Monday, November 19, 2007

True Crime: Arresting Our Most Serious Problem

I used to be a pretty frequent letter writer to the editor but I have slowed somewhat. In most of my letters, I generally focused on one topic, and did so because I believe it is the most important issue our country needs to address. I would hazard a guess that most people believe as I do. That issue is crime.

Since the general election, the media has continued its crime reports as usual but the report that seemed to bring the impact of crime into a clearer context for me was the Trinidad Guardian’s “Sixteen Murders Since Election.” (Trinidad Guardian Sat. Nov. 17, 2007). All this murder occurring within less than two weeks should -yet again- send a shudder down the national spine. If for some reason it does not, it would seem then that we are becoming desensitized and apathetic to a growing depravity has been with us for some time.

To me it is akin somewhat to our adoption of one of our nation’s watchwords: tolerance. ‘Tolerance’ was chosen with good intentions, given we all need understanding and acceptance of each other’s differences. However, our acceptance seems to have gone full tilt, as now we seem to be acceptable of any and everything with all our problems falling into the mix.

When the Keith Noel 136 Committee had its Death March into Port of Spain in October 2005, there were some who decried it as a local ‘west’ and ‘white people t’ing’ where the ‘fairer’ segment of our society was seen as wanting the government to lock down the predominantly ‘black’ areas of Laventille, Morvant and Beetham Gardens. Even if we give this position any merit, the point that remains is that we are all guilty at times, of not having any care for an issue when it does not seem to affect us. For instance, when the floods come in the wet season and ruins the crops of the farmers in ‘central,’ many of us do not come to their support but merely watch on at their plight as spectators. We complain however, when afterward we go to the supermarket to see that vegetable prices have increased with reduced supply.

Given our small size, many issues are easily national issues and crime certainly is one to be so considered, whether, you are white, red, yellow, black or brown; from west, east, south or central; rich, poor or in-between; PNM, UNC or COP. It is ironic that together we can tolerate so much malaise and wrongdoing but when it comes for us to face a problem concertedly as a unified force, we become conscious of our differences again.

Earlier this year, when then Trade Minister, Kenneth Valley, tried to downplay the country’s crime problems by comparing us with the rest of the world: essentially, the bandwagon defence, he was roundly criticised. Admiitedly, according to a UN/World Bank report of March this year, Crime, Violence and Development : Trends, costs and Policy Options in the Caribbean:

“Murder rates in the Caribbean—at 30 per 100,000 population annually—are higher than for any other region of the world and have risen in recent years for many of the region’s countries. Assault rates, at least based on assaults reported to police, are also significantly above the world average.”

So crime indeed is a Caribbean and not just a local problem but then hiding behind agglomerated figures belies the claims of leadership by our politicians, where, when on the hustings, they all seem to have the promised-land in their back-pockets. At a any rate, the report also states for the period 1999-2005 the homicide rate in Trinidad and Tobago more than quadrupled from 7 to 30 per 100, 000 (the same rate for the entire Caribbean).

Our police force, our last defense in the crime fight, languishes in several districts, with police stations lacking vehicles, basic and modern equipment and in some cases, personnel. There also needs to be more police officers on patrol: the police do not have much visibility in many parts of the country except maybe for road-checks. We also need more people trained in crime scene forensics and pathology. The government and business sector need to devise scholarship programmes for study in these areas. Such scholarships could act as incentives for people to take up careers in these fields that are so needed. [Bowling Green State University in Ohio, USA has worked with the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service from June 2006 to improve forensic skills in the service -BGSU forensics expert helps Trinidad and Tobago Police Force].

Perhaps scholarship programs too, should be devised for such areas as architecture, engineering and urban planning and development. This is in keeping with another strategy to combat crime known as CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design). The term CPTED was coined or derived from the title of a book of the same name, by Florida State University criminologist C. Ray Jeffery in 1971. Jeffrey, who had studied the relationship between crime and the physical environment, had interviewed prison inmates about their influencing factors for committing crime and if any related to the environment.

Some key elements of CPTED (Virginia Main Street Monitor, Winter 2003, "Introduce Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design to Your Downtown")

Natural surveillance: is the placement of physical features, activities and people in such a way as to maximize visibility. A potential criminal is less likely to attempt a crime if he or she is at risk of being observed. At the same time, we are likely to feel safer when we can see others and be seen.

Natural access control: is the physical guidance of people coming and going from a space by the judicial placement of entrances, exits, fencing, landscaping and lighting. Access control works by denying a criminal’s access to potential victims. It creates a perception of risk for would-be offenders.

Territoriality: is the use of physical attributes that express ownership, such as fencing, signage, landscaping and pavement treatments. A well maintained home, building or community creates a sense of ownership, which helps deter criminals. [Yes, I know some readers may see this more as an encouragement than a deterrent].

CPTED: With respect to vacant areas in a community

1. Designation: What is the intended use of the area? What behavior is allowed?

2. Definition: Are there physical limits to the area? Are borders
between the area and public spaces defined? Is it clear which activities are allowed where?

3. Design: Does the physical environment safely and efficiently support the intended use?

In 1982 another book on crime and the environment was also published: Broken Windows. This book used the analogy that when a window is left broken in a building it eventually attracts further decay which can spread throughout a neighborhood.

In January of this year at a breakfast meeting on Crime and the Administration of Justice , then acting Chief Justice, Roger Hamel-Smith, also made reference to crime and the environment in his keynote address. In describing crime origins he stated:

“Crime is not the offspring of a particular kind of person, someone, e.g, from a broken home, an abused family, one who has never been taught moral values or right from wrong. No. The epidemic does not begin with such a person but with something environmental. It flourishes when the environment makes it conducive to behave in a particular way. Knowing that the police seldom respond with alacrity, criminals become emboldened and secure in the knowledge that the chances of getting caught are slim.”

With specific reference to the 'broken window' theory he also stated:

“In the seventies, there were eight courts in St George West to deal with such case load. Today there are thirteen courts so that means in the last 30 years we have expanded the court capacity in this district by 60%, but the number of matters entering the system has increased by some 500%. The same applies to the other two districts. This is a big ‘broken window’ that we must repair.”

Hamel-smith went further to highlight the DPP’s (Director of Public Prosecution) office, where he related that:

“At present, I am told that there is a shortage of some 26 attorneys in that office. The department must be stretched to the limit and one thing is for sure, there is no long line waiting outside to be recruited there. The lure and attraction of private practice is far more compelling than public service and that is a main stumbling block to improving the judicial system.” [Blogger's Note: I do not know to what extent, if any, this situation has changed at the DPP's Office]

Whether it be the criminal justice approach or the environmental approach, it seems that we are not implementing all the stops in any timely manner to halt the crime in our midst. If there is not a considerable dent soon in the crime situation, or if the public does not likewise feel a greater level of safety and reliability upon our police service, the next step for some maybe vigilantism.

Vigilantism though, is also the first stepping stone towards anarchy and this is certainly not a milepost we want to include on our route to a better Trinidad and Tobago.

Crime/Police Resource Links

Police Complaints Authority

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Quo Vadis Trinbago?: Taking Ourselves Forward

The elections are over. Hopefully there will soon be a cleanup of all the campaign posters pasted up on every lamp-post and wall available. My wish for such a clean-up is not only literal but also symbolic. This is not to say that now we get to resume our affairs with a clean slate. It is simply that an election, like every transition, natural or contrived, in human affairs, marks a time when we can try to take a step outside ourselves and make assessments of where we are and where we ought to go.

Of course, some of the answers to these questions should have come up during the campaign season. Needless to say, for the incumbents, the PNM, we were doing fine and moving on to further glory. For the challengers, the UNC-A and the COP, we were in a sorry state, with the way to sure glory being attained only by the removal of the PNM. And somewhere betwixt these two divergent views lies the truth.

We all know now that the status quo has prevailed. The incumbents have returned to office; the opposition remains… well…the opposition. And what about the promised glory? It should be instructive to us that the term utopia, that ideal and perfect place conjured up in the mind of Sir Thomas More, was derived from the combination of two Greek terms meaning respectively ‘no place’ and ‘good place’ and was an island. I guess with a bit of wry wit we can wonder then, whether our promised glory is some ‘no good’ place: but then that would lead us to a dystopia, a place on the other end of the spectrum of mythical worlds, where surely none would like to go.

We are just over a decade from the PNM’s destined date for us of achieving ‘developed status.’ But what really is this concept of developed status that we seek? According to the WTO (World Trade Organization) there are no definitions for the terms ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries for its member nations. Members have the prerogative to declare themselves as any of these descriptions as they wish.

However, under the Agreement to Establish the World Trade Organization, developing countries are singled out as targets to be the beneficiaries of international trade. So if in just over a decade’s time we declare ourselves 'developed' this is one privilege we will lose. Although arguably some may ask, “What privilege?”

Also without a ‘developed nation’ definition, the OECD's (Organization for Economic Development ) Glossary of Statistical Terms (last updated Oct. 2005) simply presents the well known list of developed countries as:

“Japan in Asia, Canada and the United States in northern America, Australia and New Zealand in Oceania and Europe are considered “developed” regions or areas. In international trade statistics, the Southern African Customs Union is also treated as a developed region and Israel as a developed country; countries emerging from the former Yugoslavia are treated as developing countries; and countries of Eastern Europe and the former USSR countries in Europe are not included under either developed or developing regions.”

Glaringly absent from the 'developed' list is China, which was listed as the world’s fourth largest economy according to a Reuters Sept. 2007 report.

But development as we all now recognize, is not essentially about money but about people and the quality of life they enjoy; hence the HDI or Human Development Index, a "way of measuring development by combining indicators of life expectancy, educational attainment and income into a composite human development index." ..."The HDI sets a minimum and a maximum for each dimension, called goalposts, and then shows where each country stands in relation to these goalposts, expressed as a value between 0 and 1." (Trinidad and Tobago ranks at number 57 out of 177 nations on the UNDP's - United Nations Development Programme -world HDI lisitng).

Some of the 'quality of life' bugbears that are on the top of our list include the high crime rate, the need for more and improved health facilities and traffic congestion. Surely there are others, but perhaps tackling at least these three in a thorough fashion can put us on a firm footing on the glory road to development. For development, a thriving economy with money overflowing from our tills and pockets, is untenable, if we are constantly ever fearful of bandits and kidnappers. Development is untenable, without healthy citizens, healthy in mind and body. Development is untenable, if we are all choking from the exhaust fumes of our vehicles on equally choked roadways.

We should all start thinking of what we want our ‘developed status’ to look like and perhaps establish some district repositories for citizens’ ideas for later retrieval and implementation by our local and central government leaders . This seems akin to what the Community of Democracies (CD) countries is about. “The CD is an intergovernmental coalition of democracies and democratizing countries with a stated commitment to strengthening and promoting democratic norms and practices worldwide” (Trinidad and Tobago is a member of the CD) and whose theme for its Fourth Ministerial Conference to be held in Bamako, Mali, November 14-17, 2007 is Democracy and Development.

One of the more recent and acclaimed books on development is Societal Learning and Change: How Governments, Business and Civil Society are Creating Solutions to Complex Multi-Stakeholder Problems, by Canadian author Steve Waddell. (Of course, I have ensured to include the book's subtitle here to make the point of my mentioning it more self-evident) Mr. Waddell’s thesis is essentially that through change in ourselves as individuals, and change in the way the three key systems that make up our societies — the political system (government), economic system (business) and social system (civil society) function, there can be a new framework upon which change can be initiated and flourish.

The book makes the argument that for change to come about “The critical contribution is creating new relationships between people and organisations that traditionally would not interact but in fact have common interests.”

‘Change in ourselves’ and ‘creating new relationships’ certainly seem like good starts toward 'developed status.' And while we choose governments and rely and look to them to help take us to such a level, these are activities we can each commence for ourselves, without awaiting new and recurrent promises of roads toward glory, every five years.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Worldspeak: Wha' Allyuh Say?

The local blogosphere, like the mainstream media, is already awash in post-election coverage (and so I may turn to such in my next posting).

However, we must all congratulate ourselves for still maintaining a generally peaceful transition process. And regardless of which party you supported, the PNM (People's National Movent) has emerged on top and so we must all throw our support behind the administration. Of course, we should not turn a blind eye to any foibles it may commit.

The UNC (United National Congress) is again in opposition and must accept that position and proceed with its work without wallowing too much in the bitterness of defeat.

The COP (Congress of the People) failed to gain any seats. This is a new party, albeit not consisting of political newbies. Nonetheless, just as in the corporate world where competition usually works to the benefit of the consumer, more political voices should help to keep the administration on its toes for our benefit.

So let us move onward and remember that democratic participation does not end after election.

And now on with today's post.

I have decided to place a Babel Fish translator on this blog (toward the bottom of my sidebar), in the hope of reaching even more people across the globe. Or perhaps some English speakers may also just be interested in seeing how the blog reads in another language. I cannot vouch for how well the translation is done and this is not to take away any credit from Babel Fish, but simply acknowledging the fact that language is probably best translated by a person (as opposed to a program) actually listening to or reading what is to be translated and that person too, needs to understand all the nuance, slang etc., being used.

Language is fluid, dynamic and in some cases individualistic, e.g. I cannot think of a translator program being able to translate ‘firetruck’ and ‘firetrucking’ in any of B.C. Pires’ articles.

My inclusion of the translator is also for us to remember that with the global reach of the Internet, use of English alone certainly is not adequate.

Sites such as Gobal Voices “a non-profit global citizens’ media project founded at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, a research think-tank focused on the Internet’s impact on society” (About Global Voices), are committed to translations of blogger content from other languages into English and via its Project Lingua has translators that translate content from English to other languages.

With a global world (excuse the tautology but I am sure the point is taken) there is no point in being Anglo-centric. According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) as at 2003, English as the language of use, led the other major languages (by a remarkably wide margin) in online content.

English 68.4%
Japanese 5.9%
German 5.8%
Chinese 3.9%
French 3.0%
Spanish 2.4%
Russian 1.9%
Italian 1.6%
Portuguese 1.4%
Korean 1.3%
Other 4.6%

However, in languages actually spoken the world over, Mandarin Chinese, given the sheer number of the population of China, leads the world. Here is the top ten list taken from an August 2007 article "Most Popular Languages" on by Matt Rosenberg, who states that his primary source for this list was the CIA World Factbook.

1. Mandarin Chinese - 882 million

2. Spanish - 325 million

3. English - 312-380 million

4. Arabic - 206-422 million

5. Hindi - 181 million

6. Portuguese - 178 million

7. Bengali - 173

8. Russian - 146 million

9. Japanese - 128 million

10. German - 96 million

So as Trinidad and Tobago seeks to move forward in the world, let us -particularly our education professionals- keep in mind the importance of learning other languages (as well as retaining our own local dialect) for extending whatever impact our country has and can continue to make in a world of of ever increasing cultural, people and ideas exchange.

Apart from the opportunity of learning Spanish or French in our secondary schools, here are some links for language classes and resources in Trinidad and Tobago.

Alliance Fran├žaise de Trinidad & Tobago

Center for Language Learning (CLL) U.W.I. (University of the West Indies) St. Augustine. CLL's offering include Arabic, (Mandarin) Chinese, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, and Yoruba. English as a Foreign Language is also taught to international students and professionals.

Government of Trinidad and Tobago Secretariat for the Implementation of Spanish

Thanks to the Trinbago Forever Voters

Thanks to all who participated in the Trinbago Forever ‘elections.’

In all there were 30 votes: 19 (63%) for the COP (Congress of the People), 6 (20%) for the PNM (People’s National Movement), 4 for the UNC-A (United National Congress Alliance) and one for TUF/DAC (Tobago United Force/Demoratic Action Congress).

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Vote Here: Trinbago Forever Election Poll

Well, better late than never. I have put up a poll so we can all guage how the election results might turn out on Monday. See the survey in the sidebar.

And please, just as on election day, do vote only once.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Trinbago to de Bone: Two Islands One Nation

One of the main reasons why I gave this blog the name I did (maybe more appropriately, this should have been an earlier posting), was to make sure to incorporate the complete name of the country Trinidad and Tobago (pronounced toh-bay-go). For those of you who still do not know where to find us, see the red rectangle to the top left of the map of South America above (taken from the World CIA Factbook) with a clear view of the country in the map below. The country is just off the coast of Venezuela.

I once lived in Washington State (not Washington D.C.) in a town called Bellingham, on the US Pacific Northwest -a most beautiful part of the US, very scenic, with very friendly, civic-minded, welcoming people- where, when I applied for my driver’s license, for “Place of Birth” I, of course, filled in "Trinidad and Tobago." At my turn at the counter, the clerk said to me, “Which is it? Make up your mind. You can’t be from two places.” Whereupon, I explained to him that that, was the name of the country and I went on to provide some brief local and Caribbean information. He then smiled broadly and thanked me for the quick geography lesson, saying he’d always dreamed of traveling to the Caribbean but never did.

The US northwest, unlike the US east coast, does not have large populations of Caribbean people. Indeed, there are Trinbagonians and other Caribbean people living out in the US Pacific Northwest as you find us scattered anywhere, but there, we are much fewer and farther between. And so, knowledge of our part of the world is less known to people in that part of the US, unless perhaps they frequent Vancouver Canada, where there is a huge Caribbean population and an annual summer Carnival put on by the Trinidad and Tobago Cultural Society of British Columbia.

My point still though, is to always keep in mind that we are two islands but one nation and this is a point I think that some of us fail to present or remind ourselves and non-nationals about. I guess this is typical where you have two distinct regions within a country, one larger than the next, with the larger having more infrastructure and is also the seat of government. Whereas for many people in Trinidad, Tobago comes to mind as a place to go for the long Easter weekend, the Heritage or Jazz festivals, I believe many people in Trinidad forget that many people in Tobago need to come over to Trinidad to purchase goods, obtain specialised healthcare, conduct business etc. So there is, I believe, a general marked difference in perception of how people from the two islands look at each other.

My last posting dealt a bit with constitutional matters. Here, let us follow-up a bit with putting Tobago into some focus. For our constitution, there is, in a matter of sorts, two major aspects to consider. One, is the overarching constitution, as it relates to all the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago. The other is the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) Act, 1996 (with the latest amendment, Act No. 17, enacted in 2006 increasing the number of departmental secretaries from five to seven), which stipulates how the governing body of Tobago, the THA, governs that island and its relation to the central government in Port of Spain. For years, there have been public fora and discussion in the media about the administrative relationship between the two islands. One recurrent theme in relation to this has been the granting of more autonomy to Tobago, or what is more commonly know as the Tobago internal self-government movement.

A major proponent of this movement has been Mr. Arthur Robinson, who was born on the island and is a former Prime Minster and President of Trinidad and Tobago and the leading architect of THA Act, 1996. Even with the current election hustings, the question of preserving the autonomy has been broached again. In a Newsday report ("Sinister Plan for the THA," Friday Nov, 2, 2007), Dr. Jeff Davidson, a member of the Tobago United Front/Democratic Action Congress (TUF/DAC) Steering Committee, was said to have raised the issue at a public meeting in east Tobago, last Saturday. According to the Newsday report, Dr. Davidson stated that the question was relevant, given the recent establishment of an office of the Ministry of Local Government at Plymouth, Tobago.

Despite all these efforts by those in Tobago for consolidating their autonomy, what we typically have in Trinidad and Tobago is always a movement of power remaining and being pulled toward the centre. This is evident in what passes for local government in our country, where local election candidates are characteristically proxies for the major parties and the elected MPs from the general election. Similar to Tobago in the region, is Nevis in the unitary state of St. Kitts and Nevis, which also has long been seeking greater autonomy. The extreme end of these arrangements in these situations is, of course, secession and the middle ground and more widely proposed suggestion being some sort of federal arrangement as exists, say, in the United states and Canada (Canada, people should remember, still continues to deal with a similar situation with Quebec).

Dr. Ralph Premdass, Profesor of Public Polcy at the University of the West Indies (U.W.I.) St. Augustine, in a paper titled "Self-Determination and Decentralisation in the Caribbean: Tobago and Nevis, " (July 3, 2000) writes that:

"The claim to sovereign autonomy in a separate state runs into a series of doctrines which both affirm and deny that right. The United Nations Charter seems to do exactly this. The self-determination principle has become firmly enshrined in Article 1 of the United Nations Charter: "All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social, and cultural development"."

In further explaining, Dr. Premdass goes on to inform us that:

"While part of the UN Charter seems to legitimize the right of a people for statehood, another part, Article 6, argues for the preservation of the territorial integrity of the state: "Any attempt aimed at a partial or whole disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations". The matter of defining precisely what is a people, homogenous or diversified, in a particular territory, small or large, with or without economic self-sufficiency and viability, had been a source of much debate historically."

Whatever is the ultimate solution in all this, remains to be seen and is to be determined by the citizens. As a people though, we do need to start raising and discussing these matters with more regularity rather than, if at all we do, every five years. Moreover, exposure to such matters of local civics, should have its inception in our schools and youth clubs.

Questions relating to the configuration of our nation are far too important to be repeatedly set aside, for they go at the very heart of who and what we are: to ourselves and to the world.