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Community policing: the time is now


For the academic year beginning in September 2016, the University of the West Indies (UWI) will be offering three certificate programs in criminology which as the name suggests is the study of criminal conduct – causation, prevention, detection, prosecution, rehabilitation – and the broad array of tools that the Caribbean governments and law enforcement communities must employ as we seek to preserve law and order within our societies. This effort on the part of UWI is to be applauded because it is undergirded by two central propositions.{{more}} The first is that the incidence of Caribbean crime is deeply rooted within the matrix of political, economic, and social processes that define Caribbean life. The second is an absolute confidence in the capacity of Caribbean people to intellectualize our crime problem and design meaningful solutions to reduce or eliminate this current scourge on so many of our communities.

One of the more powerful ideas coming out of the deeper reflections on crime prevention is the concept of community policing. As the name implies, both the police and the community must see themselves as engaged in a shared enterprise – the protection of the community.

This concept is in fact far more radical than the name suggests. For within England, the modern police force emerged in the mid to late eighteenth century as a response to the problem of maintaining law and order in urban landscapes undergoing the economic, demographic, and political transformations triggered by the Industrial Revolution. As the newly industrialized cities such as London, Manchester, and Liverpool became seething cauldrons of exploited labour, older forms of policing proved inadequate to the task of making the city a safe space for the pursuit of profit. Night watchmen disappeared – more quickly in some places than others. And they were replaced by the modern police forces granted a broad array of coercive powers to impose and maintain law and order on often recalcitrant populations.

Meanwhile, in the slave societies of the British Caribbean, the institution of slavery eliminated the need for any modern police force. After all, legally, the planter had absolute power over the slaves including the right to kill his slaves. The slave masters therefore dealt with slave rebellions or the threat of slave rebellions by creating militias and calling upon the armed forces of the colonial powers to aid them in their efforts to put down rebelling slaves. What this meant is that the truly modern police force which had emerged in England in the late eighteenth century only took root in the British Caribbean only after Emancipation (1834). Unsurprisingly, the police in the post emancipation Caribbean first thought of themselves and acted as instruments of the colonial state rather than servants of the communities whom they policed.

For most of the twentieth century, police forces in the Caribbean and elsewhere have found it difficult to transform themselves from billeted troops keeping a civilian population at bay to genuine guardians of the people whom they swear to protect and serve. In some countries the culture of violence within the police force has been intergenerational, deeply intractable, and often ignored by politicians and senior leadership within the police force. The Royal St Vincent and the Grenadines Police Force (RSVGPF) has not been immune to this disease of police violence. Indeed, SEARCHLIGHT reported in this week’s Midweek edition that a retired Commissioner admits to the fact that some Vincentian police officers have beaten civilians in contravention of the law and completely outside the principles embedded within police training manuals.

This deeply offensive and illegal behaviour by some police officers raises fundamental questions about the quality of training our police receive. It is not enough to have training manuals which proscribe illegal conduct by the police. This must be made manifest in the daily operations of the police. Police who violate their oath must be punished and be seen to have been punished. For at this moment in Vincentian history the stakes in play here have never been higher. Criminals today pose a threat to Vincentian life in a manner that is without precedent. People have been shot and killed in public places. Businesses have been robbed at gunpoint in a manner that has sent ripples of fear across broad sectors of our population. The need for a professional respected police force has never been greater.

It is in this regard that the concept of community policing is particularly vital. To embed police within the communities they serve offer a suite of benefits. The presence of uniformed police regularly patrolling high crime areas is in and of itself a deterrent to crime. That is a well established fact and the police leaders in SVG must design a patrol system that reflects this principle. Modern police forces are also desperately dependent on receiving critical information on crime and criminals. This can only happen in an environment where the communities trust the police. Moreover in communities like Rose Place, there is a desperate need to have police officers who either live or have lived in such communities. Such police would provide fountains of knowledge critical to the task of reducing crime and arresting criminals. Moreover the presence of a uniformed police officer heading to work in the morning and returning from work on evenings sends a powerful message to these communities that the police belong to the community.

Right now, for example, there is not a single police officer who lives within Rose Place. The time for community policing is now.