"Whether it was loud music, serious stalking, domestic violence or a society management issue, we realised that many crimes were going unreported. So we decided to do this."
Residents of Wakad, a suburb in Pune, were irked when a banquet hall in the area continued to blast music well past 10 pm.
While many were unsure about what could be done, Aarti Prabhudesai picked her phone and sent a message on a WhatsApp group.
About half an hour later, the music stopped.
In the larger scheme of things, this was a trivial issue, but in a country as vast as ours, the reality is that crimes, whether minor or significant, are rarely reported to the police.
This is especially true for crimes against women. As per a 2016 report by the National Crime Records Bureau, crime rates against women (except rape) have shot up by 3-5 per cent.
The number of rape incidents have also increased by 12-15 per cent in the past few years.
In a country where many women feel unsafe not just on the streets but also their own homes, it is a challenge to bring them closer to the police when it comes to crime reporting.
As a means to achieve this, the police force of Wakad is turning to WhatsApp, a tool which a majority of middle-class urban women find handy.
They have formed 18 groups, and there are over 150 women in each, to share information. Women can also request for police interference if and when they come across instances of crime.
The origin of the initiative
The Better India spoke to Senior Inspector (SI) Satish Mane, who is an admin of many such WhatsApp groups about the initiative, and what prompted them to begin it.
“Many of the women did not get the time or opportunity to visit a police station and we realised that many crimes were going unreported because of this. So we decided to begin an initiative that would bridge the communication gap between the women and us.”
Mane told us that IPS officer Rashmi Shukla, the former Commissioner of Police in Pune, had started this initiative a few years ago specifically focusing on women working in the IT sectors.
These groups, called ‘Buddy Cops’ targeted the crimes committed on women or witnessed by women when they travelled to and from their offices.
Inspired by this initiative, the Wakad police replicated them in their jurisdiction but focussed on the residents of the area instead of involving the women whose offices were located there.
“We formed the groups according to the area of residence or society,” begins SI Mane. “Each group has approximately 100-200 women. Along with the residents, there are at least 2-3 police officers in the group to oversee its functioning. We aim to attend to the issues within 5-10 minutes of the crime reporting.”
Over 300 residential societies are involved in this initiative, and 2,500 women, who are a part of the groups can take advantage of the speedy procedures.
How they operate
The initiative began with the Pune police speaking to the women and understanding their problems. Once both the parties were convinced that the communication gap had to be bridged on an urgent basis, numbers were exchanged, and each housing society acquired a WhatsApp group.
Now, the groups actively perform two tasks—crime reporting and information spreading. But apart from that, fake news infamously spread widely on the messaging platform are also tackled efficiently.
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Hoaxes, rumours, doctored photos and old videos circulated as new ones are some examples of fake news that are forwarded heavily on WhatsApp.
Aarti Prabhudesai, the 41-year-old homemaker mentioned at the beginning of this article, spoke to The Better India and explained this.
“Just the other day a video was shared on the group with the caption that a terrorist was caught while planting a bomb in a DMart in Thergaon, Pune. The video was being circulated on WhatsApp, and one of the group members sent it here too. Within minutes, another person sent a news article that said that a mock terror drill was held in Mumbai and perhaps the video is from there. SI Mane confirmed that the video was not from Pune but from a mock drill in Mumbai. We could thus stop the fake news from spreading further.”
The group activity
“We send in reports of criminal activities and bulletins on the group that primarily concern women. This way, they are aware of their surroundings and can take the necessary steps. In some cases, we have been informed of purse snatching and chain snatching, and as is our aim, we deploy police officers from our station immediately. Not only has the group helped the women, but have also helped us track down criminals.”
Sometimes, the roots of the crime go deeper than petty criminal activity on the streets and each the home of a person.
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With no means to approach the police and too afraid to visit the police station in person, in case she was caught mid-way, these victims suffered in silence.
Tejaswini Dhomse spoke to Pune Mirror, about one such incident. “I had a friend who had fallen prey to domestic violence by her family members. When I got to know about her plight, I suggested her to post her complaint on this group. The cops took cognisance of this and helped her out quickly.”
‘Buddy Cops’ by the Wakad police is an excellent example of how WhatsApp can be used to curb crimes and in certain situations, even help someone leave a toxic home.
As more and more women come online, it will be interesting to see if similar recreational and social apps can be used in innovative ways for the greater good.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)