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Metro Matters: To rescue city from petty crime, Delhi Police must get cracking

Be it at home or on the streets, our safety is increasingly threatened by what is categorised under petty crime. When allowed to go unchecked, these crimes undermine the confidence of citizens and embolden the criminals to venture into more heinous crimes.

columns Updated: Jul 24, 2017 11:59 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Delhi news,Metro Matters,Shivani Singh
Last year, cases of snatching averaged one every 30 minutes and thefts every six minutes. (Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)

Despite the shocking onslaught of daily crime news, most of us like to believe we are safe. Call it insularity or defence mechanism, but people need some self-assurance to carry on with their lives.

Living in what is often labelled as the crime capital of India, Delhi residents have devised their own ways to cope with their unsafe surroundings. I, for one, dutifully tuck my handbag or laptop satchel behind the seat every time I ride a three-wheeler, lest a motorcycle-borne snatcher grabs it.

My action is not exaggerated. Just two weeks back, a woman fell out of a moving three-wheeler while trying to fight off a snatching attempt near the Moolchand flyover. In December last year, another woman spent two weeks in a hospital after a similar incident on the same stretch of one of Delhi’s busiest roads.

Ten years ago, when Dwarka became the hotspot of street crime, Hindustan Times had reported how women in Delhi’s newest suburb began wearing pants or kurtas with large pockets so they wouldn’t have to carry their purse when they stepped out for shopping in their neighbourhood. Today, my mother, a central Delhi resident, does the same.

One often hears residents warning each other against wearing gold bangles and earrings, and holding mobile phones in hand when walking the streets. Worse, instances of people getting killed during house break-ins are not so rare anymore. The stock response these days is not to confront burglars.

Be it at home or on the streets, our safety is increasingly threatened by what is categorised under petty crime. Last year, cases of snatching averaged one every 30 minutes and thefts every six minutes.

There is not enough authentic long-term data to spot a comparative trend because it is only in the last few years that Delhi police have started registering complaints of street crimes more “truthfully”. Even then, at least 83% cases of burglary and 65% cases of snatching reported in Delhi last year could not be cracked.

Unsolved crimes can have serious fallouts. First, citizens, particularly victims of crime who reported them, lose confidence in the police and become insecure. Second, a free run allows petty criminals to graduate to committing more heinous and violent crimes. In criminology, snatching, mugging and thievery are seen as “gateway crime”—the first rung on the ladder to more serious offences.

The oft-prescribed strategy to deal with rising crime is the zero-tolerance policy as adopted by the New York Police, which successfully brought down crime rates in NYC by 37% in just three years. But it also had a negative societal impact. The “stop-and frisk” powers, for example, brought down incidents of gun crime but also led to allegations of racial profiling.

Any uncompromising approach towards curbing crime runs the risk of becoming — or to be seen as — high-handed. Also, at least 94% of those arrested for snatching in Delhi last year were first-timers and 54% were either illiterate or school dropouts. Delhi, therefore, will be better off adopting a community-based approach to tackle petty crime.

This involves, as Charles Pollard, the former chief constable of Thames Valley Police and a critic of zero-tolerance policy puts it, “building public trust, gathering intelligence and coordinating the efforts of social workers, volunteers and local officials to prevent crime.”

It is not that we lack direction. There are enough provisions mandated in India’s Juvenile Justice Act to provide a safety net to vulnerable children who could take to crime. For instance, through their Special Juvenile Justice Unit, police and the government have to identify such children and collaborate with the local community to rehabilitate them. But such programmes require a targeted approach. Just as Delhi Police needs to scale up Yuva, its youth engagement initiative that focuses on skill development and getting jobs for the underprivileged.

While their heavy-handed tactics may not be desirable in a diverse society like ours, New York Police may have a lesson for us in fixing accountability. Through its Compstat software, the NYPD collects and analyses detailed crime data to allocate manpower and monitor performance.

This data driven approach ensures accountability of such strict sorts that, as an article in the Economist observed, “if you are not reducing crime in your bureau, it doesn’t matter if your children play baseball with the mayor’s. You can forget about that promotion.”

Increasingly at the mercy of petty criminals, Delhi could do with some of that resolve.

First Published: Jul 24, 2017 11:58 IST