The problems of juvenile policing can only be fixed by reforming the complete policing system.
When a breach in security occurs anywhere in the country, we reflexively blame the police. Either they are inefficient, incompetent or absent. Media coverage of cases of terror, sexual assault, child abuse and crime ensures that the shortcomings of the police get dissected in great detail. The case for radical reforms to the structure and function of police has also been made multiple times now. Beyond the structural shortcomings, the shortfalls within the system are glaring. From a shortage in the number of police personnel (India has only 138 police personnel for every 1,00,000 population), lack of proper equipment and training, poor working conditions, archaic technology and a slow judicial system—there are subliminal layers to each of the problems. Despite the 2006 Supreme Court directives on police reforms, no state government has implemented any of the recommendations.
Over the last few years, the increase in the number of cases pertaining to children—crimes committed on children and crimes committed by children—has highlighted the role of the police in dealing with them. But the police does not work as a collective whole on children’s cases. Instead it has a unit called the Special Juvenile Police Unit (SJPU) that is mandated to handle all the cases of children. The SJPU was first introduced in the Juvenile Justice Act 2000. It stemmed from the idea of child friendly police envisioned in the UN Beijing rules, 1985. This unit exists in every zone of a city. But it is not an independent unit, rather an additional internal wing created within the existing setup. It consists of three members—a senior Child Welfare Officer, an assistant Child Welfare Officer and a social worker, who work together on all the cases of children. The functions of the SJPU range from providing legal protection against cruelty, abuse and exploitation of children, taking cognisance of adult perpetrators of crimes against children, registering and monitoring information regarding missing children, carrying out investigations, working with NGOs and monitoring activities to prevent crimes against children.
Given the dismal state of child protection in the country, it is evident that the SJPU fails in accomplishing most of its mandated tasks. The senior Child Welfare Officer is someone high up on the hierarchy of the police, an Assistant Commissioner of Police. He can rarely give the SJPU the time and energy it requires. The cases related to children are considered ‘soft’ and not as thrilling as the cases of adult crime. Many in the SJPU are ignorant about their role and unaware of the functions of the SJPU. Many do not take the training seriously and often remain absent. Some do not even now the details of Juvenile Justice Act nor are they aware of the details of the primary policy related to children, the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS). The investigations are often shoddy because of a lack of personnel and even if a case is resolved, there is rarely a follow up.
The police is often the first interaction any child or young adult has with the state. The need to ensure its sensitisation is thus critical. But how does one expect overworked policemen to clinically carry out these additional duties? Can we expect the passion and empathy needed for this particular role, when there are many other areas of pressing concerns? Essentially, the problems faced by the police as a whole only magnify for the SJPU. The SJPU is additional to the existing responsibilities of an official with no extra salary or incentive. Hence, there is a general apathy towards them. The social worker in the SJPU often handles cases for an entire zone and is physically unable to multi-task. The other members of the SJPU are neither experts in handling child related cases nor are they trained in child psychology. Regular transfers ensure that the portfolio has no long-term officer and there is an additional cost and time in training each new Child Welfare Officer (CWO). Moreover, other issues such as terror, law and order, traffic and crime become the priority of the CWO. The cases related to children consequently face shoddy investigation, with most being handed over to NGOs and social workers. Juvenile justice faces shortfalls, as the empirical approach of professional investigation gets lost. Additionally, the SJPU has no executive powers and is supposed to assist the police with regard to cases related to children, while being responsible for the handling of such cases.
2012 saw an increase of 15.3 percent in crimes against children compared to the previous year. In ten years (2001-2011) crimes committed by children have escalated by 65 percent. At a time when there is increased awareness of cases related to children, a strong and professional SJPU is a necessity. An ideal solution would be to create a separate SJPU, divorced from other functions of the police, with some officials designated only to this unit with others overseeing it. Having a special budget for the SJPU would go a long way in establishing it within the police. Such radical changes within the SJPU will however not happen anytime soon. In any case, you can’t fix this problem without fixing the problems bedevelling the whole police. Positive changes for a robust child protection system are not divorced from changes in the entire system. While hysteria regarding crimes against children and crimes by children is necessary to generate awareness, the real changes can come only with structural changes to the entire system of policing.
India strives to guarantee economic security for her citizens, from food, education, and employment to healthcare. The need to augment the expenditure on literal security then becomes even more necessary. The implementation of police reforms should be the highest priority because it affects every aspect of citizen welfare. Alongside, there should be an increase in the numbers of police in each state and exclusive officers working on separate designations. The budget for the police and each of its units should be augmented in proportion to the urban realities. The living and working conditions of the personnel should be improved. Investment will have to be made in creating a robust system of investigation along with a separate SJPU. These, among other reforms, will go a long way in creating a system of efficient and organised policing. They may not be the final solution, but they will definitely be a start to the process of reform. Their impact will eventually percolate into the system making the whole policing efficient. Then only will the units such as the SJPU be able to perform the task expected of them in today’s India.
Photo: Leonid Mamchenkov