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Raffique Shah


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We are part of the problem

June 13, 2004
By Raffique Shah

A MAJOR obstacle to us, as a society, dealing with the crime spiral lies in our culture. We want to eat our cake and have it, too. We have grown accustomed to living in a laid-back society in which many, if not most, of us routinely break the law, however small our infractions may be. And we accept such behaviour as the norm: tamper with any such "right" or "freedom", and before you know it sixty publicity-seeking attorneys are knocking at the culprit's door offering to file lawsuits against the state.

We saw it recently when the Land Settlement Agency moved against "overnight" illegal squatters who not only broke the law, but were infringing on the rights of other law-abiding citizens.

Which is why, last week, I noted that it would take a Herculean effort for us to adopt anything close to the Rudy Giuliani/Will Bratton plan here. Outside of the introduction of the "computer statistics" mode of Compstat, which we ought to have been putting in place since the 1980s, the very people who are calling for that kind of policing will buckle under its intense weight. We can begin with the Police Service itself. I pointed out last week that its current structure does not allow for such methods to be implemented.

Besides the computer being used as an important tool in strategising to deal with crime, the Giuliani plan calls for daily meetings of all divisional chiefs. In New York, the latter were held accountable for what went on in their districts, and in instances, where they were seen as non-performers, they were summarily fired. Some officers saw these daily sessions as an"inquisitio" and resisted it. But in New York Giuliani and Bratton were the overlords with the power to hire and fire.

The plan has indeed found its way into many other cities and even small communities in the USA, as well as abroad, with many NY officers being wooed to senior positions. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Chief Daniel Oates was drafted to head the police, he opted for what he termed "Compstat Ultralite", meaning a softer version of the "inquisitions". Even so, whereas in NY when he gave an order his subordinates "jumped", in Michigan they often asked: "Is that in our contract?"

Which is precisely what would happen here if a similar system were introduced. Because over the years, with our officers being unionised, most cops operate like public servants, on an eight-to-four basis. Time was when a policeman was considered to be on duty "24-0-7" as they like to say. Only the diligent officers have retained that attitude towards their work, and more important, their responsibilities as enforcers of the law.

I have not seen or read the now-controversial police reform Bills that the Government wants to bring before Parliament. But it's clear there will be no easy passage for them since the representative organisations in the police have expressed their reservations, and the opposition has refused to lend its support, without which the Bills cannot be made law anyway. The associations that represent the police may have genuine concerns about job security, disciplinary procedures, and so on. But in the interest of making the country a safer, more law-abiding place for us all, they, too, may have to make many sacrifices. And we citizens must not baulk at the increased expenditure that will be incurred, much of it allocated to the protective services. Nor must we complain about draconian policing. I repeat: we cannot eat our cake and have it at the same time.

The opposition UNC has transformed the debate into a wholly political one. As I recall it, these Bills emanated from a report on the police service by a committee appointed by Basdeo Panday when he was Prime Minister. There was agreement on the recommendations between him and Patrick Manning when the latter was in opposition. Now, the UNC claims the Bills will set the stage for a "police state", so there is no way they will support them. But aren't these the same pieces of legislation that were drafted when the UNC was in government? And even if the PNM has made changes, made them more draconian, are they anywhere close to Giuliani's "lock down" laws that were used to clean up New York?

How, therefore, can we effectively deal with crime when both our culture and our politics dictate otherwise? While we may have more policemen per capita than NY did, given our population spread and land area, our cops could never be as effective as Giuliani's, not even with all the computers and databases they are furnished with. Because although NY has a ratio of policemen per 1,000 people lower than ours (5 to 5.8), NY also has 123 cops to cover every one of its 300 square miles of orderly-developed city streets. We have an average of 3.7 per square mile to cover urban districts that are chaotic in terms of street layouts, and districts that are so far-flung, police response time will necessarily be slow.

So to go that route will mean recruiting three, four times the number of policemen we now have (and that will still be far, far less than are required to cover the "beat" that NY cops do). Which is why, although we need more policemen (and I have no problems with soldiers working alongside them), the solution to our crime woes does not lie in any Giuliani plan.

It lies in an all-out war on crime declared by the 95 per cent of us who are law-abiding (well, more or less!) to join hands against the five per cent who are trying to put us in a state of siege. We do not need to confrontational approach, the intense brutality that goes with Giuliani's plan to make NY safer. If communities band together, work with the police, and the latter are given the equipment they need (again, computerised databases, including easy access to information from their patrol vehicles), we can halt this crime spiral.

But we cannot do it without a drastic change in our attitudes. Few of us have pride in our country to the point that we try to make it a better, safer, cleaner place. Too many of us, even as we cry foul against the Government and the police, are part of the problem, and that includes the very businessmen who cry out loudest. Frankly, I find nothing offensive about the advertisement that tells us to"fix me first" before we can deal with real crime. We cannot be part of the problem and also expect to be part of the solution.