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Crime in region burdening economies

Gerard Johnson

Crime in region burdening economies

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The Caribbean region is battling crime and violence. According to 2011 United Nations data, out of 25 countries from Latin America and the Caribbean, 17 have murder levels that are comparable to a country facing an epidemic.
Eight of these surpass murder rates when a country is in a state of war, including Honduras, Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Belize.
This is a tragedy for the victims of crimes and their families. It is also an economic burden, both in terms of direct costs associated with bringing the necessary resources to combat violence as well as lost opportunities in investment and tourism.
Crime erodes trust in public institutions and impacts hardest those who are most vulnerable, including the poor, youth and women.
The reasons behind the high crime rates range from the fallout from drug trafficking to a shortage of decent jobs and public institutions that have been slow to adapt to new challenges.
The good news is that policymakers today could have the tools to understand what works and what does not in partially mitigating threats to citizen security. Indeed, there are examples of some stunning successes in crime fighting that hold important lessons for Caribbean nations.
Take Bogota’s Cuadrantes anti-crime programme. The initiative is based on New York’s famed Compstat crime-fighting mapping software, which holds police commanders accountable to crime rates in their precincts.
In Bogota, the mapping software incorporates community policing practices, where police commanders must become closely involved with their neighbourhoods. This combined technological and community policing approach has helped bring murder rates in Bogota to a 27-year low.
Chile, where crime rates have been falling, has implemented STAD, its version of New York’s crime fighting software. Chile went a step further, putting neighbourhood by neighbourhood crime data on the public Internet, a remarkable and commendable step towards public transparency and accountability.
Rio de Janeiro has introduced community policing in some of its toughest neighbourhoods, the favelas. Known as UPPs, their Portuguese acronym, these specialized units are established inside slums after they are cleared of armed gangs.
UPPs build trust with neighbours as the government upgrades basic services. In communities where the UPPs have been deployed, robberies have dropped by half and murders by 75 per cent, and the city is increasing the number of UPPs ahead of the 2014 football World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. This combination of prevention and control of crime has shown remarkable results.
There are other instances of these successes, including in Jamaica, which was reeling from gang violence and in 2009 it implemented a programme that included parenting education, job and scholarship opportunities for youths.
Once these initiatives were coupled with an unprecedented assault on crime, murder rates fell by a third and the country is rolling out the programme to other communities around the country.
But the problem with many programmes in the Caribbean is that their success is difficult to measure in an objective fashion. This is because crime data – the kind that drills down to the neighbourhood level for robberies, murders, rapes and other crimes – is not consistently made public, shared or evaluated thoroughly. Rather, numbers are provided on a national level.
This must change if the Caribbean region is to emulate and implement the best practices in citizen security, as has been done by cities and provinces in Chile, Brazil, Colombia and elsewhere.
Hard data helps ensure that citizen security programmes are based on hard evidence rather than intuition or suppositions. Evidence-based crime uses data that can be measured, classified and audited to implement and track citizen security programmes that are most effective when they are multidimensional – simultaneously dealing with, say, at-risk youth and the management of public spaces, in sectors such as health, education and justice.
One step in the right direction is if Barbados, Jamaica, The Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname come together with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in an effort to improve the scope and depth of their statistics relevant to crime and violence.
The IDB is offering grants to finance this statistical agenda. This will help determine where the data gaps are and conduct additional surveys as needed to fill these gaps.
These victimization surveys will also help increase the public’s understanding of community violence and the ways in which it is inextricably linked to violence in the home.
To develop effective and informed interventions, better data is needed not only about crime in the traditional sense, but about intimate partner violence, child abuse and neglect, and other types of intra-familial violence. This is not a simple proposition.
Understandably, there is a concern that more granular reporting on crime data may impact the tourist economy on which much of the Caribbean depends.
However, with social media and other information sources, news of violence is readily available. Googling crime and the Caribbean gives 56 million results, far above any competitor destination. Countries have more to gain by gathering and sharing data, and then implementing more effective anti-crime programmes.