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

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