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Footprints: Countering the thana culture

Updated February 16, 2016

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Officials at an ops room in the Ghalib Market police station on Monday monitor screens with feeds from surveillance cameras installed in various parts of Lahore.—Azhar Jafri / White Star
Officials at an ops room in the Ghalib Market police station on Monday monitor screens with feeds from surveillance cameras installed in various parts of Lahore.—Azhar Jafri / White Star

LAHORE: Over a dozen large TV screens are mounted on the walls in a spacious room at the Ghalib Market police station. Half are running live feeds from surveillance cameras installed in different parts of the city or on police patrol cars. The rest display real-time data and progress on all types of citizen complaints, from the loss of a CNIC to robberies to murders reported either through the police’s centralised 8330 SMS and Rescue 15 systems or reported in person.

You may also pull the past records, type and time of crime reported from a particular neighbourhood, as well as the documented history of criminals from any of the 84 police stations in the city.

This is one of the ops rooms developed by the Punjab Board of Information Technology (PBIT) in four of six police divisions of the city, connecting the city’s police stations with one another and with the CCPO (capital city police officer) office. The purpose is to digitise crime and criminals to monitor the performance of each thanaand police officials dealing with the public and to improve surveillance.

“More important, the technology facilitates citizens. It is helping us turn the police — gradually — into a public service-oriented force,” contends Mustansar Feroze, SP (Operations) of the Model Town police division. “We are hopeful that this will significantly bridge the trust deficit between public and the force in the shortest possible time. Efficient use of the new technology should make the registration of complaints easier. You no longer have to deal with an unresponsive moharrir or even visit a police station to file a complaint of a cognisable or non-cognisable offence under the criminal procedure code.”

Police stations have been equipped with special reception desks to assist complainants and run a complaint/FIR registration system. A special helpline has been set up in the IG office where you can lodge complaints against a non-cooperative police official. An IT-literate man is available at the newly established front desks at every thana to record your complaint; he is answerable directly to the SP.

“The complaint is immediately converted into an FIR if it does not require an inquiry or verification by the police,” says Umar Saif, chairman of the PBIT, who has developed over the last year a series of technology platforms to assist the police. “In case a preliminary investigation or a visit to the crime scene or person nominated in the complaint is needed, the police must resolve it or register the FIR within 72 hours.”

The same procedure applies to complaints filed through text messages or phone calls at the police rescue number or online. Minutes after you report a crime or offence or accident through your mobile phone, you start receiving calls from the offices of the SP heading the division and the CCPO. Progress on your complaints is regularly conveyed through text messages. Also, you don’t have to visit the police station to obtain a copy of the FIR; it is emailed to you if you have provided your email ID to the police. If a complainant is not satisfied with the progress on his complaint, he may reach the admin officer, an ASI who is also answerable only to SP.

“The benefits of technology and thana reforms have already started to pour in,” Feroze argued. “It has increased access to the police, helped map crime resulting more efficient deployment of resources and manpower, reduced the incidence of crime, and reduced the misuse of authority by police officials. Also, we have digitised the record of crime and criminals that can easily be verified.”

Saif says the FIR system has been automated and is fully functional in 228 out of 728 police stations in Punjab, and over 160,000 FIRs have been registered in it. The system is expected to be rolled out in all police stations across Punjab in the next few months. “The automation of the police department will help address the thana culture in the province. Once you start measuring the problem, you also start fixing it,” he argues.

But many do not agree with him. Aftab Alam, an Islamabad-based lawyer who has been part of the group calling for the reforms of the criminal procedure code, believes that IT can play a much bigger role in the prevention and reporting of crime. “Many efforts are under way to capitalise on the technological advancement in reforming the criminal justice system. Nevertheless, without reforming the governing legal framework, particularly the criminal procedure code and the police rules, the utility of these tools will remain a question in Pakistan,” he argues.

He says the police are governed by a law under the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860. “Though Pervez Musharraf promulgated a new police order in 2002, not all agreed to it. As a result of this disagreement, half of the country is still operating under the old police order. Similarly, operations of the police and police stations are being governed under the Police Rules of 1934 that require the maintenance of more than 17 registers and manual entries.”

Alam believes that the government may provide an online platform to the citizens to report an incident but the registration of an FIR still requires the signature of the complainant. “And according to various court judgements, unsigned telegrams and telephonic messages will not constitute an FIR. The requirement of the maintenance of multiple manual registers under the police rules will also remain a challenge until these rules and laws are reformed. The introduction of modern technology at this first stage of criminal procedure code will have no meaning legally.”

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2016