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Was Top Cop right to scoff at low detection rates? A criminologist makes arresting case

“The theories of legitimacy and procedural justice offer the best explanation. In countries where the State and its institutions are deemed legitimate and fair, increases in arrests and detentions tend to produce the expected deterrent effect.

“However, in other jurisdictions, when the State and the exercise of State power are considered illegitimate, then arrests have no effect and in some cases lead to an increase in crime.”

The following response to Acting CoP Stephen Williams’ recent comments on the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service’s low detection rate was submitted to Wired868 by a local expert with specialised training in criminal justice who has chosen to write under the pen name ‘Errol Caesar’:

Photo: Acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams (left) talks to the press while National Security Minister Edmund Dillon looks on.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian)

A recent newspaper article reports Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams as expressing the view that, “The performance of the Police Service has for too long been gauged by the low crime detection rate.”

During an address at the launch of the National Gas Company’s sponsorship of police youth clubs, he went on to add that we should focus more on preventing crimes rather than seeking “to fix things after it (sic) has happened.”

In sharing his perspective, he quoted from a statement by some unnamed personality he referred to as “a famous criminologist.”

“We cannot arrest ourselves,” he reported the half-identified source as saying, “out of our crime problem.”

I stand to be corrected here but it is my view that Commissioner Williams is channelling former US Chief of Police Bill Bratton, of both the LAPD and NYPD, who has said on many occasions that focusing on just arrests won’t work.

Bratton and others who make this point usually do so in an attempt to direct people’s focus towards the societal causes of crime.

Photo: Former New York Police Chief Bill Bratton.
(Copyright NY Post)

In effect, they argue, if a society is to truly experience any reduction in crime, it cannot simply arrest persons but must treat with the underlying factors of crime: inequity, inequality, unemployment, social disorganization, societal breakdown, patriarchy, limited opportunities, economic deprivation and the like.

A strict law enforcement approach, they suggest, won’t solve the society’s crime problem; more than that, they stress, is needed; it simply won’t happen without a proactive approach.

However, the T&T Top Cop, at least as reported in the press, appears to take issue with this school of thought—or, at least, with parts of it. He appeared to want his organisation to only focus on the root causes of crime and relegate arrests to the dustbin of policing.

He seemed, as far as I can make out, to be arguing that the detection rate shouldn’t be used to measure police performance at all. Raising the notion that an increase in the crime detection rate is likely to mean that the Police Service is performing better, he pooh-poohed the suggestion, declaring that such an idea “doesn’t make much sense.”

The first point that needs to be made for the record is that this position represents a major departure from the position espoused in his own strategic plans for 2014-2016 and 2017-2019, which both list the TTPS’ first Strategic Goal as to ‘Reduce and Detect Crime.’

Photo: Acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams presents a letter of appointment to Inspector Margaret Sampson-Browne on 31 August 2010.
(Copyright News.Gov.TT)

Nevertheless, his remarks do raise a larger question of police performance and the overall effectiveness of crime control measures, such as arrests or the detection rate: can we arrest our way out of the crime problem?

It is a very timely question, especially in these hard economic times where strategic budgeting is probably more important than it has ever been; we need to be sure of just where our tax dollars will make the biggest bang.

So, do crime control measures work? Well, it depends.

Last year, Jay Albanese, a world renowned, well published criminologist tested this very issue via a 40-country assessment. The question he asked was this: “Do countries with higher prosecution, conviction and detention rates experience less crime?” (Albanese, 2016).

Well, it turns out they do. Albanese concluded that “government investment in crime control (arrests being one measure) […] is shown to have measurable impacts on crime, victimization rates and homicide rates across 40 countries” (p.9). In other words, these countries experienced less crime.

So, Mr Commissioner, it does make sense.

Photo: Acting Commissioner of Police Stephen Williams responds to a question from the audience during a National Security forum with the Greater Tunapuna Chamber of Industry and Commerce (GTCIC) on 23 October 2013.
(Copyright News.Gov.TT)

However, Lappi-Seppa¨la¨ and Lehti (2014) also conducted a cross-national study of homicide and they found that ‘‘high rates of imprisonment, and extensive use of life sentences are usually associated with high and increasing homicide rates—and not the other way around’’ (2014, p. 159).

On the surface this finding might suggest that Williams is right in asking us not to focus on arrests. But the devil is in the details for Lappi-Seppa¨la¨ and Lehti (2014) concluded that ‘‘homicide is lower under more effective governments and in less corrupt environments’’ (2014, p. 175).

So what exactly is happening here? What does all this mean? Should we or should we not arrest?

The theories of legitimacy and procedural justice offer the best explanation. In countries where the State and its institutions are deemed legitimate and fair, increases in arrests and detentions tend to produce the expected deterrent effect. However, in other jurisdictions, when the State and the exercise of State power are considered illegitimate, then arrests have no effect and in some cases lead to an increase in crime.

Put another way, we only obey the law if we perceive the law enforcers as just and legitimate. This is particularly true in post-colonial societies and in the urban centres in developed nations where the police are caricatured as “Babylon,” “pigs,” etc.

Photo: A cartoon on differing views of law enforcement officers in urban USA.

The bottom line is that the police in the global South have never been viewed as legitimate, they are not trusted by the working class (except, of course, as an employer) or by any class for that matter. And there is nothing that they can do that would make us happy.

That is the reason why we quarrel when they make no arrest and quarrel when they do arrest someone, making clear our belief that they ‘set him up.’

This lack of trust has nothing to do with the police as individuals but with the police service as institution, with what they represent. We see them as standing for the illegitimate use of state power—as serving their masters and not the society.

With this in mind, I would argue that police performance should also be measured by their ability to build trust among the public, thereby increasing the degree of legitimacy with which they are invested; their ability to engage the public in indigenous, problem-solving projects; their commitment to democratic policing and the rule of law; their commitment to local civilian accountability and, yes, their ability to control crime via detection.

I subscribe to the school of thought that says that prevention is better than cure, that treating with the root causes of crime is better than just making arrests. But one would be ill-advised to interpret this as a zero-sum game, in which proactive policing is good and reactive policing is bad.

Photo: Senior members of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service during an address by then National Security Minister John Sandy in 2010.
(Courtesy News.Gov.TT)

Or, to use Commissioner Williams’ words, a zero-sum game in which reactive policing “doesn’t make much sense.”

It is not “either… or” but “both… and.” Both approaches are necessary and both should be elements included on the police agencies’ report card.

In a country where the homicide rate has increased nearly 600% from 6.3 per 100,000 in 1990 to 34.5 per 100,000 in 2016 and the corresponding detection rate has fallen from 69% in 1990 to 16% in 2016, I don’t think we should rule out arrests as an effective crime control measure.

But maybe, just maybe, the message we are meant to get is that we already have.

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90 comments

  1. The Minister of national Security needs to boost up his image.

  2. MIND-BOGGLING…kill, murder ..no detection…walk into the parlour and buy your cheese pie..

  3. Time for a revamp of the system. But this will not happen under this or the last government.
    What we need is a fresh government to lead us out of this mess. Fresh ,meaning no old faces!
    A possible solution is the Progressive Empowerment Party. Check it out on Facebook!

  4. He suggesting that his organisation add to its focus societal ills. I don’t get that he wants to not arrest criminals after all his operational plan has bench marks to increase detection.

  5. U KNOW WE COUNTRY GONE THROUGH when CRIME OUT of CONTROL and NO BIG WIG BEING FIRED.

  6. You people to corrupt in office, from the top in government past and present right back to the police so why you want crime to stop

  7. You people to corrupt in office, from the top in government past and present right back to the police so why you want crime to stop

  8. If the police service and justice system is a bunch of crooks. How they expect crime to drop? All police good for is to harrass drivers on the road. And to protect the bigwigs.

  9. I scarely believe that any one else could have put it better than Mr Caesar. Apart from the excellence of the analysis and the considered refutation of the hapless and lets face it incompetence and intellectually vapid and inane Comissioner of Police, the piece exposes the sad fact that most of our very talented citizens are for one reason or the other sideline by official bureacracy.

  10. The detection rate is used in their own interest and when convenient to do so! Trinidad Express Newspaper Feb 8, 2017- Senior Supt in charge of Northern Division, McDonald Jacob, said yesterday, there was a 23 per cent detection rate last year (2016) for serious crimes, and a minor crimes detection rate of 58 per cent.
    Was He Or Was He Not Using The Statistics At That Time As A Barometer To Evaluate His/Police Performance?!!
    The detection rate is dismally low and is an indicator to evaluate the performance of the Police Service! The Ag. Commissioner could call a ROSE by any other name, it is still a ROSE, AND, just as SWEET!!

  11. Shut down the ILLEGAL Chinese play whe or Tax them Don’t Tax CITIZENS with property Tax because dat money going to d jus come Chinese

  12. “It is not either/or but both…..and.”

  13. The Top CoP is irrelevant, he should be fired forthwith for dereliction of duty! It disgust me that he’s still there, and the ppl who could do something about his removal has done nothing, should also be fired!!!!

  14. He don’t know whether he is coming or going.

  15. We really needed to theorise that more justice leads to less crime? And pseudonymously? Why can’t TTPS just do its core job of investigation and detection, instead of making excuses? If the service can’t live up to its core competence, and faces challenges with credibility and coherence in its communication, and with empathy, if its engagement on the street with Krysis is any measure, how could it hope to be successful in having impact on admittedly complex social problems through police youth clubs? Why isn’t Errol Caesar assessing the specific strategy Williams proposed?

  16. Look at this dummy nuh this is what a sum cop looks like ! Dummycop

  17. Out in the streets they call it murder

  18. They trying to be like pinky & the brain

  19. How do we move forward as a nation knowing that we are subjected to criminal activities day and night?..will these two experienced men explain their positions???

  20. A famous failure once said….

  21. Wss anything he said untrue wen u look at d context in wich it was said and if he talkin shit wat shud he hav sed. Wat has been sed on d local landscape dat wud prove dat we can indeed arrest ourselves outa crime

  22. And WE PAY the Canadians 2 million dollars to install that???

  23. Is the Top Cop saying the TTPS is irrelevant.
    What would they do if not detecting and arresting.

  24. As I posted over the weekend and I will share here: From the Trinidad Guardian: “Speaking at an event yesterday, acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams said we cannot arrest ourselves out of rising crime in this country. “The more you arrest the more criminals come forward to be arrested,” Williams said.

    Of course, this statement left the nation baffled.

    I don’t know who writes the acting commissioner’s speeches, maybe he does, but I wish he would speak the language of law enforcement within the context of the reality of crime, particularly homicide, in T&T, and the miserably low detection rate, and not decimate that 2009 statement made by Bill Bratton when he was head of the LAPD and speaking specifically about gang arrests versus gang membership in LA.

    Bratton’s point was given the structural inequalities of criminogenic “underserved” communities (Alienation • Deprivation • Ecological concentration of the truly disadvantaged • Economic displacement • Fatalism • Helplessness • Hopelessness • Marginalisation • Social disorganisation • Social isolation • Stigmatization) across the USA, that produce gang leaders/drugs dealers, every second of the day, it would be wise to focus on and fund both prevention and suppression (enforcement) initiatives since more boys in America continue to join gangs instead of the boy scouts when membership numbers were compared.

    Bratton said we (America) cannot arrest our way out of a crime, gang problem, because as soon you arrest one gang leader/drug dealer another one replaces him on the same street corner in a matter of seconds.

    Given the context the “we cannot arrest our way out of a crime/gang problem” statement makes perfect sense.

    Let’s not for one moment even believe Bratton practiced what he preached but it was a good soundbite and now one of the most quotable in American law enforcement.

    From a communication perspective, it is important for executives to ensure their speechwriters have the experience and the expertise and won’t put them in place for public humiliation.

    I hope the acting commissioner didn’t write his own speech.

    • True, but he seems to be unfazed by any type of humiliation. I hope he doesn’t go abroad talking about those “homee-sides”.

    • I think Trinidad presents its own unique set of problems, and while importing tactics and philosophies from abroad might serve to inform a local approach, they certainly should not dictate it. I think this was one of the points being made by the author, or at least that’s how I chose to interpret the spirit of what s/he wrote… I just wish there was more substantive analysis and rebuttal of what Williams actually said, rather than an assumption of the substance of his position and what was essentially a strawman deconstruction of it.

    • But, Renee, the contexts are hardly different. “[S]tructural inequalities of criminogenic “underserved” communities (Alienation • Deprivation • Ecological concentration of the truly disadvantaged • Economic displacement • Fatalism • Helplessness • Hopelessness • Marginalisation • Social disorganisation • Social isolation • Stigmatization)…produce gang leaders/drugs dealers, every second of the day, it would be wise to focus on and fund both prevention and suppression (enforcement)” — why is that not equally true here? And it isn’t the first time Williams has referenced that what the police are doing won’t have a meaningful impact on preventing crime.

      What was offensive about his “More Come” statement is that instead of saying actors other than police are responsible for crime prevention, as he has in the past, he is now asserting that a police service radically underperforming at traditional policing is now diverting its resources to social interventions by dedicating more of its human resource to police youth clubs. That’s what was jawdropping.

  25. I was a little surprised by the use of a pseudonym as well… particularly since there’s nothing particularly controversial. It detracted, just a little because it removes a bit of context from their position, but an easy rebuttal to that is that what I describe as “context” might to some seem like “bias”… a focus more on the messenger than an impartial look at the message.

    All that being said, it’s a good article but loses steam in parts… particularly where the assumptions as to Williams’ position are made. Rather than rely on one comment (apparently) taken in isolation, and extrapolate an entire article from that comment, it would have been better to have a fuller grasp on the CoP’s position before commenting. Otherwise what are we really discussing?

    I see much merit to the position that detection rates by themselves cannot be a solution, but neither should they be discounted, as detection and arrest rates (certainly they’re not one in the same) are two of the more objective and potent metrics by which to measure police performance. Of course the most potent would be crime prevention/low crime rates, but this being Trinidad we should probably keep the expectations a bit realistic.

    Without a doubt crime prevention and detection are a shared societal responsibility, community policing is not just about the police, but the community as well. On a recent trip to Barbados I was struck by the apparent (from limited experience, but attested to by locals and regulars alike) freedom to travel virtually anywhere at anytime (certainly within the usual tourist traps) without being preoccupied by concerns about crime. To be clear, I’m not saying that crime is non-existent in Barbados, but the incidence seems to be at a rate that is more commensurate with expectations in a modern society.

    Trinidad and Barbados are different islands of course, and different factors affect both the incidence and prevention of crime in each respective locale. But communities in TnT cannot view the police as the enemy, and same for the TTPS, there needs to be a genuine trust and partnering between the two sides, but the onus for initiating that trust begins with the government.

    • Nigel, I posted on this over the week. I will repost here: “Williams said the police’s success should be gauged by how much crime they prevent rather than solve. “Everybody speaks about the Police Service’s detection rate so the more offences we detect means that we are performing better for me that does not make much sense,” he said.”

      Now, this is actually a hot topic in law enforcement but again the acting commish or his speechwriter got it wrong.

      On the issue of crimes prevented (deduced from reported crime rates) versus crimes detected there is a discussion in policing on what suite of indicators (reported crime rates, response times, clearance rate, enforcement productivity, community satisfaction and indicators of morale) should be used to best evaluate effective management of a police agency.

      The measure used has always been the detection rate but some law enforcement leaders say it should be reported crime rates. Many police leaders, in the US, believe, however, the measure of highest priority should actually be public satisfaction. But some say we should use reported crime rates.

      But the argument against using crimes reported as an indicator of crime prevented is the lack of integrity of police recording and reporting, suppression of police reports, misclassification of crimes and other forms of police corruption combined with the manipulation of statistics.

      Such would be unwise, especially, when the overall levels of victimisation are usually two or three times higher than reported crime rates. And of course, there are the invisible crimes that classically go unreported such as crimes within the family, white collar crimes, consensual crime like drug dealing and bribery and crimes involving intimidation.

      How could the police really prevent those? So let’s stick with the detection rate as a measure of police performance.

    • Nigel, I agree that this piece wasn’t particularly controversial. But then I am thinking of getting regular columns and don’t want my contributor to be distracted thinking about a possible backlash.
      I agree with you on the issues with crime detection here.
      I remember Rowley going into Laventille and berating residents for not sharing information on criminal activity there. That was a very disappointing position for the PM to take as it suggests a lack of understanding about the fine line between criminals and authorities in some communities.
      And we got a taste of that some months later with Godfather Burkie turning up at President’s House for the swearing of his MP and PNM deputy political leader.

    • Lasana Liburd what backlash though?

    • Only the author knows that. But that cannot be my call as the potential risk is not mine.

    • You cannot be afraid. I do, foreign and local, newspaper, radio, TV, international documentaries, public lectures and more. I don’t believe in hiding. I own it. That’s how you gain respect. I am not buying the backlash/risk story. You cannot be a coward if you want to join the conversation and make a difference.

    • I won’t be critical of the author for wishing to conceal his/her identity at this point. For me personally, I was invited by Lasana to submit a letter to the Editor last month on an issue which generated a small measure of controversy in the island. I went back and forth in my mind whether to do it, I certainly felt that I had a perspective that I could share. While the internal debate raged the issue more or less played itself out, with other more learned and capable commentators weighing in, so in my head the letter became moot. But a consideration for me was a desire to have as minimal an internet footprint as possible, that was not related to work. I prefer to keep my professional and private lives separate. The fact that this is a closed group and its contents and conversations private, that affords me the ability to maintain that separation. By reason of me being somewhat able to relate, I can’t criticize.

    • Now if I know we was using nom de plume and thing… 😀

    • Nigel, I understand in your case but in this case for Lasana Liburd to say “a local criminologist tackles the acting commissioner” and then that person uses a fake name…then you didn’t tackle anyone…because in reality you don’t exist…just my view…yuh cyar play mas and fraid powdah lol

    • On the issue of “crime detection” vs. “crime prevention,” I don’t believe in a zero sum approach to gauging police performance either. Detecting crime in theory, should allow for prevention of crime, but that’s only in theory. I’m almost of the position that crime “detection” by itself is a meaningless metric… or certainly one which diminishes in significance when measured against crime prevention and crime solving. I’m reminded here of the LifeLock commercial here in the US, involving the bank robbery.

      To me “detecting” crime is all fine and good, but what happens after you “detect” it? What does that even mean?

    • It is really the clearance rate not the detection rate.

    • In the US, we focus on the clearance rate; either clearance by arrest or clearance by exception.

    • Clearance by arrest, arrested, charged with the commission of an offense, and turned over to the court for prosection. Only an arrest not a conviction is required to clear the case for the Uniform Crime Reporting purposes.

    • Which is a more sensible metric.. but by posing the question at the end, I was allowing for the possibility that I wasn’t interpreting the
      “detection” term correctly.

    • Renee do we know what the clearance statistics look like for the TTPS?

    • I really don’t know. But probably not very good with a 14% detection rate, for the last 5 years, for homicide. Yet, I have so much confidence in the TTPS to turn things around in T&T. Visionary leadership required!

    • Pity… I was hoping for some light reading before turning in. I’m also sad to say that you have more faith in them than I do. I think we need more than just visionary leadership. It could be my own ignorance from not being there on the ground seeing the professionals among them in action, but I think we need to also change the culture of policing in Trinidad, and the mentality that seems to come with policing. There seems to be a sentiment permeating St. James where the job is looked upon more as a station in life… say nothing of a license to selectively disengage not only from law enforcement, but the very law itself.

    • Renee, are there any circumstances when those clearance statistics can be reversed? Say in cases where the court rules that the police framed an innocent person and the State ends up paying out money.

  26. My take on the Ag CoP, as much as I wanted to hold off, (I have things to do and I’m on vacation) starts with his comment: “A famous criminologist once said the more criminals you arrest, the more criminals come forward to be arrested.” To me this sounds like a line from the Black Man (Black Stalin) singing the more Africans that you kill….
    Who the hell is this “famous criminologist?” I have done more than my fair share of reading crim literature and never came across this. The fact that he is seeking to shift the goal post to “prevention” tells me he’s knee deep in it and cannot get out. He’s’ seeking to save face for him and the entire dysfunctional TTPS.

  27. The most of foolish speech could come from a high ranking person in a country is from this man then trump

  28. All i hear is crickets chirping.

  29. Poor fella! Doh blame he . NLCB and by ext. the govt. are D main cause . Is ah sickness . Skool book money, lite& WASA money , milk money & wa Eva money we poor fustrated middle class have!

  30. From the time I read “The first point that needs to be made for the record is that this position represents a major departure from the position espoused in his own strategic plans for 2014-2016 and 2017-2019, which both list the TTPS’ first Strategic Goal as to ‘Reduce and Detect Crime.’” it confirms to me that “strategic plan” was a pappyshow plan and as in many governmental organizations the leadership is clueless about developing and putting into action such plans.

  31. He act as COP so long that he’s actually acting that he’s thinking that what he’s actually thinking actually is what he’s to think of acting to say whilst he’s acting

  32. Am old school, informally educated in these matters..Eldrige Cleaver/George Lester Jackson, the immortal Lenny Bruce..So when I read/read of the comments of the like our our dear Commissioner I think he is what in ‘oceanography a ‘surface dweller..Maybe he is not paid to make trenchant analysis..

  33. Lasana Liburd why is a criminologist writing under a fake name? Smh

  34. Hear what eh, ah trying not to “threaten” him by revealing that deep down inside I really want a bandit to assault him eh, but this quenk is not a kiss-mih-ass social worker, he barely rank as ah adequate mall security guard.
    He is the CoP (God help us), and he should be concentrating on improving the TTPS abysmal detection rate and leave the damn social work to social workers and evangelizing tp the evangelists.

    Not only does he wine on the Trinidadian citizenry, but he does even have dey hand dong on the ground in ah wheelbarrow!

    • Earl Best

      You are right, Vernal. The tragedy, however, is that all we seem prepared to do about is as a country is whine (stet) back.