A Police Brutality Incident and Theories of Change

Nazdeek has a new video and press release out today on a police brutality incident in West Delhi that happened late last month. The Times of India also covered the events shortly after they occurred in this article. Police brutality is such a part of the normal background situation in India we often forget about the very real and individualized impact it has on people’s lives. This incident in many ways wasn’t particularly remarkable. It involved a woman (and two men) being beaten by the police – and so perhaps attracted more attention given the media’s current focus on rape cases and gender violence in North India. It also involved a policeman biting one of the victims (yes, biting) and so there is a bizarreness factor. Otherwise, a foot was fractured. No one ended up dying. The victims were poor. The entire thing would likely not have made any news at all if it wasn’t for the fact that the community was already fairly mobilized because of a previous slum demolition, so had the sense to record some of the incident and wasn’t easily intimidated afterwards. They were also connected with a couple workers from NGOs outside the community that had access to wider media networks and the ability to put together a video like this and explain in clear terms to the media (and soon to the High Court) what happened.

In my experience, the number of lawyers and social workers who actually do day-in-day-out on-the-ground work that allows them to respond to individual incidents like this is very small. It takes significant time, dedication, and capacity. Yet, I personally think it is in response to specific incidents – as opposed to broader petitions or reports calling for legislative changes – that is likely to have the greatest impact in changing police behavior.  Broader structural reforms are clearly needed, but they are more likely to gain traction when police officers are punished individually for specific actions they took. Such a strategy will empower voices for broader reform both inside and outside the police. Well done investigations and prosecutions of such incidents take significant time and resources – you want to clearly detail for everyone what exactly happened, who was responsible, and not blame people who were not responsible. I think sometimes there is a cost-benefit analysis done by reform minded advocates both inside and outside the government that such a strategy is not worth it. The logic goes that there are too many similar incidents – why focus on this one, given the number of incidents it is not possible to expend a comparable amount of resources investigating each one, such investigations come at the cost of other efforts, and so why not focus on training, or simply publicizing these incidents and hoping to change the broader discourse.

Such arguments to focus on calling for reforms in the system, and not on prosecuting the individualized case have some merit (you have to focus somewhere). I’m not sure what strategy the lawyers will take in this case in the Delhi High Court, but I noticed it seems that they are asking both for the officers to be punished and for the Court to intervene to make some broader structural changes. My sense though is that the actual punishment of the responsible police officers through a fair and public process is actually more important for systemic change then calls for reform from the Court. If you are thinking about how to allocate scarce resources – and no matter how much we may hope that more resources were dedicated to this problem for the foreseeable future we have to imagine we are operating in a reform climate of deep scarcity – then two or three thorough and successful prosecutions of police officers linked to specific incidents may be more useful than two or three commissions meeting to draft recommendations on the topic or broader calls by the Court for reform. Of course, you need both types of work being done. I just think sometimes individualized prosecution is undervalued as a key to a successful reform strategy and so not enough resources are dedicated either by NGOs or the government. Successful prosecution (i.e. thoroughly gathering evidence, clearly identifying the culpable parties, and appropriate sanctioning) messages to others in the police what behavior will and will not be tolerated, while giving the ordinary police officer confidence that they will not be scapegoated and only responsible parties will be punished.  The multiplying effect of successful prosecution is spread even further if the media can be leveraged to spread the story of the prosecution more widely.

Hopefully in wealthier environments like Delhi enough resources will be available to the reform community to pursue both strategies. Yet, given the scope of the problem and the limited current capacity to address it, it’s worth weighing the pros and cons of different paths forward. After all, there are only so many minutes in the day.

Written by
Nick Robinson
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