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Better citizen security in T&T

By Dana Seetahal

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its 2012 Caribbean Human Development Report, released earlier this week, identified Latin America and the Caribbean as the most violent region in the world. Since the report does identify that Honduras and El Salvador have the highest homicide rates in the region it might be some comfort to the Caribbean that things are not as bad in this part of the region.

The report is the first of its kind and it examines a wide range of issues over seven Caribbean countries that impact on citizen security — which, if not the most important, is a very important concern to people in the Caribbean. Its focus is on "Crime Trends", "Youth Violence", "Street Gangs and Organised Crime", "The Police" and the "Criminal Justice System".

Crime Trends

The area of Crime Trends is of particular interest. At the outset the report recognises that in the Human Development Index (HDI) T&T is right up there with Barbados and Antigua. The HDI is determined on a combined assessment of education, health and income. Despite this, however, the sense of security in T&T is the lowest (25 per cent) whereas in Barbados it is the highest (79 per cent). This means that three quarters of T&T citizens feel insecure/uncertain about crime and their personal safety.

The obvious answer to why this is so is that we have a lot of crime — violent and otherwise. The same may be said of Jamaica which has consistently had a higher homicide rate but the sense of security of their nationals is higher.

Until 2000 the crime rate in T&T was akin to that of Barbados and right up to 2004 we were in the same situation as St Lucia and Guyana (20 per 100,000). After that, murders went sky high, peaking in 2008 and only since then showing a slight decrease. During the same time firearm-related offences were up and down but since 2003 Barbados actually recorded a higher rate of these offences. It is entirely possible that fewer firearms were detected in T&T whereas they were actually detected in Barbados and taken out of the system.

T&T shows the highest rate of robberies in the Caribbean, hovering at between 400-500 per 100,000 in the population every year. In contrast the reported rate of robberies in both Jamaica and Barbados is about 100. In T&T the rate of housebreakings/burglaries has been stable but is still the second highest (after Antigua) with a reported average of about 1,500 per 100,000 annually. Interestingly, in terms of gender-based violence T&T scored relatively low. Reports of rape are among the lowest in the region, as is domestic violence.

Sense of Security

What do these figures mean for T&T in terms of personal security? First of all, they mean that every year there are about 6,000 robberies reported and 18,000 burglaries — and this includes only reported incidents. It could also mean that over the years efforts to stamp out gender-based violence, including social opprobrium, have met with some degree of success. Despite some success by the authorities in controlling this type of behaviour the high incidence of robberies and burglaries have impacted negatively on the sense of security of T&T citizens.

In comparison with other Caribbean countries we do not have the highest fear of burglaries or robberies as shown in the survey done by the UNDP. Yet only a quarter of our citizens say they feel secure. One reason for this may be that we have the most media houses in the Caribbean and I daresay our media per head of population might be one of the highest in the world. With three daily newspapers and at least four national television stations, not to mention about 30 radio stations, crime is reported continuously and probably repeatedly.

This is unlike many countries in the Caribbean such as Barbados and Antigua which depend on tourism to sustain their economies. It may be no more than coincidence that these two countries have the highest sense of security. It is also entirely possible that crime in these countries is under-reported. We have no way of knowing since what the UNDP has to work with are the official reports.

The Police

A corollary to the crime trends are the findings in relation to the police in the Caribbean. T&T records the lowest in terms of confidence in the police in controlling crime, only 58 per cent of our people claiming to have a great deal or at least some confidence in the police.

Only 11 per cent of those interviewed in T&T felt that the police respected the rights of all citizens as compared to Barbados where 52 per cent of the survey attested to this. Yet 73 per cent of the respondents believe that the State should invest more in the police while 65 per cent say they want more police in the streets for security.

This is one of the apparent paradoxes in the findings of the UNDP, some of which are recognised in the report itself. For instance the respondents overwhelmingly supported proposals by the Government to take social measures to prevent crime such as in job creation, poverty reduction and education. Nevertheless 80 per cent want criminals to be dealt with "more harshly".

As recognised in the conclusion to this report crime has become an important social problem in the region. The report asserts that the solution to the problem of insecurity is tied into a process of change and enhanced social justice. Greater effectiveness in achieving this change (that Caribbean governments have recognised as desirable), is necessary if our society is to become safer and more just. It is the people who have the power to change their security situation.

A clearer message could not have been sent to the citizens of T&T.

* Dana Seetahal is a former Independent Senator

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