AMID CONCERNS over a threat of escalated gang violence in Port-of-Spain, National Security Minister Edmund Dillon led a walkabout in Laventille on Wednesday. The show of force was meant to reassure communities under siege by crime. But it arguably had the opposite effect. To truly send a strong message, the State needs to deliver on its plans and promises. We need results, not just guns and officers in the streets.
For sure, police visibility is an important aspect of the crime fight. People are more likely to trust the police if officers are often seen within communities, according to a study of the Nigerian police published this year in the Journal of Social Science Studies.
Wednesday’s walkabout included acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams, Chief of Defence Staff Commodore Hayden Pritchard and Laventille West MP Fitzgerald Hinds. While these officials were guarded by a phalanx of heavily-armed police officers and soldiers, that they chose to walk through the community at all was a signal of strength and availability.
Yet, some would argue that the walkabout was a sign that we are in desperate times. It is not every day that the top brass of the national security apparatus will be able to engage in walkabouts. That these important officials had to take to the street to provide reassurance was actually an acknowledgement of the extraordinary levels of fear being experienced by citizens.
And while police visibility is key, it is meaningless unless it is backed up by genuine accessibility. Anyone who has had cause to make a report at a police station will understand the hurdles which citizens sometimes face, for even the most ordinary of civilian matters, when called upon to interact with the police. Walkabouts are one thing, but ensuring meaningful engagement with a community over the long run is another. People are afraid to make reports, fearing corrupt officers will betray them and that they will face retaliation from criminals.
So for Wednesday’s exercise to be regarded as more than just another knee-jerk, flash-in-the-pan response, we need assurances over the overall strategic direction of law enforcement. This is not a matter of divulging operational national security secrets. It is more a matter of bolstering the Police Service, its watchdog bodies, the laws governing it, as well as the system of criminal justice.
There is also a need for each police station within each police division to have a deeper relationship with the communities they cover. It should not have taken a threat of gang warfare to bring out the police top brass to meet Port-of-Spain residents. And such a walkabout should not have been necessary in the first place.