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Vincentians’ patience with crime is long, but it is not infinite

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Last Friday, Searchlight’s front page featured our Prime Minister, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, and the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mr Frankie Joseph. Both men shared the same objective: they sought to assure Vincentians that the Government and the police were employing a broad array of measures to reduce violent crime, especially the murder rate, and that with the exception of young men who were engaged in the drug trade, St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) is “relatively safe.”{{more}}

Relative safety, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. According to the United Nations, each year about 500,000 people are victims of homicide in its 202 member nations. Even at 34 murders this year, homicides in St Vincent constitute an exceedingly low number to the global figures, less than one thousandth of one per cent. As a point of comparison, homicides in Brazil reach about 40,000 every year. However, total number of persons murdered is only one way to measure homicides in a country. In fact, the global murder rate is more generally measured by the number of persons killed per 100,000 persons. With a global homicide rate of about six persons per 100,000, St Vincent’s current 34 murders this year far exceeds the global norm.

Precisely how we should respond to these two dimensions of the same phenomenon is the central challenge facing the Vincentian state. We can choose to see ourselves as a relatively safe country where the total number of murders is less than 160 countries in the world. Or, we can choose to see ourselves as a country where the rate of murders per 100,000 people is an existential threat to the very fabric of Vincentian life.

As of this moment we have taken the view that we can effectively manage the spate of violent crime by relying on current policing and judicial practices. For example, Mr Joseph assures us that the police have identified certain hot spots for greater policing presence. He also listed a series of measures the police believe have proven effective in taking some illegal guns off of the streets of SVG. Still, he laments that the difficulty of policing SVG’s borders enables the guns for drug trade to flourish in SVG, with lethal consequences for too many young men.

The Prime Minister joined the Assistant Police Commissioner in emphasizing the role of the drug trade and the rivalries between young men for control of the trade as a critical element fuelling the violence and murders in SVG. He correctly observed that greater parental intervention would have a positive impact on reducing the violence. And he underscored that the Cabinet stood ready to aid the police in bringing forward a new raft of measures to increase the safety of Vincentian streets.

We applaud these efforts – as we applaud every effort to reduce violent crime in SVG. But we are also confident that the Cabinet has not nearly exhausted the full capacity of its sovereign powers to bring security to our country. For example, as a sovereign state we can write laws that deal specifically with gang violence, severely punishing membership in gangs or behaviours consistent with gang membership. We can pass new laws that impose decades long sentences on those found guilty of gun violence. We can legalize electronic eavesdropping that allows our police to monitor suspected criminals who traffic in guns. We can create gun courts specifically designed to expedite the prosecution of those who violate our gun laws. We can expand stop and search protocols, targeting those suspected of carrying illegal guns.

And there is more. We can immediately add hundreds of new police to our police force and launch intensified police patrols all across our country. We can impose curfews in any area in SVG where the gun violence has escalated. And in the greatest power the State possesses, we can impose a state of emergency allowing the police to search all suspected households for guns and to hold suspected gun criminals longer than the 48 hours duration that is current law.

We hope that the State would never be called upon to exercise these extraordinary powers. But the first principle governing every state is the security of its citizens, without which the state itself is compromised. As the Government contemplates new measures to tackle the scourge of gun violence, Vincentian criminals are utterly unaware that the State maintains an arsenal of weapons yet to be deployed in this battle for a safer SVG.

Vincentians have not decided that gun violence constitutes an existential threat. Our patience with crime is long, but it is not infinite. Were we to make that determination, as a sovereign state we possess unchallengeable powers to bring criminals to heel.

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