LAHORE - Gone are the days when police station clerks had to beg complainants for stationery, fuel, and food. Now, the front desks being run by civilian staff are rapidly changing the face of the police force because the station assistants are given all accessories - ranging from printers to Wi-Fi and android handsets to water dispensers. Above all, they work in air-conditioned rooms.

At least 202 front desks are made operational in 13 districts of the Punjab province to facilitate the visitors and complainants. The process to establish such desks in the rest of districts is likely to be completed during the current financial year. Once the project is launched in all police stations of the province, it would start a new era and will be an important step to make the police a public friendly institution.

At these front desks, well-dressed and young officers treat the complaints like the guys we see in offices of multinational companies. They immediately report complaints through a centralised online system. The visitors are given a few services on-the-spot like registration and verification of private persons and official documents. The complainants are handed over electronic-receipts. The senior officers monitor the whole system from different systems and locations.

Police circles believe the new concept is the brainchild of provincial police officer Mushtaq Ahmed Sukhera. The department on the directions of the inspector general of police, last year, introduced computerised complaint handling centers at 10 police stations of Lahore as an experiment. One year later, the scheme was renamed as Front Desks and extended to more than 200 police stations of the province.

The high-tech complaint handling centers had been established to improve working atmosphere, maintain the official record, and ensure timely registration of cases. This initiative now provides a pleasant environment to the complainants at police stations so that they can file complaints without any fear and hesitation. For this purpose, at least 578 IT qualified male and female senior station assistants and police station assistants had been recruited through the Punjab Public Service Commission.

At present, civilian staff comprising some 422 male and 156 female is working as senior station assistants and police station assistants at these front desks to facilitate the public in the province where more than 700 police stations are located. At least 74 Front Desks have been established in Lahore, 6 in Sheikhupura, 3 in Sahiwal, 21 in Gujranwala, 18 in Rawalpindi, 24 in Faisalabad, 8 in Sargodha, 15 in Multan, two in DG Khan, two in Muzaffargarh, 5 in Bahawalpur, and 10 in Rahim Yar Khan region.

“This is an IT section of the police department and we are here to register all types of complaints - ranging from robbery to auto-lifting,” said a young officer who is serving as police station assistant at the Baghbanpura police station. “We are bound to register each complaint and every incident of crime,” he added.

“We also sent a copy of the FIR to the complainants on their email address.”

According to officials, these front desks would be monitored on regular basis from the special operation rooms established at offices of district police officers and regional police officers. These desks are set up in front of the police stations for the convenience of the people and these centers are equipped with the required infrastructure including equipment and furniture. The SSAs and PSAs perform their duties independently and they have nothing to do with the SHOs and the Moharars of the police stations.

Interestingly, the criticism from Opposition parties paved the way for immediate reforms in policing. The harsher PTI chief Imran Khan grilled the government over policing in the Punjab province, the quicker the rulers pumped billions of rupees into police pocket. Shehbaz Sharif-led government allocated Rs145 billion for fiscal year 2016-17 under the head of law and order.

Authorities will also spend no less than 44 billion rupees on the Punjab Safe City Authority. Lahore, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Multan, and Bahawalpur are part of this project.

A high-tech surveillance system called Punjab Police Integrated Command, Control and Communication Center or PPIC3 was recently launched in Lahore. This nerve-center is being completed with an estimated cost of Rs 13 billion in the first phase.

In June, Punjab Finance Minister Dr Ayesha Pasha stated that the project of comprehensive surveillance system would be completed in Lahore by June 2017 and other five big cities of the province by December 2017.

As part of the initiative, the minister said, Punjab cities will be monitored through modern control rooms and latest security cameras. Some 374 police stations have been linked up with the online system throughout the province so far.

Punjab DIG (Operations) Aamir Zulfikar Khan says “paper-less” policing is the vision of the provincial police chief. Owing to the human discretion, unnecessary file and inordinate delays, the erstwhile manual system of complaint redressal had lost its efficacy to resolve the issues of the public. “The failure of manual complaint management was in turn undermining the cause of justice and public service,” said Khan.

The debate to reform the Punjab police picked up momentum after cops had shot dead over 14 protesters amid violent clashes in Model Town in June 2014.

The establishment of Front Desks has ushered in a new era of public service and will go a long way in improving police perception. “The project is a practical manifestation of the provincial government’s vision for improved service delivery and provides equal access and respect to all irrespective of their social status, an access which is easy, immediate and direct,” says a spokesperson for the Punjab police.

According to a government official, the establishment of front desks was aimed at winning over public trust and satisfaction through prompt and timely redressal of public complaints by incorporating automated technology solutions for enhanced police accessibility, accelerated processes, and continuous monitoring. The system also features an in-built analysis of complaints statistics thereby enabling the central police office and the inspector general of police to monitor the working of the field officers.