Policing Covid-19

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The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.
The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.

THE coronavirus pandemic has assigned more responsibilities and roles to police. Globally, the police are making changes in operational strategies and reallocating whatever human and financial resources they have at their disposal. However, an effective response requires far more, including: additional funds, enlistment of volunteers, active communication strategies, optimum use of technology, drafting of SOPs, improved institutional coordination, and strengthening of community networks.

The enormity of the crisis has convinced governments to introduce stricter laws and regulations. To enforce lockdown, for instance, France planned deployment of 100,000 policemen and establishment of fixed checkpoints. In Italy, violators of the curfew face a three-month imprisonment or a fine of 206 euros. To monitor social distancing, Italy also approved the use of drones by police.

In Norway, a 20,000 kroner fine or 15-day imprisonment was announced for those breaking self-quarantine rules. Though Pakistan also introduced self-quarantine and isolation measures, Norway adopted all these with legal and administrative backup. Any Norwegian who travelled abroad in recent weeks has to self-isolate for 14 days, and anyone who has been in close contact with a confirmed Covid-19 patient must undergo self-isolation for two weeks. In Denmark, police send text messages to mobile subscribers as a reminder to abide by the instructions.

In the UK, police will be authorised to use force to send people back home to self-isolate during lockdown. The London Metropolitan Police requested officers who retired within the last five years to rejoin the force, either on a voluntary or paid basis. Those close to retirement have been instructed to delay their departure. In Pakistan, however, the majority of those who retire at the age of 60 face health complications, so it is difficult to replicate such initiatives here.

The police are in a better position to act as first responders.

Another concern is how to police the cyberspace. Malaysia and Singapore have clamped down on online misinformation about the coronavirus, and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commis­sion arrested some suspects for spreading misinformation about the outbreak.

The gravity of the situation in Pakistan suggests that, through criminal justice measures, self-isolation instructions need to be clearly specified. Without incorporating crisis management functions into the law, along with updated training modules and exclusive allocation, the police will be reduced to the status of a spectator or reporting agency.

Initially, the health crisis resulted in fewer crimes. However, in parts of Italy, the police warned the public to watch out for impostors knocking on doors and claiming to be Red Cross volunteers. In densely populated countries like India and Pakistan, if the coronavirus spell drags out, it may bring a surge in crimes.

Because the police has a presence in all areas, it is in a better position to immediately act as first responders. And since police stations are the basic functional apparatus of the state, citizens expect a lot more from them. The rural police stations may also be of great help in these times, but greater coordination between the health department and the police needs to be institutionalised.

Websites, email, helplines and SMS are effective tools to reach the public. All provincial police departments maintain websites, but like the centralised policing model, our websites are also over-centralised. Though a handful of police departments are running pages on social media, effective linkage requires interactive public-friendly police websites. During the ongoing crisis, for the first time, the Punjab Police started optimum use of its official website that will simultaneously improve public and media relations.

While law enforcement and public health is an emerging field, in developing countries, public health and policing are averse to collaboration. Participation of the police in such crisis could improve their image and highlight their humane face.

In Pakistan, there is hardly any effort by police organisations to document relief operations and review flaws in their working. During times of crisis, the police performs multiple functions, like rescue operations, protection of life and property, crowd management, security during relief distribution, security of rescue camps, managing traffic, and coordinating with other agencies. Since the police have regular interaction with the public, they are in the best position to infuse volunteerism among residents.

Numerical strength alone cannot yield dividends. There is a need for more comprehensive legislation, capacity building, training and equipment. The police must be financed and empowered in a manner that, before seeking help of civil armed forces, they should have the capacity to sustain the burden during the initial phase of a major crisis.

The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.

Twitter: @alibabakhel

Published in Dawn, April 28th, 2020