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A closer look at IT-aided policing in Punjab

Crime mapping was among a series of IT initiatives introduced in Punjab over the years to aid policing. Six years down the lane, the verdict on the efficacy of the software is split.
by Mohammad Shahzad

In 2013, the police started identifying crime hotspots in Lahore with the help of Information Technology experts at a premiere private university in the city. The plan was to use the latest technology for efficient allocation of scarce policing resources, and better crime prevention.

Eventually, the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) was also taken on board to devise a Punjab Crime Investigation Reporting System, an automated mechanism enabling field teams to use investigation data while devising patrolling schedules. In theory, this meant that more resources could be allocated to areas with higher crime rates.

Six years down the lane, the verdict on the efficacy of the system is split. A series of interviews with officers working in operation rooms and on the field suggest that at best, the system’s use is as an addendum, and at worse, it has been sidelined in favor of traditional methods.

The issues identified by these officers range from loopholes in the complaint registration process to a lack of funds and legal oversight.

Issues in crime reporting

The centralized crime mapping database maintained at the Central Operations Room in the office of Operations deputy inspector general of police (DIG) is regularly updated with First Information Reports (FIRs) of crimes registered across the province.

However, officers speaking off the record, because they are not authorized to comment on the matter, state that the patrolling plan is not based on this database because the FIR registration process is marred with irregularities. For many crimes, FIRs are not registered at all, or are registered with a considerable delay, compromising the credibility of data generated by the crime mapping software. The integration of performance evaluation and monitoring mechanisms into the crime mapping software has only made matters worse, since officers in-charge of investigation now have a stronger disincentive to register complaints.

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Meanwhile, senior officers in the Police Department dismiss the suggestion that crime mapping software isn’t aiding in patrolling tasks. They insist that the police are using it alongside other available information to fight crime.

The Dolphin Squad is allocated to an area for snap checking and patrolling.

Dolphin Squad superintendent of police Bilal Zafar says that data from the crime mapping as well as the 15 helpline is used to identify crime patterns in the city, including the numbers and peak hours for different types of crime. These patterns then help in preparing patrolling plans. “Suppose that 60 percent of all crimes are reported in the first shift. We will then deploy 60 percent of our resources in that shift,” he says. Similarly, the crime pattern enables the squad to allocate its resources among all six police divisions in Lahore, as well as among police stations in these divisions.

According to the patrolling plan for December 2018, shared by Zafar, as much as 65 percent of Dolphin Squad resources were deployed in the second shift, while 20 and 15 percent each were deployed in the first and third shifts. This targeted deployment delivered results and the police were able to bring down resources deployed in the second shift to 55 percent by May 2019. Freed up resources were then divided up amongst the first and third shift.

In terms of geographic division of resources, Saddar and City divisions got the lion’s share of deployments in December 2018, with 23 and 20 percent respectively. These were followed by Allama Iqbal Town (18 percent), Cantonment (15 percent), Model Town (13 percent) and Civil Lines (11 percent). By May 2019, reduction in crime in City and Allama Iqbal divisions enabled the squad to free up resources for other divisions.

Operations senior superintendent of police Ismail Kharak shares a similar account in which crime mapping software figures in prominently.

“We identified the most affected areas and police stations in the first stage. Then, we allocated higher resources in these areas for snap checking and patrolling. We were able to capture many crime suspects and bring down the rate of robberies and car theft considerably,” he says.

 

For example, the Operations SSP claims that the crime mapping software showed that Allama Iqbal Town (123 incidents), Nawab Town (106) and Gulshan-e-Ravi (103) were the top three police stations in terms of number of robberies in 2018. Preventive measures like patrolling and snap checking taken in the wake of these assessments significantly brought down the number of robberies in these stations in 2019, he says, adding that figures available from January 1st till June 2nd showed that the highest number of robberies were reported in Sanda (56), followed by Harbanspura and Kahna with 53 incidents each.

Similarly, he says the crime mapping data showed that the rate of car theft was highest in Johar Town police station, with 41 incidents reported in 2018. Nawab Town and Sattokatla stations followed with 37 and 24 incidents each. Again, he says, preventive measures enabled the police to control car thefts, adding that figures compiled in 2019 (till June 2nd) showed that the highest number of car thefts was in Allama Iqbal Town (10), followed by Sabzazar (eight) and Factory Area (seven).

Since crime mapping relies on FIR registration, delays or lack of registration of FIRs is bound to affect its efficacy. Information Technology DIG Zulfiqar Hameed concedes that the reliance on FIR registration alone has led to problems on occasion. However, he says that checks have been introduced to deal with these problems. For instance, there’s a Complaint Center in the office of the Inspector General of Police (IGP).  Any citizen can contact the center through the 8787 helpline and register complaints related to delays or non-registration of FIRs.

Dr. Ali Cheema, an economics professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) who assisted the department in deploying crime mapping and other technological innovations, contends that resistance to change has been in-built into modern police forces across the globe. “Police is a hard department with deeply-held mistrust towards innovative ideas and change,” he says, adding that innovations including greater use of technology are possible only if they are accompanied by structural changes in the criminal justice system.

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To ensure progress in the right direction, he suggests that preventive policing measures like crime mapping should be incorporated into the performance evaluation of police officers. “Protocols should be evolved to enable them to adopt these reforms,” he says.

Money matters

However, before any structural changes could be rolled out, there is the question of funding.

Budgetary constraints have prevented the Police Department from equipping its personnel with technical skills needed to operate the project.

Initially, the Ops Room were set  up for the project across all city divisions with financial support of the business community. Operations DIG Haider Ashraf agrees that budget restraints have not allowed the force to achieve sustainability. As a result, most constables, upper-subordinates, and station house officers were not equipped with basic IT literacy needed to use the mapping software effectively.

IT DIG Hameed and Training additional inspector general Tariq Masood Yaseen say that  steps have been taken to impart IT skills to personnel, like the introduction of IT modules in departmental training courses, even for constables.

“Every new recruit  in the force needs to complete two IT courses. They were taught basics of IT in the Level-I course. Skills Level-II deals with specifics of projects like the Punjab Police Integrated Command and Control Center (PPIC 3),” says Yaseen.

Thus, Hameed hopes that all police personnel in the province will very soon have IT literacy.

Legal loopholes

Legal issues with crime mapping stemmed from the lack of provisions for IT-assisted policing in the Police Order of 2002 and Police Rules of 1934, laws governing the Police Department operations in the province. Following the Rules of 1934, therefore, the majority of police stations in the province were still keeping records manually in registers.

To deal with these legal loopholes, the IGP’s office issued standing and executive orders for the implementation of IT initiatives. However, a permanent solution may be in sight since a  proposal has recently been forwarded to the provincial government to amend the Rules to provide legal cover to IT initiatives like crime mapping,  Hameed says.

The initiative

The crime mapping software was a brainchild of IT DIG Zulfiqar Hameed. It was used for the first time in the country in 2013 when Hameed was serving as the Investigations DIG in Lahore. He arranged funds to buy a few Android smartphones and took on board a team of software engineers and social scientists from LUMS. The team started mapping crimes in a few police stations of the city, but very soon PITB got involved to scale up the project. In the first phase, they covered all police stations in the city. Eventually, it was expanded across the province.

Dolphin Squad Lahore

The idea behind the project was to help the force identify crime clusters in urban areas. Hameed says there is extensive empirical evidence from other countries in support of preventive measures to fight crime. “Data shows that deployment of patrolling teams in high-crime zones leads to lower crime rates,” he says.

Tracing the history of police reforms, Dr. Cheema highlights that two major breakthroughs in modern policing dated back to the 1970s and 80s, prior to which police forces the world over relied on primitive methods. The first was related to reactive policing now prevalent everywhere. Police helplines like 15 in Pakistan, 1915 in the United Kingdom and 911 in the United States were established in the wake of these reforms. More recently, the focus has been on preemptive measures like crime mapping. Time, location and nature of crime are the three key variables used in software deployed for the purpose, Dr. Cheema explains, adding that such measures are now indispensable in mega cities and on highways.

Crime mapping also helps in efficient allocation of resources through what Hameed terms as saturated or targetted patrolling, meaning the force can use higher number of personnel to patrol high-crime zones.

While the project was conceived and introduced by Hameed, it was Operations DIG Haider Ashraf who scaled it up by integrating performance evaluation and monitoring tools in it.

Under Ashraf’s watch, Ops Rooms were set up in all city divisions, and connected wirelessly to the Central Ops Room in his office.

In an email response to MIT Technology Review, Ashraf, who is currently in Canada on a study leave, said that since the introduction of crime mapping, field teams of the Dolphin Squad and the Police Response Unit as well as  beat officers were required to geo-tag the location of crime scenes, and upload images of evidence and key information like time and nature of crime as well as details related to the victim and the suspect. The information immediately becomes available to teams in the Ops Rooms. In this manner, the police force were identifying crime pockets and taking pre-emptive measures like patrolling.

The crime mapping software enables Ops Room personnel to process and analyze information about crime clusters. An interactive dashboard enables them to switch between map-, list- and graph- views to develop better insights based on available information.

The Police Department is now assisting its counterparts in Sindh and Balochistan to replicate the project in the two provinces.

Mohammad Shahzad is a journalist based in Lahore.

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