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Emergency strategies for a brighter future

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Early yesterday morning, armed Defence Force men were lined off at Beetham Estate, their guns slung low as construction equipment cleared scrap metal off the highway at the southern end of the settlement. It was not immediately clear whether this was a strategic initiative to open access to the troubled area or if it was an example of the “broken window” thinking—ensuring that civic improvements were felt physically as well as legally in a residential area well known as a crime hot spot.

With the unused and still shuttered Brian Lara Stadium at Tarouba on the consideration list as a potential detention space for the growing number of accused in custody since the start of the state of emergency, clearly some elements of the anti-crime strategy are, of necessity, being invented on the fly. But apart from the unusual christening the Government is considering for the long-awaited sports facility, the leadership of the Ministry of National Security also needs to focus on initiatives that will leverage the unusual opportunity for law enforcement that is available at this time. The first week of sweeps has resulted in 684 people being held, 257 of them on gang-related offences. These are startling numbers that will generate a staggering amount of paperwork if robust cases are to be made against even half of those arrested.

Having fundamentally changed the landscape of law enforcement and altered the balance of power in the war against crime, it’s critical that the government consider carefully the opportunity that the state of emergency offers for implementing substantive changes that will make a difference after this temporary suspension of the nation’s constitution is lifted. Apart from the casework that’s involved in pressing charges against those that have been held, officers should be collaborating with experts capable of identifying, among those arrested, those among this group who are hardened criminals, who might be steered from a life of crime with some guidance and help  and who might be turned to state’s service as informants in the future.

This fresh influx of alleged criminals is unlikely to result in a 100 per cent conviction rate, but it’s an unprecedented opportunity for infiltration and intelligence gathering that should be fully embraced. The Attorney General may be tempted to follow up on an ill-advised Facebook video rant but there are stronger opportunities in social media for the Government to explain what it is doing during the emergency and to get involved with, listening as well as talking with the virtual communities gathered there. That could be a springboard for deeper and more meaningful engagements with the communities most challenged by the current lockdown and the attendant police attention.

With the elbow room afforded by current circumstances, the Police Service finds itself as the go-to authority in these crime hot spots and must take advantage of this opportunity to plant seeds of conciliation and forge positive relations in troubled communities. Let there be no mistake, while boots on the ground and guns strapped to chests may be the current reality, intimidation will not win the kind of trust that’s necessary to re-establish the police service as a primary source of community leadership. These are critical social missions for the Ministry of National Security (with assistance perhaps from the Ministry of the People) if it intends to supplant the ready temptations of criminal activity that have proven such fertile ground for the young men being swept up in their numbers over the last week.

Before chasing off after increased penalties for curfew breakers, the authorities should stay on message here and work all the angles to reduce opportunities for crime in these hot spots. Such interventions might be physical, improving street lighting and implementing video monitoring, for instance, or it might be social, engaging social workers and NGOs in serious discussion about the kind of interventions and social encouragements that may be possible in these challenged communities now laid open by the constitutional triage currently in progress.


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