Policing in the time of COVID-19

Policing in the time of COVID-19

Most states in the country have almost shut down with the government mandating public places like schools, colleges, malls, pubs, and clubs to close and asking citizens to stay indoors for the next eight days and observe as little social contact as possible. Organisers of big gatherings like weddings, religious functions and social functions have been asked to trim the number of invitees. People have been told not to travel, work from their homes, and curb official meetings. Some states have also ordered the closure of liquor shops. It is reminiscent of war times.

A question has been raised as to under what provision of law a state can give such directions to its citizens. So far as Karnataka is concerned, Sections 31 and 42 of the Karnataka Police Act deal with public health. Section 31  empowers the city police commissioner or the district magistrate  to “make, orders for, (l) in cases of existing or apprehended epidemic or infectious diseases of men or animals or birds, the cleanliness and disinfections of premises by the occupier thereof and residents therein and the segregation and management of the persons or animals deceased or supposed to be deceased, as may have been directed or approved by the government with a view to prevent the disease or to check the spreading thereof.”

Section 42 states, “Whenever it shall appear to the Commissioner or District Magistrate that any place in the areas under their respective charges, at which, on account of pilgrimage, fair, or other such occurrence, large bodies of persons have assembled or are likely to assemble is visited or will probably be visited with an outbreak of any epidemic disease, he may take such special measures and may, by public notice, prescribe such regulations to be observed by the residents of the said place and by persons present thereat or repairing thereto or returning therefrom, as he shall deem necessary to prevent the outbreak of such disease or the spread thereof.”

Some states have also used the provisions of Sec 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code in restricting movement of people. Excise Act has been invoked for closure of liquor shops.

What would be the effect of such restrictions on the working of the police? Firstly, such restrictions over a considerable length of time will cause loss of livelihood for many in the service sector.

Some of the affected may tend to look for other ways to make money.

With the movement of people becoming limited, it will be easier for those with criminal intentions to target people using deserted roads for crimes like chain and bag snatching, picking pockets, mugging and molestation.

Lack of traffic on the streets will help criminals using vehicles make a quick getaway. This will result in increase in roadside offences.

Lack of normal traffic on the roads would make people drive at high speeds, drive under the influence of alcohol, jump signals or do stunts like ‘wheelies’ on the roads, which may result in accidents and deaths on roads. Incidentally, drivers may refuse to give breathalyzer tests giving safety reasons. Road safety would become a concern. Better police presence on roads is called for.

With more people doing business transactions and work from homes, cybercriminals would become hyperactive and target vulnerable people for online frauds. Increased reliance on e-commerce would increase offences like cheating. Police would need to concentrate on crime prevention and detection.

With the increased use of social media, rumours and fake news may increase. There arises a need to monitor social media very closely and prevent spread of panic.

Enforcement of prohibitory orders would itself become a challenge after a week’s shutdown. Shops, including liquor vends, would open slyly to cater to the ever-increasing demand and controlling them would pose a problem.

Recently, a politician organized a wedding in Belgaum attended by over 3,000 guests, including the chief minister. It was reported that the CM didn’t get himself screened at the airport.

Such actions by lawmakers and those in power will embolden others to follow suit and make the work of the enforcing authorities difficult.

Since police would have to be present all over the city, their health, too, would become a concern. They need to be sensitized about precautionary measures to be taken and provided safety equipment.

With less demand on manpower, the police top brass can think of giving much-needed breaks to the stressed constabulary by giving them leave.

Alternatively, their time can be used to have better engagement with the public in not only sensitizing them about the virus, but also about crime prevention.

The coronavirus pandemic is as much a challenge to the cops as to the healthcare professionals, and it is time to be proactive.

(The writer is a former Director General of Police, Karnataka)

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