Shoot at sight: Smartphones and CCTV cameras each boon and bane for police

On a balmy September evening in 2013, 58-year-old neurosurgeon Dr S D Subbiah was hacked near a in Abhirampuram. The grainy footage showed three men attacking the doctor even as passersby stopped to witness the bloodshed and move on. Back then, when high-resolution CCTV cameras were rare and high-speed mobile internet very expensive and its penetration limited, the footage was picked up by news channels which replayed it frame by frame. — which had hitherto been a spectacle for those at the spot — had found a new and bigger audience, whose numbers would only multiply as smartphones and internet became cheaper.

If one splits the past 10 years into two halves, then the murder of Dr Subbiah becomes the fulcrum on which crime as a police case and crime as a dinner-table discourse is balanced, or imbalanced. On the one hand, streets in Chennai lined with CCTV cameras and people armed with smartphones provided crucial video leads to the police, on the other they exposed the frailties of the system in which the police and the public complemented each other.

Investigators, like post-newage content developers, say the CCTV and smartphone cameras are a revolution; they conjure up the all-seeing third eye that remains unseen. Very recently, priest Balaganesh, who murdered his wife Gnanapriya but played the victim, was rounded up by the police who not only employed traditional forensics – matching blood samples – but used his cellphone details and analysed footage from CCTV cameras to zero in on his friend who helped the priest murder his wife.

“Video footage makes some cases open-and-shut. Crimes can be proved beyond doubt with video evidence, mobile call records and forensics. That is the reason the police ask establishments and residences to install CCTV cameras,” said retired police officer S Aravindan.

But with the boon comes the bane. Affordable smartphones loaded with high-resolution cameras and a gigabyte of data costing less than a litre of water made recording videos and sharing them as easy as making calls. And the police found themselves at the receiving end of this phenomenon. Videos of police personnel indulging in wrongdoings go viral within hours, lapped up by the forever famished social media.

In February, the Chennai police suspended a head constable after a video showing him taking bribe from truck drivers went viral. The video was apparently shot by a whistleblower. Earlier this month, three traffic enforcement sub-inspectors beat up a woman and her son for counter-questioning the police when stopped for riding triple without helmets. The video, taken by a bystander, went viral within hours forcing the police to conduct a departmental inquiry against their personnel. The incident, like others, gave the force yet another bad name.

activist G Balaji, who runs PACE, an , said, the smartphone has empowered people like the RTI. “The camera mobiles and internet connect people instantly. Video evidence helps the public to raise their voice against issues even at the micro level,” he said. Sand smuggling, malpractices by leading restaurants, bribery have been, and continue to be, exposed by ordinary people, Balaji added.

According to retired DGP Bhola Nath, in the age of awareness and heightened surveillance, the police department is going through a period of transition. “We have seen a lot of changes in our professional lives and this is one among them. We shall have to develop and adapt to the system and handle things better in the future,” he said.

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