Letters & Opinion

Crime and Punishment

By Cletus I Springer

ON the same day Shericka Jackson brought honour and glory to her beloved Jamaica, by winning the Women’s 200 metres at the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, a gang of thieves with high-powered rifles carried out a brazen heist at the Manchester branch of Scotia Bank in Jamaica. Press reports backed up by viral video footage, indicated that the men fled with two large sacks believed to contain money. Six people were shot, three of whom were hospitalized.

The incident reprised a scene from the hit movie “Heat” in which “Master Criminal” Neil McCauley-played by Robert De Niro-and his men exchange fire with police as they try to flee after a bank heist. The only difference between the Jamaica and “Hollywood” incidents was that McCauley’s gang was killed by police, led by Lieutenant Hanna, (played by Al Pacino). That outcome was achieved through a combination of Hanna’s leech-like persistence and a tip-off from a spurned lover.

All law-abiding citizens who viewed the video would have hoped the Scotia Bank incident had the same outcome as the movie. Alas, there were not enough police at the scene and their small arms fire could not match the lethality of the robbers’ weapons. Additionally, it does not appear there was a tip-off about the crime before it happened.

Great Expectations

Often, in discussions about crime in the Caribbean, there’s a strong expectation akin to a demand, that Governments must stop crime. As understandable as that expectation/demand may be, it is impossible to stop most crimes unless law enforcement has prior knowledge of the pertinent details: such as WHO is planning the crime, WHERE, HOW, and WHEN?

A more reasonable expectation is that a COUNTRY will take all reasonable steps to ensure that “crime doesn’t pay” and that criminals “pay” for the crimes they commit, as quickly and as effectively as resources allow.

I emphasise COUNTRY to treat another unreasonable claim: that crime abatement is the responsibility of Governments alone. Often, this expectation is held by persons who also say “crime is everybody’s business.” If we are to go by countries with low crime rates, the latter posture is the correct one. Crime prevention and control MUST BE a national endeavour with sustained input from all law-abiding citizens whether acting alone or as part of an organisation, business, or community.

Elements of a National Approach

How do we “nationalize” crime prevention and control? A simple answer would be: by engaging as many law-abiding citizens as possible in identifying root causes and drivers of crime and in proposing workable solutions.

There is no perfect template for creating a truly national consultative mechanism that extends beyond Castries.  However, I favour the establishment of a two-tier consultative framework as follows:

A top tier comprising representatives of key national stakeholders including key Government, private sector and civil society entities and a representative (chairperson) of the Constituency Councils.

A second tier comprising members of each constituency council, along with representatives of civil society organisations based in a particular constituency.

I envisage that this arrangement will allow for sharing of opinions, ideas and recommendations within and among members in both tiers on trends, issues, opportunities and threats associated with the fight against crime. Importantly, it will empower community organisations to play a role in crime abatement.

Towards a national policy and strategy on crime

Talk that does not lead to action is meaningless. I therefore propose that the initial focus of consultations within and among the tiers ought to be towards the formulation and implementation of a national policy and strategy on crime prevention and control. Over the years, various administrations have commissioned technical studies and held national consultations on crime in Saint Lucia-including one that I facilitated circa 2005/2006. However, I am not aware these efforts ever resulted in a national policy and/or strategy. I’ve always been of the view that good policy begets good laws and strategies and so, the absence of these foundational instruments explains quite clearly and convincingly why we are, where we are with crime in Saint Lucia.

Key policy and strategy elements

The compelling evidence from countries with low crime rates indicates that their success is due a combination of the following:

Strong deterrence achieved through tough, innovative laws, conceived by an alert, focused and determined executive, enacted by a responsive and committed legislature and applied via an efficient, high-class judicial system.

Effective enforcement by an even-handed, incorruptible, and well-resourced police force/service that aims for excellence in its policing capabilities, and that maintains a strong bond with the community that it serves.

Sound rehabilitation supported by an effective and humane correctional system. ( Singh J, 1998).

Because of the interdependence among these three domains, action in only one of them won’t suffice; for indeed, enforcement is only as effective as deterrence which is only as effective as rehabilitation. A person would be less likely to commit or repeat a crime if they know they will face swift and firm justice.

The “Epidemiology” of Crime

As critical as these elements are, they do not begin to address the full range of public expectations regarding government’s role and responsibility in a crime abatement scheme. Take this comment by a street vendor on the Jamaica incident: “These guys (gunmen) need to get some work…they need to do better and stop make people have to go through all of these problems,” she said.

The link between poverty, unemployment and crime is often raised in discussions about crime. It’s hard to dismiss the argument that if someone has a job that affords them adequate food, clothing and shelter, they are less likely to commit a crime. Still, the fact that many crimes are committed by those who have jobs, leaves us to conclude that the temptation to commit crime would likely be irresistible for those who perceive that crime pays more than decent, honest, hard work. This observation raises issues about societal values which I consider to be at the heart of crime abatement.

Many folks find it hard to believe criminality can thrive in small Caribbean States. However, research in several countries suggests the size of a country does not matter as much as the values that define that society. Further, research also reveals that at least one member of a society wittingly or unwittingly aids and abets a crime either by knowing who committed it and not informing the police about it-possibility out of fear-or by benefiting directly or indirectly from it. In many cases, stolen goods are recovered in homes that are occupied by at least one family member or friend of the person who committed the crime. Very seldom do we hear about arrests, prosecutions and convictions of accessories to crime. This may be an oversight, but I firmly believe that until we do, we will not get a handle on the crime problem.

The importance of data

The utility of data/evidence-based decision-making in crime abatement cannot be overstated. At this point, Government ought to have comprehensive data on the socio-economic character of each of the approximately 50,000 households in Saint Lucia. This data ought to be the basis on which crime prevention strategies are developed and help ensure that social assistance is targeted at “at-risk” individuals in each household, and/or community. The crime hotspots are well-known, but we need to know much more than we now do about the circumstances of at-risk families in these hotspots. Additionally, we need to know the strategies that are working and those that are not. This will guide public investment in the police.

Community Policing

We must have urgent and solid strategies to address the root causes and drivers of crime, if only to ensure that public investment is going into the right areas. One area of crime prevention and reduction abatement that I consider to be under-resourced is community policing. It is highly unlikely we shall see the desired returns from public investment in crime prevention, until law-abiding citizens take personal responsibility both individually and communally to protect themselves, their property and their neighbourhood from criminals. Further, the community has a key role to play in reintegrating people into society.

The formation of neighbourhood watch groups should be encouraged and formalized with advice and assistance from the RSLPF and the Ministry of Community Development. If this has not already been done, I recommend that a post of Assistant Commissioner of Police with specific responsibility for Crime Prevention be created within the RSLPF and that a trained Community Police Officer be assigned to each police station.

The State will never have enough resources to put into law enforcement and rehabilitative aspects of crime abatement. The security levy will allow more money to go towards strengthening logistics management and forensic capabilities of the RSLPF. However, there must be clear justification for investment being requested as whether it is having the desired impact. As an example, we might ask: Has the provision of additional vehicles to the RSLPF improved its response time to reports of crime?

From all reports, the Forensic Lab has greatly enhanced the crime detection and prosecutorial capabilities of the RSLPF, since it was established about 20 years ago. The strengthening of this facility should be given the highest priority, with an emphasis on staff training and technology enhancement. If it has not yet been done, a cost benefit analysis of having the lab to perform tests that are now outsourced would be a step in the right direction; as would twinning arrangements with more advanced labs in Taiwan, Singapore and the US (FBI).

Whither the RSLPF

The situation with the RSLPF is critical and urgent enough to justify treatment in a separate commentary. For the moment, it is sufficient to say what many have said: that the Force could benefit from a comprehensive overhaul of its capacity, systems, procedures and personnel. As a start, the operations of the Force should be fully digitized from front desk to police vehicle to community police stations and police headquarters. Each police officer and every police vehicle should be equipped with a lap top with reporting templates which should assist with speedier preparation of reports on crime, traffic accidents and with crime risk surveys.


Crime abatement is always work in progress; but we can make progress only if we are clear about the goals, objectives, strategies, objectives, inputs, and desired results.

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