KARACHI’s senior police leadership has recently been reshuffled following concerns over increased street crime. This decision aims to compel the Sindh Security Administration to control this pattern of violations.
Street crime is a broad category that refers to multiple crimes, such as house robbery, pickpocketing, drug dealing, etc. It can extend to public and private spaces. Some of these crimes were born out of opportunity, others out of necessity. Each type of crime requires context-specific responses, although they can be analyzed collectively.
Citizens wonder why the 2013 Operation Karachi failed to stem this form of crime. Indeed, dismantling terrorist groups, militant wings, or armed gangs may temporarily reduce some types of violent crime (although recent attacks may challenge these successes). However, street crime is a different challenge linked to broader socio-economic issues. Indeed, some street criminals have previously been linked to groups engaged in religious or political activism, but the decline of the latter is unlikely to disrupt the former.
Maintaining order, provided by public or private forces, is a limited response to street crime. At most, we can deploy more resources in certain areas, for policing, deterrence or intelligence gathering. Such secure responses can reduce crime in certain areas, but they cannot prevent people from committing crimes. Security deployment is a form of target hardening that is reactive, not preemptive. It can also lead to punitive and populist penal policies.
Policing is a limited response to street crime.
Prevention requires targeting structural problems in a society, such as income inequality, unemployment, class-based discrimination, and the lack of political representation and empowerment of the working class. This is only possible when all stakeholders come together and their needs are heard and addressed, especially grassroots organizations fighting for the basic rights of the most marginalized – their right to housing, water, at work, to demonstrate.
Our socio-political structures and our ruling elite do not want it; they offer short-sighted, reductive and classist crime-fighting solutions, such as criminalizing beggars and keeping them away from affluent residential areas. This risks further marginalizing entire communities most vulnerable to violent crime.
They also idealize the zero-tolerance policing styles of the 1990s, as seen in New York when crime rates were reduced. They forget to mention that this would not have been possible without other significant changes in the political, judicial and infrastructural spheres, and in health care, to improve urban life.
We also have to consider that when there are structural issues in a society (like economic disparity) and there are institutional issues within the police (like underpaid officers) you will have a natural collusion between police and criminals. Karachi is no exception.
Street cops rely on maintaining relationships with local criminals (something not always forbidden by superiors), as they cannot support themselves on their menial salaries alone. If most officers are underpaid, they will strategically consider ways to supplement their income. Such collusion can also help recruit potential informants. In other words, where there are criminals, there will also be the police; expecting a sharp divide in this relationship ignores the mess of policing the streets of Pakistan.
Although I hesitate to compare policing in developed and developing contexts, a pertinent observation can be made from the recent events surrounding the unceremonious ousting of the London Police Commissioner. Touted for following a ‘policing by consent’ model, the Met Police have suffered repeated allegations of institutional racism, sexism, corruption and a misogynistic policing culture. As the commissioner’s departure is celebrated, analysts warn that removing the chief is unlikely to address deep-rooted structural problems with the police.
Similarly, leadership changes within Pakistan’s police force are often cosmetic and superficial responses. These maneuvers allow the police administration to show that something is being done, while leaving the force open to criticism and blame when crime escalates and insecurity escalates. The weight of this blame is directed at lower-ranking officers whose complex existence is uncritically problematized as ‘thana culture’.
In short, street crimes and similar offenses cannot be handled by security administrators alone. These are not “crises” to “watch out for”, but symptoms of deeply rooted grievances, both inside and outside the policing institution. Therefore, presenting this as a ‘policing’ problem or a security challenge, necessitating a so-called ‘war on street crime’, distracts from poor governance and unwarranted political promises. outfits.
The author is an assistant professor at the University of Warwick.
Posted in Dawn, February 20, 2022