July 27, 2003
By Raffique Shah
AT the risk of sounding a discordant note amidst the crescendo of voices being raised calling for action on crime, let me repeat what I've said and written before: there are no quick fix solutions to slaying this hydra-like monster we have all helped create. If a State of Emergency were an effective tool for fighting crime, half the inner cities in most big countries would be under martial law. The Government of the day inevitably takes blame for the mess we are in, but I don't think that anyone short of a not-so-benevolent dictator would have immediate solutions. And even as National Security Minister Howard Chin Lee draws on 1,000 retired cops for some respite, we could hardly hope for relief in the short term.
We all agree that crime is grossly out of hand. A-murder-a-day is one too many in a country as small as ours, and kidnapping should be alien to our peace-and-love culture. Robberies have become so commonplace for more than 20 years that people actually set aside "bandit money" in their wallets, pockets or cash registers to meet this ever-present threat.
There is no way any sane person will condone these dastardly acts that really hit home when they either affect you or someone you know, or when the victim happens to be some hapless person like the teenaged girl who was gunned down in Laventille two weeks ago. It tugs at one's heart when you read of the trauma that the victims and their loved ones are forced to endure at the hands of mindless criminals. More than that, you wonder if you would be next in line, if there would be an unscheduled "wake" at your home, or if you would be made to sit by the telephone to hear how much you must pay to have your son or daughter released from the clutches of these beasts-in-human-form.
All of the above are unpleasant realities. But just how do we go about tackling this hydra-headed monster? If I were in Chin Lee's hot-seat, I'd be tempted to call in the police and army brass, agree on a list of the most dangerous and known perpetrators against whom it's difficult to accumulate evidence, and say to my chiefs: Take them out! That's an easy, half-baked solution that is also very illegal. But if you happen to have intelligence reports that implicate the targets, and you know they are wily enough to evade being caught, what else do you do? I am sure the intelligence arms of the services and even people in certain communities know who the culprits are. So swift justice might be one way to go.
However, before Chin Lee can consider this extreme measure, he will have to bear in mind that the Opposition in Parliament did not support a no-bail clause in the Anti-Kidnapping Bill that came before Parliament recently. They correctly argued that it could deny a person, perhaps an innocent person, his freedom.
So the same Opposition that's assailing the Government for not dealing with crime would go ballistic if they found out that the Minister and his men were using unorthodox methods to rid us of the devils in the society. Worse, the very people you are trying to help will scream bloody murder. This was the modus operandi of the late Randolph Burroughs that also saw many innocent people killed in the process.
If we rule out this mechanism, then what? Intelligence is an integral part of any crime fighting strategy, and my information is that the security forces already have such measures in place. To add to their heavy, visible presence in crime "hot spots", they have also included a social component. Here, officers meet with the communities and try to determine their needs, what the residents believe would make a dent in crime. Mostly, the cries they hear are for jobs, for the opportunity to earn an honest living. But while some of those assigned to tackling crime know how to use the carrot-and-stick approach, there are still too many cops who wield only the baton, thereby helping to drive more young men to detest the police and the law.
Our overcrowded jails is another avenue through which petty crooks graduate to hardened criminals. Government should seek to remove from that system thousands of prisoners who really do not belong there. No one can explain the rationale behind jailing cocaine addicts who commit petty crimes. One wonders why policemen waste time arresting, and why magistrates and judges think it necessary to jail them. If these and other petty offenders are released from prison on certain strict conditions, they would make room for real criminals and also make the prisons officers jobs easier.
Without seeking to paint the Police Service with the broad brush of corruption and incompetence, it is common knowledge that within its ranks there are many policemen who are associated with criminals. People are convinced that some cops are involved in the current spate of kidnappings. It is difficult to understand why, when reports of a murder or kidnapping reach a station minutes after a crime is committed, there are no police roadblocks at strategic points likely to be used by the criminals. Is this a case of incompetence or complicity?
Another point: the virtual explosion of cellular phones means that criminals can now easily communicate with each other. The cell phone has become an important tool for committing crimes. I am told that gangs have "sentries" posted at certain points and as soon as the police pass their "posts" they alert the criminals. Guns are stashed away and if they are on a "wuk", they call it off. That's another price we pay for technological progress.
Finally, but very relevant to how we got to the sorry state we are in today, I want to pose some questions to the business groups and holier-than-thou citizens who have been most vociferous on crime. Who are the persons with the resources to buy cocaine in bulk and pollute this country? Can poor people purchase stolen vehicles from car thieves, have them altered overnight in garages and back on the road the following day? Who buys stolen jewellery, appliances, furniture and sometimes containers of goods from known thieves?
No one can question the need for us all to act if we are to stem this tidal wave of crime. But those who scream bloody murder loudest might well be the ones who need to do some introspection. Or to subject themselves to close inspection that could be very revealing.