Varsha Aithala

Fear Makes the Wolf Look Bigger Than He is

German proverb

In 2019, the Ministry of Home Affairs commissioned the All India Citizens Survey of Police Services (‘AICPS’). It is a nationwide public perception survey aimed to suggest measures to ‘provide citizen centric police services’ in India. Its scope includes an assessment of the impact of police services on the public, gauging perceptions of safety and suggestions on measures to improve public satisfaction of the police.

Fear of crime has been studied widely in victimology. Different indicators have been used to measure this fear. Safety perception is one of them.  People’s ideas about ‘safety’ or ‘risk’ from crime serve as a proxy for fear of crime (Hinkle, 2015). Crime victimisation surveys are a means to measure the true incidence of crime in society, due to their ability to record crimes which otherwise do not get reported to or recorded by the police. These have discovered that people worry more about being victims of crime than would actually experience it.

To understand this phenomenon better, our team at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, conducted a crime victimisation survey in Karnataka in 2017, titled the Karnataka Crime Victimisation Survey. This is the first privately conducted household survey of crime victims covering an entire Indian state. The survey is representative at household and individual levels and based on the state’s population taken from the Census of India, 2011.  We interviewed 2002 respondents (male: female = 1:1) from all districts of Karnataka (urban: rural population = 700:1300). The sample is representative of all income classes, locations – urban (town, city, metropolitan) and rural areas and major religious (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain and no religion) and caste groups (General, SC, ST and OBC).

In several countries including the UK, US, Australia, Canada, national crime victimisation studies have been regularly conducted since the 1970s. The US government funded the National Crime Survey in 1972 and in the UK, the first British crime victim survey was conducted by the Home Office in 1983, followed by ‘sweeps’ in 1984, 1988, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998 and 2000 and from 2001, annual surveys were conducted across police force. The emphasis on victim needs and rights has therefore received extensive attention and government funding in the US, Europe and the UK from the 1980s. This was first recognised in India in 1981 when a small scale, city-based victimisation survey was conducted. However, this has remained a low policy priority for the State, until now.  Urban based crime victim surveys conducted by the CHRI in 2015 and by the IDFC Institute in 2017 have attempted to draw State attention to this critical topic. Our study is latest in this series. We examined people’s responses to victimisation by crime in Karnataka. To gauge people’s perception of safety, we referred to spatial and temporal features by asking questions like “How safe is your neighbourhood?”, “At what time do you feel safe walking around your neighbourhood during the day/night?”, “Do you feel safe using public transport alone during the day/night?”. People’s responses were examined on the basis of socio-economic factors such as age, religion, caste, gender, economic group and geographic location.

We examined the magnitude of crime in terms of its seriousness and most prevalent crime in the neighbourhood, through questions such as: “How much of a problem do you think crime is in your area?”; “How serious was the incident to you and your household?”; “What do you think is the single most prevalent crime in this residential area?”. While the experience of victimisation is expected to influence perceptions of safety and security, actual victimisation does not correspond strongly with perceptions of safety or the severity of crime in the neighbourhood. For instance, based on the incidents we recorded, the single most prevalent crime in neighbourhood is theft.  This also ties in with people’s perception (more than 65%) that property offences are the most prevalent crime in their area. These results however are vastly different from those reported to the police as emerges from the NCRB’s Crime in India (2019) report which records more offences affecting the human body at 32.6% than property offences at 26.5%, and a similar trend for Karnataka at  63.6% and 41.3% respectively (Table 1A.4) (crime rate = crime incidence per 1 lakh of the state’s population).  

Other puzzling results also emerged from our study.  As per NCRB’s records, around 6,75,916 cases of theft were registered in India in 2019, followed by burglaries (1,00,897 cases), accounting for 79.1% and 11.8% of total property offences respectively.  Karnataka recorded 18,840 incidents of theft at 28.6% and 5,157 burglaries at 7.8%.  Properties worth Rs. 4,719.2 crores in value were stolen in 2019 alone (Table 20A.2).  Despite this, we found that people were okay to leave their houses locked for days. Nearly 96% of our Survey respondents found their neighbourhood ‘safe’ and 70% felt ‘very safe’ in their neighbourhood. In a large scale study conducted by Azim Premji University with Lokniti-CSDS in November-December, 2016 (7,770 respondents in 21 assembly constituencies across Gujarat, Odisha, Karnataka and Haryana), when survey respondents were asked a similar question (“How safe is living in this city/village?”), an overwhelming 88% of people in Karnataka found their locality to be either safe or very safe. People’s perceived idea of ‘feeling safe’ does not really match with the overall seriousness they attach to crimes or their sense that crime is a big problem in their neighbourhood.

There is an assumption that spatial markers like the presence of street lights and people on streets, police stations in close proximity, mobile PCR vans patrolling the neighbourhood reduce the fear of a space. This is explained on the basis that visible signs of physical and social disorder in the locality increase vulnerability, and may lead to more serious crime, known as ‘the broken window’ hypothesis. The Karnataka State Police, for instance, lists some personal safety tips, which include advice for women to “travel on well-lit streets and keep your purse out of sight” and for all to, “inform your neighbours about your absence from home for a long or short period”. In reality though, multiple studies have not been conclusive in finding that external indicators of public order and safety are effective, and yet, they continue to be advocated.  Knowledge of police presence does not help. When people were asked “Do you know where your nearest police station or chowki is?” and “How often do police patrol this area?”, more than 93% knew its location and were also well informed about the frequency of police patrolling in their neighbourhood. This awareness and police visibility is a critical component of their image as public officials upholding the law which could determine public reaction to policing (Tyler, 2005). However, it does not actually translate to people feeling safe. The results of our household level examination still leave several questions unanswered. The seemingly common sense of what makes a place safe or unsafe is nuanced and not capable of easy explanations.

People’s experience of victimisation from crime is not in proportion to its occurrence or to their fear of crime. For instance, we found that while men are more likely to report being victimised by crime, their fear of crime is lesser than other socio-demographic groups.  This anxiety may be contextual, seems to be driven by experience, and supports the notion of crime as a social construct. Those more victimised – the socially and economically disadvantaged groups like Adivasis and Muslims – are less likely to report crime even though they perceive crimes to be ‘serious’ or ‘very serious’ in nature. McDonald and People (2014) point to empirical studies that repeatedly show that ignoring legal problems is common, and demographic units like disadvantaged groups are more likely to do this (Coumarelos et al. 2012; Balmer et. al 2010; Currie 2007; Pleasence 2006).  Such constrained inaction (Balmer et. al., 2010) is a function of their, ‘low levels of capability in terms of education, income, confidence, verbal skill, literacy skill and emotional fortitude’ (Genn and Paterson, 2001, p. 260). Their abilities are constrained by personal and systemic constraints like shame, sense of insufficient power, fear, gratitude and frustrated resignation (Sandefur, 2007).  

Several international studies have shown variation in victimisation risk and clustering of victimisation in certain areas and groups (Baumer, 1979; Fitzgerald & Hale, 1996; Fattah, 2000; Farral & Gadd, 2004). The vulnerabilities and variations in socio-demographic structures and behaviours influence people’s propensity to report. A recent Indian survey of police performance and perceptions of 15,563 respondents across 188 assembly constituencies in 22 states, found that socio-economic advantage has an evident influence on the nature and frequency of contact with the police, the rich being twice as likely to seek police help for their problems. In Karnataka, 56% people believed the police discriminate in their treatment of the rich and the poor (SPIR, 2018, pp. 80-82). Our results support this – despite being less victimised by crime, richer residents are more likely to report crime incidents. This could be owing to their stronger agency, higher levels of social and economic participation and resultant easier access to, and better treatment by, the police. It may also be a consequence of their stronger desire to protect material interests.

Reporting is a good measure of whether people approach the police for resolution but, interestingly, it does not relate to people’s satisfaction with police action. Highly victimised groups – OBCs, Dalits, victims belonging to poorer neighbourhoods and those in rural Karnataka have mentioned that they are satisfied with the police response.  What explains this, when it is clear that people do not like to contact or be contacted by the police? This answer is not obvious from crime statistics, which, even in their highly under counted state, showed low levels of charge sheeting and lower conviction rates for all offences in 2019, except perhaps offences against the human body (including murder, culpable homicide, grievous hurt and dowry deaths) relative to total offences investigated by the police.  Earlier studies have shown that citizens’ trust in and support to, the police is enhanced through transparency of its actions.  People’s continued satisfaction could therefore owe to their treatment by the police, where the police registered their complaint in a timely and accurate manner and then explained the actions that they were going to take on the matter. Dignified and apparent fair treatment, respect and being heard seem to be more important for the public than the police actually solving crimes.

The chief merit of our study is as a mirror to our society’s attitude to the police. The police share a ‘complex relationship with citizens that requires both benevolent and enforcement-related behaviours’ (Mason, 2014, p. 325). Victim surveys are a good source of knowledge about the unequal distribution of victimisation geographically, and by class, age, gender and race. They provide theoretical as well as practical understanding of the burden of crime. This underpins social policies designed to address structural issues like social inequality and relative deprivation (Maguire, 2002, pp. 38-39). The knowledge of where crime is occurring and where public feels unsafe, and the gap between crime incidence and reported crime is expected to help the police make informed judgments about crime prevention and response strategies (UNODC-UNECE, 2010, pp. 190-191). They speak to the need for specifically tailored strategies for building legal capability among people, which is, by definition, multi-dimensional – a deficiency in one aspect, say, belief that the system is highly inaccessible or complex, effectively limits their ability to resolve their problems (McDonald & People, 2014, p.2).

The government’s focus on the AICPS is therefore timely, it is critical that the survey gets underway as soon as possible. Its findings will have a wide-ranging impact on future policy making to plan for and address societal as well as crime and policing-related issues in the Indian State.

Varsha Aithala is a Doctoral Candidate at the National Law School of India University. She has worked as Research Fellow and faculty at Azim Premji University. She obtained a master of corporate law (MCL) degree from the University of Cambridge in 2017 and a B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) degree from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad in 2007.