Police Reforms: Which Way Do We Go?


The world population took 50,000 years to reach 1 billion people. Two hundred years after that 19th-century milestone, Earth has more than 7 billion human inhabitants.1 Huge megapolises are inhabited by tens of millions of people, and increasing urbanization is possible because of previously undreamed-of improvements in the infrastructure needed to support large agglomerations of people living together. At the same time, the unprecedented acceleration of technological innovation has made all corners of the world connected as never before, making the “global village” a reality.

Law enforcement and criminal justice systems across the world have evolved in response to the accelerating social and economic changes of the past 150 years, though usually after a time lag. In the United Kingdom the Peelian system, based on policing with community support, emerged as a response to challenges of law enforcement in an enlarged London after the industrial revolution. The inability of the “neighborhood Bobby” to deal with public order issues like those sparked off in Tottenham (London) was perceived to reflect a degree of dissonance with multi-ethnic communities and prompted changes in the system of policing that are still under way.2 The various waves of reforms in the United States from the early 20th century onwards were also a response to changing social mores and the need for more professional police to contain the crime trends, including organized crime, that accompanied the surge in economic growth and urbanization. Problem-oriented policing and community-oriented policing (“broken windows” approach) are concepts that were developed in the 1990s in response to local needs, particularly in urban areas. The U.S. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, 1994 that funded 100,000 additional “boots-on-the-ground” was an effort to reduce crime in the United States.3

In India, the colonial model of policing continued for more than a half century after the country’s independence in 1947, with the police seen more as an instrument of state authority than a service provider to the citizen or an upholder of the rule of law. The expansion and opening up of India’s economy, beginning in the 1990s, has led to transformation in the social and economic milieu in many parts of the country. However, police reforms there have been driven, not by public demand, but by directives given by the Supreme Court of India. These directives called for insulating police leaders from undue political interference and creating accountability mechanisms to deal with abuse of authority. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission appointed by the central government of India, in its report on Public Order submitted in 2007, made 51 recommendations that include calling for a clearer definition of the police role, insulating the police from outside pressure, ensuring greater accountability, moving toward specialization and greater investment in technical support to improve investigation, initiating efforts to ensure a more “people-friendly” police, and providing better training.4

All three democratic societies mentioned herein—the United Kingdom, the United States, and India—continue to look at ways to make law enforcement more attuned to the current social and economic framework of their countries. It’s true that policing, like politics, has traditionally been local and must be related to the needs of the community. At the same time, no modern police force can function in parochial isolation. When criminals and terrorists across the globe can share IED-making techniques with each other through the Internet, why shouldn’t the police learn from each other’s successes and failures in efforts toward reform?

To move in the right direction, one needs to understand the contemporary global environment in which policing must work and identify key factors to be addressed. For this, one must consider the major forces that are driving societies the world over.

Demographics: The continued increases in population in some parts of the world are being accompanied by major waves of migration. While many of the developed countries face the prospect of “graying” populations and decreasing fertility rates, developing societies continue to experience a demographic surge, with large numbers of young people looking for economic and livelihood opportunities wherever available across the globe. This is leading to a mix of cultures in many societies, causing inevitable strains. Even within countries, internal migration is causing formerly homogeneous communities to look for ways to adapt or acculturate to new arrivals.

Economics: There has been unprecedented growth in global wealth; the world has never been richer than it is today. At the same time, the disparity between the rich and poor has never been greater. Billions in developing countries live on $2–$3 (USD) a day; yet, there are many millions in the same countries who earn incomes comparable to the middle class and wealthy in developed countries. On the other hand, even in developed countries, earnings of the lower income groups has been stagnant, if not declining—a trend that hurts more when economic growth slows down.

Science & Technology: Incredible scientific discoveries and unbelievable technological advances have taken place and transformed people’s daily lives. The Internet and mobile telephones are just two of these developments from the past few decades. Robotics, satellite communications, neuroscience, and genetics are new frontiers that promise a further revolution in this lifetime.

Social factors: Urbanization has enabled millions to live together at one location and online social media has virtually connected hundreds of millions across the world. Events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Tottenham, or the suburbs of Delhi are no longer confined to one region or country. Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, and other such social media platforms convey information almost instantaneously (often with visuals) across the world. Ideologies and cultures are increasingly attracting loyalties stronger than that of the Westphalian construct of nation-states. The transnational following of the virtual currency Bitcoin is an indicator that even sovereign monopolies may be challenged. Already, non-state actors, whether those propagating extreme ideologies or running criminal enterprises spanning continents, challenge the monopoly on use of legitimate force by nation states, using asymmetric techniques against the more unwieldy state machinery. Another social phenomenon is the greater number of women stepping out into the job market, even into occupations that were formerly the preserve of men. In transitional societies like India, this development raises issues of women’s safety and sexual harassment.

In such a situation of rapid flux, social stresses are inevitable and call for changes in the approach to policing. The United States is now reviewing its policing model with the recently released report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing that calls for a return to greater engagement with the community.5 The Police Reforms and Social Accountability Act 2011 in the United Kingdom gave authority to elected police and crime commissioners to give directions regarding priorities to chief constables of counties and to hold them accountable for performance.6 There are also strategic policing requirements provided by the Home Office to ensure the building up of capacities and coordinating mechanisms to deal with issues that spill over local boundaries, such as terrorism, mass disturbances, organized crime, and major cyber incidents. In India some states have initiated changes to conform to changes directed by the Supreme Court.

An issue that has come up after the 9/11 attacks on New York City is the disproportionate share of resources allocated to building up counterterrorism capabilities and the dilution of the concept of due process in democratic societies. Major terror attacks “black swan” events occur infrequently but have a major impact. India is among the countries that have suffered a festering terrorist problem for several decades, mainly because of the “proxy-war” launched by Pakistan-based non-state groups and sustained with tacit support of power centers in the establishment. Intermittent fedayeen (suicide) attacks grab headlines. The most sensational attack in India occurred in November 2008. The attack was by a gang of 10 Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists launched from Karachi, Pakistan’s port city, against multiple targets in India’s economic capital, Mumbai. Westerners and Israelis were specifically targeted in addition to Indians; the death toll was 170; and property worth hundreds of millions of dollars was destroyed. Covered live on global channels, methods used by the terrorists revealed a new level of sophistication including the use of technological advances like Google Earth and GPS for target familiarization and navigation and minute-to-minute guidance by Pakistan-based “controllers” using VOIP communications. The 48 hours it took India’s elite NSG commandos (known as “Black Cats”) to resolve the situation by killing nine of the attackers and apprehending the single surviving Pakistani terrorist shook not just India, but the world.7 The preparations and launching of this attack took place beyond India’s borders and fell, therefore, in the realm of global intelligence agencies, not local law-enforcement. Still, the threat of similar attacks dominates the thinking and deployment of resources, not only in Mumbai, but in police forces of other cities in India that are potential targets of jihadi non-state actors. Recent events in Paris, France, reveal the vulnerability of megacities worldwide to similar attacks.

About 140,000 people die in India annually as a result of road accidents, but this seldom excites the public imagination or attracts the investment of resources needed for a better road safety enforcement framework.8 The story is the same for other policing areas relevant for ordinary citizens in their day-to-day lives, such as better crime investigation or effective community policing needed for maintenance of public order. It is the terror threat that has led to a change in policing styles in democratic societies, with tactics and equipment becoming more akin to the military in some regions. The judicial process is also in a quandary—how does the court system deal effectively with those who have declared war against democratic societies and are often from other countries? Normal methods of investigation and collection of evidence may not be possible, yet failure to act against these extremists may endanger the society that the police are sworn to protect. Can terrorists be given the benefit of regular principles of due process that are the bedrock of modern legal systems in open societies?

Review of law enforcement systems in the context of social environment in different countries will lead to different diagnoses of reforms needed. However, major democracies face similar challenges in initiating a meaningful police reform process.

Engaging the community: Socioeconomic problems faced by communities are often beyond the scope of law enforcement. Issues like unemployment, poor-quality education, badly planned urban housing, and ethnic tensions based on competition for jobs or resources cannot be resolved by the police, but the problems may be criminogenic and have significant implications for social disorder and crime. How does the police respond to issues that are beyond their mandate, yet have a significant impact on their role in controlling crime and maintaining order? Moreover, there are communities unrepresented or underrepresented in law enforcement simply because there are not enough individuals qualified and willing to take up the job of policing. In such a situation, unrepresented communities further widen the divide between law enforcement and the greater community. How can law enforcement address this bias without diluting entry qualifications or ignoring activities that remain offenses against existing laws?

Science and technology: Cutting-edge developments in neuroscience and behavioral sciences, big data analytics and modeling, and robotics are needed in law enforcement applications. Weapons, communications, mobility, and forensics are areas where technological advances have greatly enhanced police capabilities. How can the profession go beyond the conventional to the frontiers of scientific and technological advances?

Global linkages: Sectors like banking and medicine have been able to connect globally to provide better services to clients and patients. For example in pandemics, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) mobilizes medical expertise worldwide to support locally affected areas. Banking networks and financial linkages are virtually borderless and often paperless today, beginning with the ATM and credit card and now mobile phone banking, even in developing societies like Kenya. The United Nations (UN), INTERPOL, and the IACP are platforms that have attempted to provide similar global linkages in law enforcement, but the field still has a long way to go to establish an effective professional platform to respond to shared threats, act as a resource bank for innovation, and help establish common standards. A digitally connected world has already thrown up law enforcement challenges beyond the capability of any one country. Criminals and terrorists navigate interstate frontiers with ease, recognizing no national authority. Even legitimate fields like the corporate or the academic world are less constrained by political frontiers. Law enforcement is still catching up to tracking and acting collectively against “bad guys” in a borderless world. How often have law enforcement issues in Europe or the United States been traced to the Middle East region in the past decade or scams from gangs based in Nigeria? In the next decade, will Western societies need to prepare for the return of ideologically motivated youth from ISIS-controlled areas, hackers from East Asia and CIS states, or traffickers from Africa or South and South-East Asia?

Ethics and standards: The police cannot remain unaffected by shifts in social standards of ethics or biases, but as protectors of the people, officers need to be trained and accept the professional need to uphold higher benchmarks. Frustration with the criminal justice system and a desire to protect a community may tempt even upright officers to cross ethical boundaries. Business is facing a similar dilemma in which highly qualified and successful corporate leaders have cut ethical corners in pursuit of higher earnings. As a result, several schools now include modules on ethics as part of the curriculum for business studies. Even in developed societies with an established respect for rule of law, police officers have been accused of perjury to ensure convictions. In India, suspicion of police officers is so high that confessions made to the police have been inadmissible as evidence in courts since the advent of the existing legal framework in 1861.9 Some courts in India have directed that any killing by a police officer in the course of his duty be investigated as a murder. Mechanisms for accountability and review of alleged police abuse by a neutral body are therefore called for in all societies; the question is what form should these mechanisms take to prevent police leaders from needing to constantly look over their shoulders?

Police performance metrics: CompStat and other such data analysis tools are useful in planning anti-crime strategies, deploying resources, and measuring efficiency in controlling crime, but current metrics are seen as inadequate in the face of the diverse roles expected from the police. Researchers in New Delhi have found online social media use by the police in Delhi and Bengaluru (Bangalore) effective as a tool of accountability to public calls for service; an area that needs to be developed further. Also, how do metrics take into account factors like regular contact between police and different sections of the community that could play an important role in containing public disturbances?

Criminal justice system: Police are the “face,” of criminal justice, but are, in fact, just one component. The laws, judiciary, prosecution, and corrections all play key roles in determining public confidence in the criminal justice system. Looking at the police in isolation is unlikely to achieve desired improvements. Laws that are out of touch with current social mores are likely to criminalize many activities that may be considered socially acceptable and harmless by many. Prolonged trial process and weak prosecution could negate even vigorous and effective investigations. A corrections system that ruthlessly incarcerates large numbers of people even for minor offences is likely to act as a breeding ground for more serious criminal activities and recidivism.

In India, the Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System (known as the Malimath Committee after its chair, Dr. Justice V.S. Malimath) submitted a report to the central government in 2003 that made recommendations addressing the criminal justice system as a whole, except corrections—the legal framework, police, prosecution, and the judicial process. The effort was to reduce the huge backlog of cases pending completion of police investigation and under trial in the courts and to improve the efficiency of the process to achieve a higher rate of convictions.10 At present over 30 million cases choke Indian courts, a significant proportion pending for decades, of which a large proportion are petty offences.11 The conviction rate has dropped steadily from over 60 percent to about 40 percent in the past four decades ever since the role of the police was divorced from prosecution.12 Without drowning in the vast areas that holistic criminal justice reforms may need to address, how can reforms address key areas of the criminal justice system, without which police reforms alone would be meaningless?

The Way Ahead

The UN supports security sector reform in countries emerging from conflict as essential to improving governance. Even stable democracies see police reform as essential to improving delivery systems to all citizens and adapting to changing societal conditions so as to be inclusive and to maintain public order in a manner perceived of as unbiased. In the United States, the final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, released in May 2015, is based on six pillars: improving community trust; increasing technology applications; continuing to reduce crime rates; instituting policies and more accountability; improving training; and upholding officer safety. The report also urged the need for more research and the need to change the image of a police officer from “warrior” to “guardian.”13 Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India addressing the annual conference of Director Generals of police in December 2014 called for a SMART police The acronym stands for strict yet sensitive (S), modern and mobile (M), alert and accountable (A), reliable and responsive (R), and trained and techno-savvy (T).14 Addressing the annual conference of the Police Federation in May 2015, Teresa May, Home Secretary, the United Kingdom called for closer interface with the community, better use of technology and reducing of bureaucratic procedures that were a constraint to better performance.15

There is resistance to police reform both among sections of police officers and those in civil society who feel that the direction of proposed reforms is misguided. In the United States, reform efforts are criticized as similar to earlier efforts that focused on increasing efficiency without adequately addressing the key issue of law enforcement’s attitude toward racial minorities. These critics feel that past reforms and strategies such as “broken windows” and “zero tolerance” have led to approaches that target racial minorities. In the United Kingdom, many police leaders feel that further reform will affect core policing capabilities. The major reform in British policing in the recent past has been introducing elected Police Crime Control Commissioners. The British government is against consolidating the 43 separate county police departments recommended by police leaders on grounds that local communities need to retain ownership, though the overall thrust remains to cut costs including of personnel. A National Crime Centre has been designed to respond to broader policing issues. In India, most states have diluted the Supreme Court–mandated reforms intended to insulate police leadership from illegitimate political influence and establish effective accountability mechanisms against abuse of police authority.

The central government in India has embarked on several measures to improve police efficiency though, under the country’s federal constitution, police is a subject of governance reserved for the states. One such initiative is CCTNS (crime and criminals tracking network and systems) an ambitious scheme that aims to integrate all records and digitally link the 14,000 police stations spread across India. Once effective, it will revolutionize information sharing among the police forces of 29 states and 7 union territories that serve more than 1.2 billion people.16 Another initiative is funding a National Centre of Excellence for Technology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, to find technology solutions to policing problems. The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, has been enlisted to improve training content for police leaders. The central government as well as many state governments have instructed that 33 percent of posts at field levels be reserved for women in an effort to increase the gender sensitivity of the police.17 At the same time, there are those who feel that the reform process in India needs to be directed more toward improving delivery of basic police services to the citizens and increasing the resources spent and capabilities of the civil police. The Association of Retired Senior Indian Police Service Officers (ARSIPSO) held a seminar in New Delhi recently on “Citizen-centric Police Reform” where speakers highlighted the skewed development of the police in the past few decades with a disproportionate build-up of armed police that now number over a million personnel and the need for a more people-friendly police with simpler procedures to enable easier citizen access to policing services.

Ergo, the axioms of accepted police reform in democratic societies are as follows:

  1. Communities are at the center of police service delivery. Social diversity, whether racial, religious, or gender-based, must be factored in. It is essential to have a critical mass of diversity so as to avoid an “us versus them” attitude. Equally important is to explore ways of reengaging the community to work more actively with the police in maintaining order and containing crime.
  2. Coordinating mechanisms both within and between countries must be strengthened to respond to global threats such as organized crime, terrorism, and cyber attacks. The UN, INTERPOL, and associations like IACP are platforms that can expand their roles to achieve this. Police need to “think globally, but act locally.”
  3. Criminal justice system reforms need to be taken up along with police reforms. If recidivism is common, the corrections system might be inadequate; if prosecution is weak or the judicial process too tortuous, reforms in these areas are called for. In fact, even parts of the legal framework might need to be reviewed to see whether the police or courts are preoccupied with too many minor offenses that can be resolved without going through the criminal justice channel.
  4. Science and technology is a force multiplier in ensuring better service delivery and advances can be replicated across countries. At the same time, advances in cutting-edge technology that are changing people’s lives must be taken account as these impact law enforcement and can be misused for criminal activity.
  5. Sustained research on issues relating to public order, crime, technology applications, appropriate training, and organizational innovation need to be supported by public-private partnerships. The ideal situation would be an initiative on a smaller scale like DARPA (defense advanced research projects agency), which has annual budget of $3 billion USD.

Fields like economic development, health care, and education are seeing an unprecedented level of global attention and cooperation since they are seen as areas that impact the quality of life for all humankind. Public order and crime control are equally important to achieve an improved quality of life. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) established by the UN in 2014 provide goals to eradicate poverty and achieve a better quality of life for all humankind. In fact Goal 16 of the SDG relates to law-enforcement and aims to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”18 Acknowledging the local focus of law enforcement, UN Resolution 2151 (2014), stated that police reforms were related to needs of particular societies Different countries will have different ways of reaching these goals, the process of implementation will need partnerships of government, civil society, the private sector and international organizations. The document also stresses that, “Good governance and the rule of law at the national and international levels are essential for sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, sustainable development and the eradication of poverty and hunger.” All of this may not apply to advanced Western societies that have already achieved high living standards and adherence to rule of law. However, in today’s “flat world” it may be useful to look at some of the specific benchmarks aimed at in Goal 16:

  • End abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and all forms of violence against and torture of children.
  • Promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all.
  • By 2030, significantly reduce illicit financial and arms flows, strengthen the recovery and return of stolen assets, and combat all forms of organized crime.
  • Strengthen relevant national institutions, including through international cooperation, for building capacity at all levels, in particular in developing countries to prevent violence and combat terrorism and crime.19

These SDGs will be developed further into targets and measurable outcomes. Countries that need help will be supported to improve data collection, assisted with financial resources and technological upgrades. There is a global understanding today that “no country is an island unto itself” and making the world a safer place for any one country requires addressing law enforcement issues in all democratic countries willing to work together. In the Information Age, this collaboration could take the form of sharing knowledge and experience of what works, as well as assisting with training and identifying appropriate technology. What is important is to begin a concerted process of review and reform, engaging the community in this process, and taking the help of the best minds available in different fields. As the Commonwealth Human Right’s Initiative (CHRI) put it while advocating creation of an Expert Group on police reforms for the 53 commonwealth countries, this process is “too important to neglect, too urgent to delay.”

1 “World Population to Hit Milestone with Birth of 7 Billionth Person,” PBS NewsHour, October 27, 2011, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/world-july-dec11-population1_10-27 (accessed January 8, 2015).
2 J.L. Lyman, “The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 55, no. 1 (March 1964): 147–148.
3 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Pub.L. 103–322 (1994).
4 Second Administrative Reforms Commission, Fifth Report: Public Order (New Delhi, India: Government of India, 2007), http://arc.gov.in/5th%20REPORT.pdf (accessed January 14, 2016).
5 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, D.C.: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015), http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/taskforce/taskforce_finalreport.pdf (accessed January 19, 2016).
6 Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, Chapter 13, http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/13/pdfs/ukpga_20110013_en.pdf (accessed January 14, 2016).
7 Bill Roggio, “Lashkar-e-Taiba Operatives Directly Linked to Mumbai,” The Long War Journal, December 31, 2008, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2008/12/lashkaretaiba_operat_1.php (accessed January 15, 2016).
8 Dipak K. Dash, “16 Deaths Every Hour: Indian Roads Claim the Maximum Number of Lives in 2014,” The Times of India, July 19, 2015, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/16-deaths-every-hour-Indian-roads-claim-the-maximum-number-of-lives-in-2014/articleshow/48128946.cms (accessed January 15, 2016).
9 Indian Evidence Act §25 (1872).
10 Committee on Reforms of the Criminal Justice System, Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System Report (March 2003), http://www.mha.nic.in/hindi/sites/upload_files/mhahindi/files/pdf/criminal_justice_system.pdf (accessed January 15, 2016).
11 Ram Mashru, “Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied: India’s 30 Million Case Judicial Backlog,” The Diplomat, December 25, 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/12/justice-delayed-is-justice-denied-indias-30-million-case-judicial-backlog (accessed January 15, 2016).
12 “A Survey of India and Pakistan: Sorry States,” The Economist, May 20, 1999, http://www.economist.com/node/205915 (accessed January 15, 2016).
13 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
14 Samudra Gupta Kashyap, “PM Narendra Modi Devises Another Acronym, Urges Police to Act ‘SMART,’” The Indian Express, December 1, 2014, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/prime-minister-narendra-modi-bats-for-smart-policing (accessed January 15, 2016).
15 Theresa May (speech, Police Federation Annual Conference, Bournemouth International Centre, United Kingdom, 2015), https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/home-secretarys-police-federation-2015-speech (accessed January 15, 2016).
16 National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, “About CCTNS,” http://ncrb.gov.in/cctns.htm (accessed January 15, 2016).
17 Government of India, Press Information Bureau, “Reservation for Women in Direct Recruitment in Non-Gazetted Posts in Police Forces of All Union Territories Including Delhi Police,” press release, March 20, 2015, http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=117550 (accessed January 15, 2016).
18 UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, Open Working Group Proposal for Sustainable Development Goals, goal 16, 2014, https://docs.google.com/gview?url=http://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/1579SDGs%20Proposal.pdf&embedded=true (accessed January 15, 2016).
19 Ibid.

Please cite as

Jayanto N. Choudhury, “Police Reforms: Which Way Do We Go?” The Police Chief 83 (February 2016): web only.