Under lockdown

25 Mar 2020


The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London.
The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London.

WITH a virtually complete countrywide lockdown, Section 144 imposed in major cities, and armed forces being deployed across provinces, policing and surveillance are likely to increase, especially in urban areas. All police leave in Karachi has been cancelled. Their strength increased, hundreds have been deployed outside hospitals. Traffic and station-level officers have been provided with protective equipment, primarily facemasks.

The police have been instructed, amongst other things, to enforce a complete ban on public gatherings. Those found in violation may face fines or even jail. There is a risk that these rules will be enforced unequally, as a result of social stratification, leading to an over-policing of the less privileged, and an under-policing of the affluent.

Is policing a crisis going to create a crisis in policing? What are the challenges confronting local police in countries like Pakistan as Covid-19 spreads, impacting public order and public safety? What does ‘social distancing’ even mean in the context of law enforcement?

For station-level officers, a lack of provisions and poor salaries means that most commute in crowded public transport, where they are exposed and vulnerable. Extra policemen deployed at stations from training centres are accommodated in barracks inside these stations, where up to 20 constables are squeezed in to sleep in confined spaces. While senior officers use official vehicles in isolation, multiple station-level officials and employees use police mobiles, often for transporting criminals and suspects. The utility of hand sanitisers becomes futile during hot pursuit, and some stations do not have basic facilities for washing hands.

Is policing a crisis going to create a crisis of policing?

Police officials tend to suffer from poor health given the unhygienic environments they operate in and their long shifts. In the current climate, they are even more vulnerable. The primary police hospital in Karachi — that is ill equipped and understaffed — is tasked with establishing an isolation ward. But in most cases, police officers themselves choose not to get treated here due to the abysmal conditions that prevail.

In spite of the ongoing crisis, everyday sexism continues to dog female police officers. Though police are supposed to wear facemasks, policewomen wearing these and other protective gear are subject to ridicule: ‘madam darr gayi hain’ (madam is scared), a judgement perhaps their male counterparts are not as easily subject to. They are thus prone to removing their masks, exposing themselves and others.

Despite these challenges, the police need to be extra vigilant in the maintenance of public order. In the short term, we may see an increase in assault and battery cases as panic over limited resources increases. In the medium to long term, we may see a surge in cyber, street and organised crime, which will be difficult to investigate as resources are diverted to operational and procedural matters.

Police officials are also cognisant of the fact that measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 will hurt daily wage earners, such as hawkers and vendors, who work in spaces outside shrines and schools that have temporarily closed down. As unemployment rises, we will see an increase in crimes of opportunity, heightening social fears and anxiety. This will increase public pressure on the police to deliver more (and better), and the police will inevitably become overwhelmed given their already limited resources.

In certain public services, especially in the provision of public policing (which is, by definition, about interacting with communities and maintaining order), the call for ‘social distancing’ does not apply. Police organisations will need to learn, adapt and improvise as they go, possibly without any financial support from provincial governments. They will need better cooperation with public health and medical officials.

They will also need to exhibit empathy and compassion as they struggle to maintain public trust between officers and the communities they serve. This is a tall order, and an unprecedented challenge. One can only hope that in the ongoing crisis, police well-being and welfare are prioritised, and that police leadership instils confidence in the workforce and protects its employees, instead of focusing on personality-driven agendas that fragment organisations internally.

We need to prevent a crisis in local, civilian policing, lest it creates a vacuum that is filled by more coercive security institutions. In time, we will need to analyse how the deployment of troops in cases of public health emergencies impacts the maintenance of public order (especially in countries with a history of military interventions), and how such deployments affect the hierarchical relationship between the civilian police and the armed forces. In other words, what will public policing look like once the public health emergency recedes?

The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2020