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Blowing hot and cold on crime

April 20, 2003
By Raffique Shah

THE crime spree that has dogged the society over the past decade or more, but increasingly so in the past two years, is clearly cause for grave concern among the citizenry. The perception that the criminals have gained ascendancy over the forces of law, order and justice, has left many people feeling utterly helpless, wondering if they would be the next victims of a new breed of merciless robbers, mindless murderers and bungling kidnappers. Whatever Police Commissioner Hilton Guy may say to the contrary, I'm not sure the police are not themselves experiencing that "most terrifying of emotions, a sense of impotence in the face of unfolding disaster, an awareness that events are slipping beyond the limits of their techniques." (Correlli Barnett, The Desert Generals.)

Because if we are reasonable in our thinking, how could we expect the police to have known that a group of mindless bandits would have struck viciously at a family in remote Scott's Road, Penal, last week? Or that Ronald John would be kidnapped for a second time, setting a record of sorts? Who could have predicted that an innocent child would be snatched as he left a birthday party, and a ransom demanded of his parents-of-ordinary-means? There is no way the police, with the best of intelligence reports and equipment at their disposal, could have stopped those crimes, and many more like them.

This is not to deny that there are elements in the police who are either negligent or criminal. Nor for that matter can we excuse police officers who fail to pursue reports made to them-until crimes have been committed. And I am not suggesting that the police surrender "in the face on an unfolding disaster", but that they should develop techniques and strategies to deal with every manner of crime.

The sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment they now have should make them better equipped to capture criminals before they commit certain crimes. Imagine being able to hone in on the telephones used by known felons and gaining information about their intended activities. Or better still, using high-tech directional microphones to monitor conversations in suspected crime dens. And there are always the time-tested methods of cops keeping their ears to the ground through an intricate network of informers and community groups. The police must face flak for their apparent inability to arrest the crime spiral before it envelops us all; they cannot hide behind the fig leaves of "no vehicles", that they are off duty (policemen, soldiers and journalists are never "off duty"), or simply turn a blind eye to impending disaster.

Having hauled the police over the coals for their inadequacies, let me now focus on those who believe they have all the answers to solving crimes. Crime has always been the whipping horse of politicians, political aspirants and the ignorant. I wish it were possible to take some of them and place them in charge of the Police Service—for however short a time it would take for them to pack their files and flee. Policing may look easy from the outside, especially when some know-it-alls have a few drinks in their systems. Besides what is pure "rum talk" by these blowhards, they are also walking contradictions.

Let me explain. I have not looked at the Anti-Kidnapping Bill that is currently before Parliament, but I gather from listening to attorneys that the legislation is flawed in several clauses. Attorney General Glenda Morean has already agreed that a vague clause that made "ransom negotiators" liable to prosecution be amended to exclude the victims' relatives. The clause that seeks to deny accused kidnappers bail is also contentious: libertarians would argue that it's dangerous to incarcerate persons who might eventually be found not guilty of the crimes for which they were held.

But that stipulation applies to persons charged with other capital offences-murder and treason. And numerous persons accused of murder have spent years in jail, only to be released at their trials. They have no compensation to get from the State, nor can they sue for wrongful imprisonment. So what's the outcry over denying bail to persons who are charged with kidnapping? Truth is, no system of justice will ever be perfect for as long as the society in which it operates is imperfect. Those who cry out loudest against the spate of kidnappings are also crying out against the "no bail" clause.

This latter required a special majority for it to be passed in the House of Representatives, meaning that government needed the support of the opposition. But the UNC refused to lend its support. Firstly, its spokesmen claimed the government must first debate the issue of the future of the sugar industry if they were to support it. Then when it looked like Caroni was a lost cause, they latched it to constitutional reform: put a timetable for the latter before we support any measures you want us to support.

Are these people for real? Here it is the citizenry are under siege by criminals and those elected to serve are linking anti-crime measures with a process that could take years to bear fruit. If the Bill is flawed, then point out the flaws to government, have them amended, and show your bona fides in fighting crime by voting for it. One might ask, too, if Caroni and constitutional reform were so vital, why did they not act on both issues when they held the reins of government? Clearly, we are dealing with obstructionists, not an opposition.

Libertarians, too, and I count myself in this category, need to understand that there are times when we have to weigh rights and freedoms against what is required to deal with specific circumstances. We cannot expect to fight today's demonic criminals with reason and kid gloves.

There is a time for peace (and human rights), and there is a time for war. Today's deviants have declared war on the society as a whole, so we have no choice but to wage war against them. Sure, we also need to address the many social ills and inequities that are the root causes of crime. In fact, we must struggle even harder to ensure that whatever wealth comes to the country is equitably distributed, that the rich-poor gap is narrowed if not eliminated.

But we cannot sit on our human rights bottoms and chant "nirvana" even as we are visited by another kind of "karma". If we do not work together to arrest the crime spiral we may well end up with a society so fractured and battered, it's not worth fighting for.