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Saturday July 13, 2024

Covid and crime

By Khawaja Khalid Farooq
April 20, 2020

With Covid-19 drastically changing the law-enforcement landscape globally, there is a need to analyze how it may affect crime patterns in Pakistan as well.

Drawing on the current trends and expertise and knowledge from police in countries already dealing with Covid-19 related issues, some crime-related patterns may emerge.

This analysis is based on the crime lifecycle which is being widely used in some countries to help law enforcement which are now being affected, and identifies the challenges facing police across different regions, as well as best practice and measures to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 related crimes.

Two key themes are the impact on police officers and infrastructure, and how Covid-19 has given rise to new criminal opportunities alongside the impact on existing criminal markets.

The pandemic provides incentives and opportunities for criminal groups to start exploring new crime patterns. Although many people are under confinement, criminals and terrorists continue to operate. However, it also incentivizes police departments to start brainstorming well in time before such crimes become commonplace.

This also requires that the police start using innovative technologies to adapt to the challenges of Covid-19 such as the use of drones, the evolving use of biometrics and artificial intelligence.

Globally, police forces are predominantly located in cities, since places with high concentrations of people are frequent crime locations. In some cities, police are concentrated in crime hotspots.

The worldwide Covid-19 lockdowns are likely to trigger significant, if temporary, changes in patrol allocations, as police and supplementary forces are called upon to ensure that residents do not violate stay-at-home ordinances. In particular, police and other law-enforcement forces are likely to be redeployed to cities from rural areas, further slimming policing there.

In Italy, the Carabineer, normally tasked principally with patrolling rural spaces, have been sent to cities to patrol shops and cafes during the lockdown. In Spain, the government has deployed the military for similar quarantine enforcement. In large parts of Africa and Central America, the militaries may also be called upon, as they were during the 2013 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The United States is considering mobilizing the National Guard, as police forces and other first responders become infected with Covid-19. Pakistan has already deployed the military forces.

The policing redeployment to cities will leave rural areas vulnerable to crimes of opportunity and crimes of desperation. The exact manifestations of rural criminality will differ in different regions of the world. A global recession may also exacerbate preexisting and intensifying rural crime and conflict.

One of the most sinister but least obvious crimes will be water theft. Shifting patrolling to urban spaces may worsen certain behaviours, such as water theft for agricultural production. That could imperil access to water for all.

In the most water-deprived countries, such as Yemen, Jordan, Pakistan, and parts of India, upstream water theft may not leave enough water for drinking, despite coronavirus-induced high fevers and dehydration, let alone for hand-washing for the poor or for entire cities.

As criminals migrate online to chase illicit profits, so too are law-enforcement officials to chase them. The online shift preceded Covid-19, but has new relevance. CCTV systems, facial recognition technologies, crowdsourcing, artificial intelligence, and big-data mining have been an increasing feature of both the anti-crime world and the authoritarian world.

Sometimes, such virtual and/or remote technologies can play a vital, positive role for enforcing domains where direct physical policing is scant or impossible, such as in the dangerous case of water theft. Other times, they are a tool of unprecedented spying on society and repression.

Some of the patterns which may emerge soon because of this pandemic is marked increase of cyber threats including malicious domains, malware and ransomware. This will necessarily involve the utilization of white collar crime wings, especially of the FIA in Pakistan.

Health service providers and essential products outlets can be increasingly targeted as critical infrastructure becomes the objects of crime, either because they will be viewed as lucrative sources of materials to be robbed for the black market, or as repositories of cash. This may become even more relevant as lockdown in Pakistan continues, as these will be the only places actually open for business and thus be liable to crime.

Fraudulent and counterfeit trade in personal protective equipment (PPE) and antiviral pharmaceuticals will take off. This will involve the use of the internet and social media necessarily, and again the white collar crime wings of police like the FIA would need to step in and regulate this tendency.

The Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (DRAP) would have to become a stakeholder in this as the real products would have to be differentiated from the fake ones, the latter constituting the majority of products in the market.

Increased drug commerce via social media, encrypted apps and the Dark Net might become a possibility, especially if there is a crackdown as above on counterfeit products. The government would have to be aware of this tendency and be able to counter it before it assumes alarming proportions.

Individuals and businesses on reduced incomes might become potential targets of loan sharks and charlatans who prey on the weaker income thresholds of many families in this vulnerable time. Income instability is going to be a major challenge for Pakistan even after the pandemic has abated, and the police have to be on the look-out to deal very stringently with such criminals.

With one-third of the world’s population currently under some form of confinement, changes in conventional crime patterns are already being seen.

As more people are at home, the number of thefts could drop, but thieves might increasingly target factories or business premises which are standing empty. Dacoity might increase or decrease because of most people being home – this might vary in terms of geographical areas.

In densely populated urban centers in Pakistan, dacoity might decrease because of more people being at home and thus giving rise to alarms to police, making get-aways difficult in densely populated urban areas.

In sparsely populated rural areas, this might actually incentivize dacoits to increase activity as the criminals are more assured to being able to perpetrate such crimes with the confidence that they will find more targets to rob.

Globally, there has also been a significant rise in domestic violence cases since the start of coronavirus-related quarantines, with reports showing women and children at greater risk of abuse. This might also emerge as a pattern in Pakistan.

Recent weeks have seen increased online activity by pedophiles seeking child sexual abuse material, which is being exacerbated by a shortage of moderators who identify and remove offensive material from networks. The psychological scarring of lockdown and economic slowdowns might boost such crimes in Pakistan. The police department and law-enforcement machinery might be well advised to keep such possible emerging crime patterns in mind.

The writer is a retired inspector general of police and ex head of Nacta.

Twitter: @Kkf50