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Learning from Times Square: Socialising the Counterterrorism Approach

Lt Gen Harinder Singh, Retd, is Former DGMI and Commandant IMA. He has tenanted several important command and staff assignments in the Indian Army. The author can be contacted at harinder41[at]
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  • May 31, 2010

    Countering overt acts of terror can sometimes be so simple. The alacrity with which the explosive-laden Nissan Pathfinder SUV was detected and defused during the failed bombing attempt of May 1, 2010 in New York’s Times Square is a demonstration in this regard. It took the New York police precisely fifteen minutes from the time Duane Jackson and Lance Orton – two street peddlers – raised an alarm till the area was rendered safe. In the follow up investigation, detectives swiftly traced the SUV to a Pakistani-American named Faisal Shahzad and arrested him from an aircraft that was about to take off for Dubai. The failed bombing attempt reminds us of the Christmas day incident when a fellow passenger effectively overpowered a Nigerian national named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he could blow up the airliner.

    These failed bombing attempts clearly demonstrate the critical role that an ordinary citizen can play in averting sporadic acts of terror. It can also be averred from the two incidents that countering terror is no longer the sole and exclusive domain of security forces. While the fight against terror will surely have to be led by the government and security forces, the common man as a law abiding citizen can no longer remain a bystander. This does not imply that the nation be transformed into a society of spooks and spies; but, only that well informed, alert and responsible citizens wilfully contribute to the well being of the state. Since safeguarding public space such as mass transportation networks, financial and industrial hubs, and institutions is increasingly becoming difficult, the common man could play an important `watch and ward` role. A culture of security consciousness therefore becomes a critical need.

    Socialising citizenry in open, democratic societies to the needs of counterterrorism can be made a policy imperative. This will entail developing counterterrorism into a cultural norm. There is nothing new about involving local communities in ensuring public safety and security. It has been proven beyond doubt that effective police-public partnership can be more helpful in maintaining law and order than actions by the police alone. Notably, the approach can help police to focus beyond immediate details of the incident, by drawing collective attention to the precise circumstances leading to the committal of such an act. Such a strategy would entail:

    • Firstly, the need to create enough public awareness of the security threats that the country faces. It will have to be shorn of any political, religious and community influences lest a biased view is taken. A secular view of the evolving security environment will be essential to form the basis of any effective police-public partnership.

    • Secondly, the state would have to motivate and instil sufficient confidence amongst the local communities to play a meaningful support role. There could be several inhibitions for doing so. These will have to be thoroughly identified and addressed, before the local demography could be leveraged to supplement the so-called deterrent role of the security forces.

    • Thirdly, the actual capacity of the state to muster and leverage this relationship will be extremely crucial. While there may be many `Jackson-Orton` duos willing to share `inside` information, the government and security agencies may not possess the capability, capacity, and on occasion even the inclination, to absorb and react to such information.

    Perhaps a lesson could be drawn from the Koban policing system in Japan. Under this system, police booths in suburban areas are manned by officers who live along with their families in the residential section attached to the work place. Since officers posted at these police booths work and live in the same place, they maintain close liaison and contact with the local populace. A booth officer works eight hours a day but is prepared to receive visitors beyond the official working hours as well. Interestingly, the booth officer’s wife is also supposed to assist him. Though not a public employee, the spouse is eligible to receive an allowance as a reward for her contribution. The `Neighborhood Watch` scheme modelled on a similar initiative was introduced in United Kingdom in 1985. Under this scheme, community volunteers meet regularly with their neighbours to discuss ways and means of tackling minor crime and violations in their area of responsibility with the help of civil police. The watch group – which can cover a few houses, a street, or even an entire housing estate – is even encouraged to report any suspicious activity or untoward incident in the neighbourhood.

    How might this idea work in the Indian context? Several community policing schemes have been tried to some degree of efficacy in a few states. Prominent amongst these have been the `Friends of Police` in Tamil Nadu, `Samrath` in Kerela, `Prahari` in Assam, `Sahayata` in West Bengal, `Maithri` in Andhra Pradesh, and `Gram Raksha Samiti` in Chattisgarh. These largely focus on crime prevention, assistance in traffic management, grievance redressal and public welfare. In a few cases, they may have resulted in provision of timely information against isolated acts of terror or violence. But none of them typically fulfil the `watch and ward` function. A few exceptions, however, do exist. The most significant have been the involvement of the general public in Jammu and Kashmir and Northeastern states in warding off improvised explosive device (IED) threats to the lines of communication. For instance, the security of the national and state highways passing through these states is a proof of the excellent coordination between security forces and local populace. Some informal watch and ward schemes have been evolved in the sensitive border towns.

    Such limited yet effective engagement to ward off acts of terror could be replicated with ease to counter the growing internal security challenges in urban and semi-urban areas. The following issues will have to be addressed to effect a strong public-police relationship:

    • Firstly, there would be a need to enact a legislation to define this relationship.

    • Secondly, it would involve creation of suitable community policing structures and mechanisms to bring into effect the police-public mandate.

    • Thirdly, an oversight mechanism will be essential to obviate dilution or misuse of this relationship. Such a mechanism would be essential to guard against the misuse of powers by the concerned community policing officials. In case of any deliberate abuse of powers, the law must enable prosecution of the delinquent community police officers.

    • Fourthly, the government will have to provide enough incentives and motivate the public to encourage participation. Several initiatives currently prevalent in the country are largely one sided; the police solicit public cooperation in return for nothing. While this could be the broad approach in the long term, the police-public partnership will have to be suitably monetised to ensure that the increasing demands on neighbourhood security are addressed. Suitable incentives or `top up` pays could help motivate the common man to undertake such duties.

    • Fifthly, the public-police partnership may have to be expanded to involve the private security companies. The police foot print can never be adequate to meet all threats and challenges. This would imply the need to off-load certain non-critical duties to private companies. For instance, traditional policing tasks such as traffic management, protection of VIPs (barring key public appointments), front desk and other non-sensitive constabulary jobs could be outsourced. A police-public-private combine could yet be another model for socializing the counterterrorism approach.

    In free and liberal societies, it may not be always feasible to subject the local populace to continuous surveillance and checks without serious repercussions. There could be several impediments to police-public partnership. This may include the traditional notions of the police role, limitations of resource, assessment problems, and bureaucratic isolation of such programmes within the police department, and divisive politics and societal fissures. It needs to be, however, appreciated that civil society is bound to benefit from enhanced security, increased police accountability, consensus building and mutual confidence. India can surely leverage its immense demographic strength to evolve balanced and socially relevant public-police partnerships to counter urban and semi-urban terrorism. It could also help in diminishing the psychological distance between the police and public, minimise police over reaction and increase public satisfaction.

    The Times Square incident shows that the government, security agencies and communities can act in concert to counter acts of terror. While the Koban system is specifically designed to cover the semi-urban areas in Japan, the approach could be suitably tweaked for implementation in the Indian context. Koban type police booths strategically located at public places could go a long way in deterring acts of terror. If this reality is acknowledged, then the nation surely needs to learn from the several community policing concepts practised world-wide.