The real root of crime

 

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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 02 Feb 03

 

“I hope you are safe,” ended the e-mail from a friend in Vancouver, whose Trinidadian friends’ son was murdered here on Christmas Eve.

 

“We’ve done more investigation into the murder of a Canadian couple in a week than journalists and police have in nine years, ” said a Canadian TV producer.

 

Both statements were startling – blinding flashes from mirrors because in these sleepy islands where words rather than actions hold sway, these are everyday realities to which we are so accustomed that they pass by unnoticed. The mirrors we look at are grimy, our reflections opaque. We are gradually turning into a people immured to brutality.

 

Like most of us, I too am weary of the Cabinet meetings on crime, the visits from expert criminologists, the utterances of a bewildered Minister of National Security utterly lacking in credibility or authority, since he is after all simply the young son of a businessman, flung as he is into the arena of politics and crime as a pawn in the game between business and politics.

 

It’s been said before you might say, but we cannot stop trying to wipe clean the mirrors that reflect us, because if we do that we might stop seeing ourselves altogether.

 

When crime dropped in the 90s in New York, three factors were involved. The first was demographics – the number of young men between the ages of 15 and 30 dropped.

 

The second was a zero tolerance position. So if you spit on the side of the road, are not wearing a seatbelt, littering, urinating in a public place, speeding, driving polluting cars, dumping garbage in a public area, wardens jumped on you with fines.

 

The third factor that reduced crime in New York was beefing up the police force, spending money to work out high-crime areas, freeing up police officers to actually do their jobs (overtime for police officers is either extremely expensive or results in compensatory time off) and making the police accountable. Superintendents were held responsible for the crime statistics in their areas and their salaries and bonuses were directly linked to performance.

 

The following measures could help us emulate New York’s successes in the fight against crime.

 

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Reintroducing “traffic wardens” who will monitor smaller offences and leaving the police to tackle serious crimes.

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Installing computers and fax machines in police stations to avoid police officers driving across the country to drop documents to court.  

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Currently, police discipline is handled by the Police Service Commission. This clearly doesn’t work. We need to create an independent internal investigation unit which has the power to call in and discipline officers.

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Court reform must finally become a priority.

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Many offences are committed by people out on bail (sometimes for an alarming three years at a time). Rather than reduce bail, the obvious response should be to deal with their offences quickly. This will also solve the problems of witness protection, which is a costly and tricky exercise since people now have no real faith in the police to protect them.

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Since a majority of crime is now committed by firearm holders, legislation must be put in place so if a firearm is involved, the sentence is automatically increased.

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Beef up the forensic department, which is currently a joke. Many policemen don’t even know what DNA is. Train the police so they are qualified to do more than beat witnesses for confessions, and publicise the training so citizens develop confidence in the Police Service.

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Prison reform must be tackled with great urgency. Some 70 per cent of prisoners are repeat offenders. The conditions in prisons are sub-human and disorganised so petty criminals are flung together with murderers. It is known as the University of Crime. In order to survive you have to be hard, or bad or part of a gang.

Instead of getting their O’Levels, gaining a degree, learning a trade, giving back to society by fixing schools, or sports fields, or building community centres, “hard” and “bad” are the skills with which convicts emerge from prison.

 

These ideas have been floating around for decades and are by no means new or conclusive, but I am throwing them out as part of a larger debate that must evolve if we are to rouse ourselves out of our apathy, our sense of helplessness.

 

We all know, too, that the real root of crime is a sense of disenfranchisement by whole communities because they lack collateral, can’t start businesses, have been squatting, don’t have deeds.

 

Unless people are being treated fairly by the State, unless squatting is regularised, in Laventille, in Caroni, unless people are given deeds which will tie them back into society, unless people have the expectation of improving their lives with a decent minimum wage, literacy programmes, a working healthcare system, people will not buy into mainstream society, and will continue to find lawlessness a fairer system.

The time has come to wipe the grunge off the mirrors that reflect our apathetic selves, to understand that we are all responsible for our safety and to hold those in power accountable.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur