A string of arrests in several high-profile cases is a welcome reprieve from the perception that criminals are acting with impunity. But for faith in the law to be maintained, these arrests must be based on solid evidence. There must be a corresponding rate of conviction at court, or else the criminal justice system will be eroded.
Because as a nation we tend to focus on the negative and ignore the positive it is important to praise the police when they get the job done. We are heartened to see arrests in the murder case involving a slain pundit, the detention of two men for the murder of a transgender activist, and the seizure of illicit cash which may or may not be linked to the recent $5 million Piarco Airport heist. The timing of these arrests, in some cases mere days after the actual crime, suggests quick action by officers.
We make no comment on matters that are now before the courts for determination. However, we must observe that justice is as much about the long-run as it is about the short-run. Arrests bolster confidence. But if, months or years later, these exercises simply result in the collapse of cases against those detained then more harm is done.
That harm is multi-faceted. Firstly, given the inordinate delays within the criminal justice system, it amounts to the imposition of punishment without lawful cause. Secondly, the public loses faith when they see murder-accused persons released for want of evidence years after the fact. It is easy for cynicism to take hold in the current environment. People will question the police, even as they are ostensibly netting criminals. Thirdly, morale within the Police Service and all other arms of the law enforcement apparatus is damaged. When arrests do not translate into prison terms, officers begin to wonder what is the point of risking their lives daily.
The State has to be able to translate intelligence into evidence. Or it must understand the risks inherent in relying too heavily on information that has not been tested. That, in the end, is what the courts are for: sifting out the provable from the unprovable.
Given the risk of lawsuits for malicious prosecution, the State must also ensure it has checks and balances in place to discourage token arrests. It is interesting, in this regard, to think of the impact of having an elected Police Commissioner — a proposal currently before the Cabinet. If the Commissioner has to be elected, he will be under an even greater pressure to arrest. This could lead to tremendous abuse.