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Kudos for cops, soldiers

March 09, 2003
By Raffique Shah

THERE is no doubt that the security forces executed a well-planned operation to stem the high tide of crime that loomed large over this year's Carnival celebrations. From early over the weekend, one could see and feel the presence of police and army personnel in larger than normal numbers. There were marked police vehicles strategically posted along the highways, closely monitoring traffic. By Sunday, soldiers and policemen had been deployed at "hot spots", as Commissioner Hilton Guy described them, and before Jouvert scores of persons who had planned to disrupt the celebrations one way or other found themselves safely behind bars. By Las' Lap on Tuesday, masqueraders, spectators and members of the security forces were smiling with relief—and justifiably so.

To grasp the true measure of this achievement, one needs to understand how the behaviour of disruptive elements had adversely affected the Carnival up until last year. Without doubt, Carnival is a time when people get the opportunity to "free up" themselves, to throw inhibitions to the wind and wine and jam as they please. Over the past five years or so, though, most events associated with the festival were subjected to the criminal activities of those who saw not huge numbers of people out to have fun, but an almost inexhaustible sea of potential victims.

Gangs of pickpockets had grown to plague proportions. They were everywhere. And did they "make mas" with the hundreds, maybe thousands, who were relieved of money, jewelry and other valuables. While pickpockets have always been around, the modern version that operates in gangs in which one person does the dirty job, then quickly passes on the loot to another, is relatively new. Worse, if the victim thinks he is dealing with a lone pickpocket, he could be dead wrong—as evidenced by one foreigner who ran after a suspect in St James last year. He was stabbed to death.

Then there were also large "posses" of young people who believed they owned the streets, especially on Jouvert mornings. Like herds of animals, they would race through other revellers and spectators, unmindful of who they knocked down or trampled. They also took to the dangerous practice of igniting "fireballs" by putting match to combustible spray cans. Add to these gangs bent on getting at each other, many of their members armed with every imaginable weapon, and choosing the huge crowds as cover to attack each other and get away with it. And, of course, Carnival could not be the festival it's meant to be without a fairly large number of deviants who would drink themselves silly and misbehave in the most boorish manner.

In any country, under similar circumstances, policing Carnival would be a nightmare. There is no way the police, or even the combined security forces, could cover all potential points of danger. In previous years, though, while the police were out in force, it seems there was never a proper plan in place to even temper criminal activities. At points like Green Corner or any of the other intersections along Park Street, a handful of policemen could be seen, wholly incapable of preventing crime or intercepting criminals. So crime escalated to an unacceptable level, at least for us Trinis-to-the-bone. I had written in a previous article that when one considers that we have more than half a million people on our streets over the two-day festival, the incidents of crime, as high as they were, could not be considered astronomical. Disturbing, yes, but not inordinately high.

This time around, National Security Minister Howard Chin Lee, Commissioner Guy, and Chief of Defence Staff Brigadier Ancil Antoine realised they were not merely under intense scrutiny by the public, but under the gun of the criminals. They could not allow the portents of a Carnival coloured by blood, which some seemed to be wishing for, make them appear to be impotent. So obviously they held extensive consultations, examined data on crime in past Carnivals, and put in place measures that were meant to deter criminals. It was left to the "ground troops" to carry out the plan.

By Las' Lap Tuesday, the Carnival had taken on a completely different complexion. Those who set out to have fun, whether as masqueraders or spectators, were allowed to so do without having to bother about the deviants. Sure, there were incidents of crime: for those who are griping about the odd robbery here or a burglary there or a few fights, where the hell do they think we are living? In heaven? Even in districts like Tunapuna, Chaguanas and Couva, where the police routinely have to call halt to the celebrations before midnight Tuesdays because of a spate of drunken brawls, little or nothing untoward happened.

We must, therefore, commend the security forces for the way they executed the plans put in place by their superior officers. And for the commitment they displayed over the four-day festival (hell, it's probably longer than that, when one considers the pre-Carnival big fetes and shows), they deserve the three-day compensatory leave Commissioner Guy awarded them. Some people argue that the police officers were "only doing their jobs", so why reward them? To them, I ask: if you were deployed on the streets of the country for a full four days, maybe 12 hours a day, and have to stay alert for the entire period, what compensation would you expect? The answer is easy for those who do nothing over the festival but receive full pay. Let them try and don the boots of the thousands of policemen and soldiers who watched over our safety during the Carnival.

The big question now, of course, is whether the security forces are capable of sustaining this successful assault on crime. Offhand, I will answer in the negative. Our limited number of policemen and soldiers will never be able to secure the entire country, or even most of it. Bear in mind that besides the dedicated men and women who were prepared to work around the clock, the forces had at their disposal hundreds of extra vehicles secured from other government agencies to increase their mobility. In order for them to improve their efficiency they need more manpower, more mobility, better technology and leaders who are capable of utilising intelligence to mount effective operations to deal with "regular" crime.

The Carnival operation was a good starting point. It showed what the security forces could do when they are motivated, when they have the personnel and equipment required for fighting crime. It's left to the Government to provide them with the tools they need to restore some kind of peace in paradise.