For its women, India must embrace science in policing - Hindustan Times
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For its women, India must embrace science in policing

Apr 01, 2024 03:19 PM IST

This article is authored by Vineet Kapoor, IPS, Madhya Pradesh and Suddhasatwa Bhattacharya, research manager, J-PAL South Asia.

One of the most critical components of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 16--Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions is women’s access to justice. This can be difficult in a country like India where women often face discrimination and barriers to justice seem pervasive, a problem exacerbated by the low numbers of women police officers. There has been a big push from the Indian government in recent years to create a policing system that is sensitive to the needs of women. Scientific evidence can be a powerful tool to this end.

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India recorded an estimated 51 complaints of crimes against women every hour in 2022, as per the National Crimes Records Bureau. The actual number is likely to be much higher because women often hesitate to report crimes against them, in part because of social stigma.

For over two decades, India’s ministry of home affairs has called for special measures to curb crimes against women (CAW). Over the last few years, India’s federal and state governments have also introduced a reservation system for women in the police force, set up special helplines as well as all-women police stations. Their utility continues to be a subject of intense debate.

Paucity of solutions has rarely been a problem for governments trying to solve policy problems. But with so many options to choose from, finding the most effective one can be difficult.

In 2020, the ministry of home affairs released detailed guidelines for setting up and running women’s help desks. Three years before these guidelines came out, the department of police in Madhya Pradesh and the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) South Asia had started working towards setting up special help desks for women. Known in the state as the Urgent Relief and Just Action (URJA), these help desks provided a private space for women to make a complaint to an officer trained on gender sensitisation and case registration procedures.

In 2019, URJA was put through a rigorous test, in what the researchers say is one of the largest randomised evaluations of a police reform in the world.

Governments around the world are increasingly turning towards evidence from randomised evaluations — an experimental research method used in medicine for testing safety and efficacy of new treatments — to inform social policies. J-PAL co-founders Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, along with their longtime collaborator Michael Kremer, won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019 for their pioneering work on fighting poverty with randomised evaluations. Our experience in Madhya Pradesh shows lessons from randomised evaluations can play an important role in law enforcement, too.

The evaluation, led by a J-PAL-affiliated researcher, found that the help desks led to an increase in registration of cases of gender-based violence (GBV), especially when they were staffed by female officers. Perhaps more importantly, these findings indicate behavior change among police officers – as the increase in complaint registration was not due to an increase in crime rates or of their reporting.

“The women police officers are friendly and I don’t feel afraid to talk to them. Even male officers give a patient hearing. In my case they directly went to my neighborhood and took action on those men who were stalking me,” said a woman living in Bhopal’s Nishatpura area.

Following these promising results, URJA was scaled up from 180 police stations in 2019 to 700 police stations in 2021, aided by funding from the ministry of home affairs.

Madhya Pradesh remains the only state so far to implement the women's help desk model after evaluating its effectiveness through a rigorous and scientific process.

It is not difficult to see the appeal of evidence from scientific research methods such as randomised evaluations in policymaking. Testing policy solutions for effectiveness prevents authorities from spending time and money on ideas that are unlikely to succeed.

URJA spotlights another important dimension: It is vital for governments and academia to work together so programmes with proven effectiveness can reach as many people as possible in as many places as possible.

There are clear benefits of this approach, one in which each side plays to its strengths. Law enforcement agencies--and governments more generally — have the resources and capacity to implement evidence-based programmes at scale. And this process becomes much more effective when they have academic partners specialising in evidence-based research to support them at every step — from the design of the program to its implementation, evaluation, and, ultimately, expansion.

In URJA’s case, the police department in Madhya Pradesh worked with J-PAL South Asia for two years perfecting the design and delivery of the programme.

The programme started small, introduced in just five police stations in two districts in the beginning. As more police stations came under URJA, the research team steadily monitored the programme’s implementation to ensure it was working as intended. The gender training workshops — developed to make police officers more sympathetic to women’s grievances — also went through comprehensive reviews after each session.

These measures gave the team crucial insights into the adjustments needed to bring URJA in line with the police’s crime monitoring and investigation procedures. It enabled the research team to evaluate the best version of the programme while ensuring the police could easily administer it throughout the state afterwards, if found effective.

The result: All 950 jurisdictional police stations in Madhya Pradesh have special help desks for women today. And it has produced a cohort of experts equipped to apply scientific evidence in their decision-making. In fact, Madhya Pradesh police have placed scientific evidence firmly in its arsenal. URJA makes a convincing case for India’s law enforcement community to leverage scientific evidence to redress crimes against women effectively.

A police force that is unresponsive to the security needs of women is not just a matter of law and order. Countries that cannot protect their women often tend to suffer from broader social instability and economic impoverishment.

To realise the government's vision of "women-led development,” India’s police must make every effort to serve women better. Scientific evidence may still be our best bet for that — and Madhya Pradesh shows the way.

This article is authored by Vineet Kapoor, IPS, Madhya Pradesh and Suddhasatwa Bhattacharya, research manager, J-PAL South Asia.

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