By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk” July 21, 2023)
The death of five men on Wednesday evening represents a new escalation in homicides in SVG. Seven men were gunned down in the past week, bringing the total to a mind-blowing yet sobering 35. The country seems destined to gallop past 42, the official number of homicides recorded last year.
Our country, with a population of just over 100,000, is rapidly becoming the killing field of the Caribbean. This week was special, not only because of the number (7) of young men who lost their lives violently but also because of the type of weapon used and the number of shots fired. Those guilty of these most recent shootings evidently wanted someone dead. They were prepared to take down those close by to accomplish the task.
This is a dangerous development, especially in a country notorious for young and mature people gathering in clusters to “shoot the breeze” and enjoy themselves. It now means that these kinds of get-togethers are very unsafe because one never knows who among their numbers is marked for execution.
An additional point of concern is the brazenness of those responsible. These killings occurred less than 500 hundred yards from the central police station in Kingstown, which houses that major crime unit.
Even though most of these killings appear targeted rather than random, the fear index is rising rapidly. People are increasingly expressing bewilderment and concern for the safety of their loved ones. Would drive-by mass shootings become a new feature of violent crime?
An even more significant problem is that the authorities do not seem to have a clue as to stem or stop the escalating violence. Apart from the announcements that the Minister of National Security met with the police top brass, no workable strategy has yet been devised to instil confidence in the population. We are stuck with the empty rhetoric of being tough on crime and the causes of crime.
The causes of crime: high unemployment and poverty levels, diminishing values of community, care and concern for others, increasing hopelessness and helplessness among young people, the get-rich-quick mentality of a significant section of our population, the selective prosecution of crime best reflected in the Owia woman tried summarily and given a slap on the wrist for possession of 60 kilos of cocaine all combine to stoke the crisis of confidence which is pervasive across the land.
Compounding this problematic situation is that the authorities’ tough-on-crime policy has resulted in alienation and, in some cases, deep hatred of the police. The arrogance and brutality of the police have resulted in it losing its most reliable ally in crime fighting.
Add to this the sad fact that few, if any, of these homicides result in arrest, trial, and conviction. Earlier this year, Commissioner Colin John disclosed that of the 42 homicides officially recorded last year, there were only 10 arrests. How many of these lead to a charge and conviction remains a state secret. It stands to reason that with such a slow detection rate, there may well be several serial killers on the loose. The disclosure at a recent trial that a convicted man asking fee was EC$1,500 per murder explains the very low value that some in our society place on life.
The time has long passed for this government to do something tangible about our crime problem. Over 350 young men have been killed in the last 10 years due to gun violence. The response of the authorities has been dreadful. High-priced women, worthless young men, violent lyrics, and criminal defence have been identified as triggers for our rising crime. As we saw at the crime summit in Trinidad a few weeks ago, none of the leaders was willing to look into the mirror and take even partial blame. Are they not partially responsible for the social dislocation that drives much of the crime and violence in our land? Their ineptitude is so manifest that the time for action has long passed.
Why is it that in Spice Isle Grenada, located less than 100 miles south of us, the homicide count is so low? Have our security forces tapped into the minds of our Grenadian neighbours to understand why they have maintained control over their crime situation? One thing is certain: Grenada’s violent crime rate cannot be chalked up to pure luck.
Now is not the time for business as usual. Prime Minister Gonsalves should radically shake up the security team. He should begin with his removal as security minister. At the ripe age of 77, he should pass those responsibilities to someone. Not that such a change may make a fundamental difference. They may, however, signal a passing of the guard. In any event, a new security minister can be no worse than Gonsalves.
Additionally, if only for optics, heads must roll. Commissioner John, who has held the top job since 2018, should be relieved of the responsibility. He may have stamped his authority among his orderlies and remains fiercely loyal to Gonsalves, his sponsor. However, his ascension to the leadership of the police has had no noticeable positive impact.
The time may be suitable to hire on contract a crime-fighting specialist to lead our police. The central task of the police from now on is to repair its fractured relationship with the population. The motto of protect and serve must be emphasised. Zero tolerance for police brutality must be prioritised. Aggressive policing must be banned except for emergencies, and friendly community policing must be encouraged. Citizen complaints must be respected and investigated. Those who, by their brutality, give the police a bad reputation must be dismissed, charged, and tried if the situation warrants.
Finally, in the short term, a change in our political directorate may offer some hope. Anything but the status quo. The universe knows we can’t take it anymore.
*Jomo Sanga Thomas is a lawyer, journalist, social commentator and a former senator and Speaker of the House of Assembly in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
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