“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’:
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.