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KARACHI, Pakistan – Syeda Aiman learned to shoot while skating. She is not a hockey player, but an officer in an anti-terrorist unit in Pakistan.
The 20-person unit carries out counter-terrorism surveillance and policing on inline skates. It also has an equal number of male and female officers. Both are rare in this city of 15 million or more, where the streets are crumbling and almost every institution is male-dominated.
Police officers say the unit, first unveiled to the public in December, is a success. Critics call it a gimmick. But most Karachians at least agree that it was strange to see armed officers walking through their malls.
“It’s a new concept for the public,” said Ms. Aiman, 25. “When we first started skating, we were excited but also nervous about falling. But the fear disappears when you are in the field. “
To some extent, the unit is a response to a public relations crisis. Police authorities in Pakistan are among the “most feared, complained and least trustworthy government institutions in the country,” according to the advocacy group Human Rights Watch in a 2016 report. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is in 2018, among other things, with the promise of police reform the power has come.
That month, nine police officers were suspended in the eastern city of Lahore after they detained staff at a restaurant that refused to give them free burgers. Many people saw this incident as a sign that police corruption was still widespread.
Fear and distrust of the police are widespread in Karachi, where several police officers are charged with killing civilians in staged shootings. In one high profile example, a police investigation two years ago found that officials in Karachi had killed an aspiring model and three others, then falsely claimed the victims were militants. The commander in charge of the operation, Rao Anwar, is now on trial for murder.
Maqsood Ahmed, an assistant inspector general of Sindh regional police, said the new inline skating unit was designed in part to counter criticism that Karachi police officers did not know how to treat civilians. The sight of officials on ice skates, he added, has helped to lighten the mood in shopping malls and other family-friendly places they patrol.
“People should feel that they are our friends and that they are there to protect us,” he said.
But the skate unit isn’t just out to make friends.
Mr Ahmed said his primary responsibility is to monitor counter-terrorism in public areas, including parks and cricket stadiums. He said the in-line commandos had already made arrests, improved troop response times at crime scenes, and protected several high-ranking officials, including Khan and President Arif Alvi.
Ms. Aiman, who joined Sindh Police Department two years ago, said she has a deep commitment to the counter-terrorism wing, which includes her inline skating unit. As a girl, she closely followed the action of the Pakistani military against insurgents in mountainous tribal areas, and she volunteered at an arms fair in Karachi.
“I believe terrorists deserve to die,” she said over breakfast in her apartment. “You have to kill her. You don’t deserve to be alive. “
Cities in the UK, France, the Netherlands and elsewhere have started driving police units over the years, with mixed results. Mudassir Ali, a police detachment from Sindh Special Security Unit that has trained officers for the ice skating unit, said he was looking at examples from abroad.
Mr. Ali said those on ice skates usually worked with police officers in patrol cars and that they were trained to jump and climb stairs in “areas that do not have the best roads or infrastructure.”
Although the commandos mainly help maintain public order in places like shopping malls and popular street food areas, they are armed and ready to shoot criminals if necessary.
“We can even hold a car at 120 kilometers per hour,” he said.
Not everyone is impressed.
Jasim Rizvi, a resident of the Gulshan-e-Iqbal civil district in Karachi, said he saw the unit as a publicity stunt.
“Maybe the police had nothing to do, so they decided to skate on,” said Mr Rizvi, who was recently mugged outside his home. “I only see the police in action when they are accompanying so-called VVIPs”
Putting officials on ice skates to improve police relations with the community might make sense in Karachi, but not when armed, said Zoha Waseem, a research fellow at the Institute for Global City Policing at University College London.
There is little evidence from other cities that inline skating units are helping police fight crime, she added. Karachi is also full of potholes.
“So it’s hard to see this initiative as anything other than police propaganda,” she said. “We don’t know how sustainable it will be and I wonder if that budget could have been better spent elsewhere.”
Mr. Ahmed said that beyond community engagement and crime fighting, the unit had another purpose: empowering women. Many of the ten female officers are from impoverished rural areas in Sindh province, he added, and the unit is a “performance-based” unit created in part to tackle entrenched sexism.
“We say there should be equality between men and women in the workplace, but this is not always possible for cultural reasons,” he said.
Women walking alone in Pakistan attract glances, or worse; sexual harassment is common in the workplace and beyond; and the country has one of the highest gender pay gaps in the world. Mr Khan, the prime minister, drew a backlash in April when he said cases of rape based on women’s clothing had increased.
Ms. Aiman, who grew up in Karachi, said during her training for the inline skating unit she learned strategies to project authority and avoid situations where people might try to take advantage of her because of her gender.
“The way people look at men and women is different, especially female police officers and especially female officers on inline skates,” she said.
Inline skating is all the rage in some of the middle-class neighborhoods of Karachi, but Ms. Aiman didn’t know what it was until a police colleague explained the activity to her last year.
Her relatives are skeptical, she said, and she sustained minor injuries while exercising. But after about two weeks she snaked through the crowds in cricket stadiums and other public places, with a watchful eye on the crowd and a holstered gun on her belt.
“Our training is pretty good,” she said. “When skating, we are in control and have a firm grip on our weapons.”
Now her friends want to take ice skating lessons too, and her parents and siblings come up with the idea of having an inline skating officer in the family. The other day they were surprised – and impressed – to see them climbing a flight of stairs on their skates.
“They made me do it again just to be sure,” said Ms. Aiman.
Saiyna Bashir and Zia ur-Rehman reported from Karachi, Pakistan, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.