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‘Operation Illegal Guns’ re-visited

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On July 27, residents of Rose Place woke up to an extraordinary moment in the history of Vincentian policing: 100 police men and women from different branches of the Royal St Vincent Police Force executed a warrant never before used in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), permitting the police to lock down and search the village from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. This unprecedented projection of police power justified itself in the very name that the police themselves gave to the exercise: Operation Illegal Guns.{{more}} And at the end of the operation, the police declared that they had arrested several persons on drug charges and had seized one gun.

However, on August 6, a mere 10 days after the triumphant declaration of the police on “Operation Illegal Guns,” Vincentians awoke to the news that another young man had been gunned down and killed on the streets of Rose Place. The killer, who did not hide his identity, is now on the run. And the police have launched several raids in Rose Place, as they seek to find and apprehend this young killer. Coming so close on the heels of each other, these two events – Operation Illegal Guns and the horrifying murder – clearly invite the question, did “Operation Illegal Guns” fail?

The question is, in fact, appropriate, but should be disengaged from the latest murder. This murder neither affirmed nor invalidated Operation Illegal Guns. Instead, it simply highlighted a truth that the police have yet to acknowledge: that although well-intentioned, Operation Illegal Guns was poorly conceived, poorly executed, and offered minimal rewards after such a massive expense to state resources, and the terrible inconvenience it imposed on the residents of Rose Place. For when the state uses it awesome powers and resources to deprive citizens of their liberty, however temporarily, these actions must demonstrably advance the collective security of all of its citizens.

This clearly did not happen. The police, by their own admission, only found one gun. If 100 police are needed to find one gun, then we do not have enough police to find 10 guns. And the gunmen will remain free to wreak their terrible havoc on bodies, on communities, and ultimately on the very notion that SVG has the capacity to protect its people.

But none of this needs be true. All we have to do is to re-visit “Operation Illegal Guns,” identify the errors made, and see how a different approach by the police would have yielded far greater success and increased the collective security of all Vincentians. The fundamental flaw in “Operation Illegal Guns” is that it criminalized Rose Place. The special warrant was a warrant against place, not people.

In this, the police made a grave error. Some of the gunmen who spread death and destruction in SVG live in Rose Place. But some do not. Hence, the warrant in Operation Illegal Guns should have been directed at persons, not place. This would have meant first identifying 20 to 40 young men whose profile and history in criminal behaviour indicate that they are likely to be in possession of illegal guns. Confidential informants in Rose Place and elsewhere would have gladly supplied the police with such information – for a price. There is no honour among thieves. They betray one another for a dime. All they need is the assurance of anonymity – and say, $500. Hence, it was the failure to develop a profile of the Vincentian gunman and the failure to exploit the venality of criminals and their associates that led our police to squander a tremendous amount of state resources to arrest a Vincentian grandmother on gun charges, while the dangerous gunmen continue to roam free. There has never been in the history of SVG, and perhaps the entire Caribbean, a single instance of a grandmother taking a gun and going into the streets to gun down her enemies. We cannot say the same for young men.

The targeting of Rose Place for the special warrant also obscured a fundamental truth: Rose Place is not at war with the police; the gunmen are. In fact, Rose Place has a greater need of police protection than most places in SVG. And this can be easily accomplished by a 24-hour presence of uniformed policemen patrolling its streets. Two immediate benefits would flow from this. First, we know the presence of uniformed policemen deter criminals. And second, the increased communication between police and residents would allow the police to develop the relationships and confidential informants, whose special knowledge of the criminals would allow for highly targeted raids on the homes of the most dangerous criminals of the country.

We cannot confuse intentions with outcomes. We hail the police for their commitment to stop the gun violence in SVG. But unless we project police power more smartly, we may find ourselves arresting grandmothers rather than their grandsons.

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