Urban crime

Published January 5, 2018

“TWENTY years ago our front gate used to remain open, today not only do we keep the gate locked, we employ guards and have installed a security system. This is the extent to which public safety has deteriorated in our lifetime.” This is the verdict of an irate male focus group conducted in Lahore. It turns out that evidence supports these observations.

The Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives’ (IDEAS) Lahore Crime Survey shows that in 2016 one in eight citizens of Lahore were victims of crimes like theft, robbery, burglary, extortion, assault, kidnapping and attempts at these crimes. Estimates suggest that one in 25 citizens would have experienced similar incidents in the city in 1991. This is a trebling of the crime rate in Lahore in 25 years!

Long-term deterioration in public safety is not unique to Lahore; it is a challenge it shares with other big (one million-plus) cities. We find that the per capita crime rate in Punjab’s big city districts (those with one million-plus cities) was double the rate in other districts during the last quarter century. Clearly, big city districts are ‘crowding in’ crime at a disproportionate rate compared to other districts.

Clearly, big city districts are ‘crowding in’ crime.

‘Crowding in’ is happening because the same level of unemployment has a bigger effect on crime in big city districts compared to other districts. We find that a 10 per cent rise in youth unemployment increases the crime rate by 15pc to 20pc in big city districts in Punjab — which is a very large effect! As opposed to this, a similar rise in youth unemployment increases the crime rate by only 2pc to 6pc in other districts. The larger effect of youth unemployment appears to be due to the absence of community safety nets that buffer young adults against employment shocks.

Big cities also ‘crowd in’ crime because getting away with it seems much easier here. The Punjab police data shows that an increase in incarceration reduces crime rates in all districts except big city districts. That is, putting more people in jail literally has no effect on the crime rate in big cities. This raises a puzzle — why is the same criminal justice system much less effective in a big city environment?

In Punjab’s big cities this is partly because victims and communities have less information about perpetrators and are less able to identify them for the police. The crime survey finds that only 19pc of victims were able to give any significant information about their perpetrators. We call this the “urban anonymity challenge”. This challenge explains why the percentage of untraced offenders in registered cases is twice as high in Punjab’s big city districts compared to other districts.

The urban anonymity challenge weakens deterrence in big cities by lowering the quality of investigation and making it harder to apprehend the right offenders swiftly. It also weakens deterrence because the chance that offenders are penalised becomes negligible if they are not nominated in the FIR.

This suggests the need for police reforms that introduce modern institutions of metropolitan policing in big cities. This has to be an important component of the election manifestos of political parties. The adoption of forensic technology, biometric databases and integrated command, control and communication systems (IC3) for cities by the Punjab government has strengthened the informational foundations to mitigate the urban anonymity challenge and enhance deterrence.

Leveraging the benefits of this investment will require reforming the 19th-century model of decentralised policing, which centres on a large number of geographically dispersed police stations. Our evidence suggests that police stations remain plagued with delays in FIR registration and high case pendency, which sustain low citizen trust in spite of investments in modern technology.

It is important to recognise that modern technologies like the IC3 have created the potential for radical reform of city policing. It allows the institutionalisation of ‘centralised response systems’ that integrate calls for service, complaint registration, patrol and scene of the crime investigation that can replace the decentralised model. This promises greater efficiency as it has the potential to reduce the time and cost of communication between victims and first responders and improve the quality of scene of crime investigation.

It also promises stronger accountability as calls for service are recorded and can be reviewed by independent supervisors. Officer accountability is also strengthened as first responders and scene of the crime teams are visible to the central system and their process efficiency is logged and can be monitored by independent supervisors.

Is it not time to create 21st-century policing institutions that embed modern technology to deal with 21st-century challenges in our cities?

Ali Cheema works at IDEAS and Lums. Zulfiqar Hameed is in the police service of Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2018



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