they record (if at all), how long they archive for, who monitors them, how instrumental they have been in crime reduction, and what the plan is to implement them city-wide is considered to be sensitive information.

Without trying to sound Orwellian, there is undeniable value in a city-wide deployment and there is no need to be secretive or apologetic. Without traffic cameras people in the developed world would drive at breakneck speeds, in addition to not paying tolls. Fugitives looking to escape a chase would have a higher rate of success and armed criminals would waltz into banks every day.

A ‘Cleanse Korangi’ experiment is a very quick and economical way to test the viability of the program, and it’s success would allow some semblance of normality to return to the area, develop a model that can be duplicated, which may require additional tweaking when used in other areas as the dynamics are different and send a strong signal.

This, in isolation isn’t enough; Karachi has become a breeding ground for violence, extortion and corruption. The problem comes down to limited resources and what people are willing to do for gain. Whether that resource/possession is money, influence, land, drugs, territory or ideological in nature, the use of force is certain to ensue unless substantial deterrents are put in place. Even if this operation is successful, there are other equally important concerns that need to be highlighted and tended to.

Apart from eradicating the manifestation of the disorder, the origins and its maintaining cause need to be addressed. Intent cannot be governed externally nor can resourcefulness and innovative thinking be limited. It isn’t as simple as removing something and hoping it does not return.

Concomitant initiatives relating to economic empowerment for citizens and development programs for the city itself need to be put in place. While we’re at it, let’s spare a thought for the policemen of this once majestic city. Yes, they opt to be corrupt, but lets scrutinize this; As mentioned earlier, the ratio of civilians to police officers (680:1) is low, which makes their job that much harder. In addition to this already taxing reality, they have to live with meager compensation, inconsistent training and unfair promotions based on age, connections and ethnicity.

Much like the Rangers, even if they manage to apprehend a person of concern, they sometimes have to worry about the individual(s) being freed. However, granting the Rangers the powers of judge, jury and executioner is not the answer, let alone a sustainable one.

Autonomy, along with solidifying judicial systems and cementing the notion of due process in society is a better alternative. Without revamping the police under the stewardship of a competent individual, there is little hope of any peace being sustained.

It is a long, arduous task made all the more so by the lack of thought leadership in many facets, including leveraging technology for development.

There is a famous Japanese proverb which is pertinent to the situation at hand.

“Vision without execution is a daydream. Execution without vision is a nightmare” - Pakistan can ill-afford either.

The writer is a technology advisor and strategist.
Twitter Handle:@yasserbrohi

*Figures are rough estimates obtained from multiple sources which cannot be verified against any official data.

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