Apprehension loomed large in the mind of homemaker Geetha Dhananjaya, when she first accompanied the Bengaluru City Police (BCP) to their night rounds in Kumaraswamy Layout, in mid-September.
Now however, the 45-year old, sporting a salwar kameez, says she has become a regular at the night rounds. Geetha is part of the Neighbourhood Watch Committee (NWC) of the city police.
“Being a homemaker, I was not used to being around cops though all of them were women. So initially I had agreed to accompany them with a bit of reluctance,” Geetha says.
Geetha is among the 45 NWC members at the Kumaraswamy Layout police station. Under the NWC programme, each station should have at least 15 members who take turns for the night patrol, but this station already has 45 of them.
In just four months, Geetha says, she has accompanied the police on over 10 occasions. And at late hours, she has witnessed the police resolving the domestic scuffle of a family, remanding drunken brawlers, and also questioning and directing people seen wandering suspiciously on the streets.
Another volunteer, 19-year old Vaishnavi D, a student of Jyothi Nivas College, says that NWC has given her exposure to the workings of the police department. “It is a great opportunity to watch the police function in close quarters. Unlike what we assume based on popular culture, the police force is quite professional and functions effectively to resolve complaints and issues.”
What’s the NWC programme all about?
The concept of neighbourhood watch has been around for long. As early as 1989, New Delhi first experimented with this. By 1994, the idea trickled down to the Karnataka State Police, which then formed Citizen Committees at the station level to keep tabs on crime. But this system was stopped after individuals with NWC ID cards were found to be involved in nefarious activities.
Over the years, citizen groups like Whitefield Rising, and NGOs like Janaagraha have taken certain initiatives for community policing. But the concept got a new fillip after Bhaskar Rao, the current BCP Commissioner, took over. Rao re-introduced the system with the name ‘Hello Neighbour’, with a thrust on increasing human intelligence to make up for infrastructural and technological shortcomings.
In its latest format, NWC programme is being implemented across the city, but it has seen overwhelming success in the south division of BCP. At the south division, NWC volunteers include IT professionals, homemakers, students, senior citizens and businessmen.
Since mid-September, the volunteers are being deputed to night patrol. Rohini Sepat Katoch, Deputy Commissioner of Police (South Division), says, “The programme truncates the knowledge gap, and enhances the rapport between police and the public. It also lets us allow some of the police staff to take rest.” The city police has long been plagued by shortage of manpower.
Rohini says, “The deployment of civilian staff helps us relieve our officers who are always overworked or put on duty up to 24 hours. We would like our officials to take some time off with their family and make sure they engage in their personal work. This would help them come back recharged to the job the next day.”
NWC members are deputed in residential areas or in sentry patrolling, and not in sensitive areas. Nagesh H M, Sub-inspector and Nodal officer of NWC at Kumaraswamy Layout station, says, “The civilians’ presence and their constant communication have been keeping our officers alert and upbeat. NWC also frees up officers who can then be deployed in sensitive areas.”
He says NWC assistance was much-needed during the recent protests for and against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act). “Almost all the forces were positioned at crucial points in the city. But we could not leave out regular areas unprotected. This was when NWC members actively coordinated with us and helped fill the manpower vacuum.”
Geetha says that, on an ordinary day, she and two of her neighbour-volunteers plus two women constables are picked up from their respective homes by the Hoysala patrol car. She travels approximately 3-4 hours with the patrol party.
Nagesh says, “After a few hours of patrolling, whenever the residents request us, we drop them back to their homes.”
How you can become an NWC member
To be a member of NWC, any able-bodied resident has to submit a written application to the Station House Officer (SHO) of their local police station. On submission of the application, the aspirant will be vetted for criminal antecedents.
Shiv Kumar, SHO and Circle Inspector at Kumaraswamy Layout station, says,“Though we are getting a good number of applications, we have been maintaining a careful screening process. If any individual has a criminal background or an FIR registered against them, we generally don’t entertain their application.”
If the applicant is cleared, they will be added to the NWC, and requested for time-to-time assistance in night patrolling.
Programme still evolving
The NWC volunteers are directly empanelled into the Bengaluru City Police through their respective local police stations. After selection, the local police station rosters the volunteers along with their own personnel, and also lists NWC members in a Whatsapp group.
At present, Resident Welfare Associations have no direct role in the NWC. The volunteers only accompany the police for night patrol, and are not assigned any other operational or administrative duties.
“The entire programme is at an evolving stage. Based on our observations, we will consider if specific goals and outcome parameters are to be set for the NWC or if it can continue in the current format,” Rohini says. Broadly, citizens are supposed to have more responsibilities under the neighbourhood watch programme – keeping tabs on happenings in the locality, alerting police about people in suspicious circumstances etc. But officials say these are long-term goals, and that BCP is not considering these for now.
Though the idea was to have about 15 NWC members per police station, currently there are only around 300 members for the city’s 109 police stations overall. That is, an average of about three volunteers per station. Rohini says, “The thrust was never on the numbers; we want resourceful people who are able to engage with meaningful citizen-centric initiatives and dialogues.”
As for volunteers, they are keen about the programme. Geetha says the patrol cars swiftly respond to emergencies. She says, “At one go, the control room of senior officials direct patrol cars to intervene in any complaint about public disturbance or in any situation amounting to unlawful activity. The patrol cars swiftly respond, and report back after resolving the matter.”
Vaishnavi says NWC offers great exposure to youth who are interested in being employed in similar areas with the government, to understand what this stream has to offer and what’s expected of them.
For now, NWC members are not provided with any equipment or gear since their job is just to monitor along with the beat police officials. But BCP is mulling providing them with night reflectors for safety. “It will be similar to the ones worn by the police, but the colour may be different. ‘NWC’ will be etched on it, so that they can be easily identified,” DCP Rohini says.
“If citizens extend their cooperation with active volunteering, programmes like NWC is a force multiplier,” she says.