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Punjab Police 2.0

by Benazir Shah
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The Punjab Police Force hopes to improve policing by digitizing records, improving interactions with civilians.

Police in the Punjab have a paper problem. Piles of paperwork—some dating back decades—litter every precinct in the province, making it difficult to reference records much less find them. Mushtaq Ahmad Sukera, the inspector general of police in Punjab province, aims to correct this. His latest initiative—digitize all records and documents.

The Punjab Police Force, one of the largest in the world with 180,000 personnel, was formed in 1861. In the 154 years since, it has relied on manual filing of criminal reports, personnel files and crime records. Once filed, these documents are dumped in a labyrinthine system of overcrowded and ill-organized cabinets that require hours of manpower to sift through. Files could even be damaged or destroyed without anyone the wiser. “If an officer’s file disappeared, well, that was that,” admits Deputy Inspector General Amir Zulfiqar of the manual filing system. By upgrading to a digital system, he says, police will ensure no one falls through the cracks. It will be especially beneficial, note both Zulfiqar and Sukera, in quickly weeding out potential extremists before they take the law into their own hands.

As part of the ongoing initiative, police in Pakistan’s most populous province—with an estimated 103 million residents—have launched an online portal accessible to both cops and civilians. Once completed, this central database will contain information on all 720 police stations in the province, as well as the bio-data of the policemen deputed at them. To keep track of on-duty personnel, officers will be required to sign in daily using a biometric system.

The police are also digitizing criminal data. This will allow cops to pull up relevant records on their cellphones—including information on most wanted criminals—and cut down on time spent sifting through black books, which can become outdated within days or even hours of being published. “In the past we have had to arrest suspected criminals and bring them to police stations for background checks,” says Mohammad Amir, an officer. “The process took a long time and fostered resentment against us. [Digitized] spot checks can help us ensure we only arrest the accused.”

The system will be more accurate and less labor intensive than paper-based solutions, says Sukera. Most importantly, it will free up officers’ time for the most urgent of policing duties—law enforcement.

This is no easy task. Constables, who comprise the bulk of the police force, lack the requisite computer skills and the cops have hired I.T. graduates on contractual basis at 10 police stations to overcome the shortfall. Seated at reception desks equipped with computers, printers and scanners, these young men and women are—intentionally—becoming the face of the new Punjab police. “In Britain, police authorities are solely responsible for law enforcement. Non-core tasks such as public interaction are usually outsourced to civilians,” says Sukera. “This is what we want as well.”

According to records, 20-30 civilians visit each police station daily. Of these, only 10 percent are actually interested in registering first information reports (FIRs). The rest have less urgent complaints such as stolen mobile phones, or misplaced identity cards. “When someone goes to a police station, they don’t need to interact with a cop,” says Zulfiqar. All complaints are now logged online and the complainant leaves with an e-receipt.

Zainab Hameed, 23, is one of the new hires and started working with the police in Lahore a year ago. She says her presence is reassuring to women complainants, who would otherwise shun the male-dominated police stations.

The ‘soft image’ represented by contracted workers could also salvage the questionable reputation of the Punjab police. In 2014, media coverage showed cops firing on, and killing, 14 protesters of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek in Lahore. A few months later, they attracted similar outrage when they baton charged blind men protesting for equal rights. False arrests, graft, misconduct and heavy-handedness are common complaints. Senior officials, however, hope basic training in etiquette—such as standing up when a woman enters the room—can help correct this. They are also considering incentives to encourage the notoriously underpaid constables—most earn around Rs. 25,000/month against a minimum wage of Rs. 13,000—to improve law enforcement.

Although still in their pilot phase, these measures are already helping, insist police. Crime in Punjab, according to their data, is down by 45 percent in the past year. Additional programs, such as a recently launched police helpline, aim to further improve policing in the province.

Sukhera launched the 8787 helpline in February for complaints related to the denial and fake registrations of FIRs, faulty investigations, corruption, illegal arrests and illegal confinement. “Within eight hours, the area officer concerned will call you. If he doesn’t redress your issue, we will take action against him,” says Zulfiqar as he dials the number himself to lodge a fake complaint of a stolen vehicle. “I do this often. Just to keep them on their toes,” he says with a smile.

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