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Raffique Shah


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Panic response no way to confront crime

June 06, 2004
By Raffique Shah

HAVING dealt with several critical elements that contribute to the escalation of crime and the shady characters who fuel this hellish fire from behind their cloaks of respectability, let me now turn to the panic response of most citizens and their demands that Government and the police act decisively on crime or step aside.

One can easily understand why the many who have had first-hand experience at the hands of criminals would want drastic action taken by the authorities. And why others who only hear of criminals stalking their communities would live in fear, what with three-year-olds being kidnapped and 90-year-olds being robbed or raped.

But in calling for the Government and the police to take drastic action to stem this descent into hell, people must know what they are asking for. Are we ready to sacrifice many of the freedoms we now enjoy in the interest of dealing with the problem? Recently, ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani offered his services to the Government. Giuliani is credited with cleaning up New York, which, really, was a stinking mess, from subway to sidewalk, before his stewardship. And a very dangerous city, I should add, with thugs, drug pushers, robbers, rapists and racists stalking ordinary folks just about everywhere. Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor turned politician, introduced two basic systems to clean up the city when he came to office back in the early 1990s.

The first was "zero tolerance", a term that has become hackneyed in less than a decade. The second was COMPSTAT, a system of using vast computer databases to monitor crime "hot spots" and zero in on them. Neither was Giuliani's original concept. "Zero Tolerance" is an idea conceived by an academic, George Kelling, who, postulated that "the only way to stop big crimes was to refuse to tolerate small ones". And COMPSTAT was the brainchild of a one-time transit (subway) cop named Jack Maple, who died a few years ago. Maple used a huge map in his transit police office to track "hot spots" in the subway certain types of crimes took place, and then attack the problems.

He had worked under transit chief William Bratton, who was brought into NY as Police Commissioner by Giuliani, and who brought along Maple to be his deputy. COMPSTAT (computerised statistics) then took shape as the map gave way to huge banks of computers that carried vital data from every corner of the city. Policing methods took a dramatic turn under these two. Subordinate officers were summoned to daily meetings where the previous day's crimes were analysed and district chiefs made to account. High ranking policemen were hauled over the coals before their peers, and many were fired for non-performance.

In the case of the "zero tolerance"policy, which everyone here is clamouring for, I hope they understand what it could mean. Kelling says of his plan: "Just as a broken window left untended is a sign that nobody cares and leads to more damage, so disorderly behaviour left untended is a sign that nobody cares and leads to serious crimes." So what did Giuliani and Bratton do? That beer-on-the-sidewalk habit landed many an ordinary drinker in the "pen". Urinating in a public place could mean a night in a cell. One person who chained his bike to a tree got a US$1,000 ticket: attempted "arborcide"! Drunk drivers had their cars confiscated on the spot. And with pressure on them to come up with results, the police went way beyond the bounds of legality incurring over 10,000 allegations of excessive force that cost the city more than $100 million.

The point here is we have not yet attacked the real criminals. We are dealing only with general lawlessness, which is rampant in this country. From illegal squatting and vending (Giuliani took most vendors off the streets) to dangerous driving and exceeding the speed limits, thousands of "respectable" citizens could face fines or jail. What of those stinking poultry vendors who insist on dumping bags of potentially harmful waste on lonely roads? Jail for them! People tossing used fast food containers out of their Mercedes' windows? Fine or jail. Feel like listening to some loud music at home, sharing the vibes with your neighbours? Police at your door before you hear the knock! Not meeting your VAT or PAYE commitments? Jail!

And we have not yet touched on serious crimes. In this category, offenders could find themselves lost in the penal system without their families knowing where they are. In NY, some $600 million was spent in building new jails while $700 million was slashed from education. Again, because the police are under pressure to produce results, brutality becomes rampant. And lest the "hoity toity" believe that only black-hen-chickens will be subjected to mauling by marauding cops, they need to think again. In essence, if we want the Giuliani plan to be implemented, we must prepare ourselves for a virtual police state. And we need to ask ourselves if we are prepared to sacrifice the rule of law for a police state.

Now for the police: can the Commissioner summon his unit heads to the COMPSTAT room every morning, and before they leave it, a few find themselves on the breadline for non-performance? Not under our laws and police regulations! Even if the Commissioner sees a car-load of his men drunk like the proverbial fish, he can only bring disciplinary charges against them. He does not have the power to fire them. And the problem extends to rogue cops in the service who everyone knows exist, but about whom no one can do anything. Just think of the current saga at Chaguaramas in which accusations and counter-accusations were made, and out of which we can expect nothing to be done. Or reflect on the La Tinta incident in which one policeman died, in which allegations of a drug deal flew wildly, but out of which nothing has emerged. Many corrupt and/or incompetent policemen have quietly moved up the ranks and have or will get full pensions when they retire-as crooked as they have been. If, therefore, the Police Service is polluted, and if we give it additional powers, what can we expect? Lower crime or more brutality?

Consider this other fallout from the Giuliani plan: the NY justice system now has to adjudicate on around 3,500 cases a day, every day! And while many neighbourhoods are relieved that drug dealers are behind bars, they fear having their teenage kids out at nights because of what the cops might do to them. And therein lies the rub: in a panic response to crime, shall we allow the few to deny the many our basic freedoms?