Commentary: Crime and the at-risk Caribbean child
By Dr Olusola O. Karimu and Dr Celvin G Walwyn
The rise in crime in St Kitts and Nevis is not an unexpected phenomenon. As a matter of fact, it was expected. The Caribbean region is undergoing a massive challenge in the way law enforcement combats crime. An even bigger challenge is that the once docile citizen is now displaying a lack of confidence in those who are sworn to protect and serve.
It is easy to place blame on whatever political party or politician the people dislike most. It is also easy for governments to panic and hire consultants with no public safety background to help quell the issue of crime in their countries. What they end up getting is a large bill and no results, while their crime continues to escalate. Crime went from 29% over three years to 50% in two years.
According to Nigerian criminologist Dr Olusola O. Karimu (2015), these governments focus on the controversies of gun ownership, gun violence, and the relationship between guns, drugs, and gangs (Martinez, Mares & Ronsefeld, 2008). What they fail to do is speak directly to those who have been convicted of these crimes to understand the problem from the perspectives and experiences of those who are convicted and therefore directly involved in committing the crime (Kleck and Kovanidick, 2009).
This is something that was done by Dr Walwyn, who went to the prison and spoke with the inmates involved in the gang warfare in the Federation and got insights from them on how to reduce crime in the Federation. It is evident that the strategy worked, as the Federation realized an almost 30% decline in major crimes during a 36-month term from 2012-2014.
The following is a mix of Dr Karimu’s writings and Dr Walwyn’s observations as a police commissioner.
The mindset explained by Kleck and Kovandick (2009) is similarly displayed by criminal justice professionals, academics and community advocates who work with offenders involved in gun violence crime and especially communities in general who have been affected by this problem. These groups need to understand the detailed perceptions and experiences of these offenders that they might develop strategies, provide better futures for the offenders, and give hope to communities who are greatly affected by their crime. The fact is that there are no known studies that have been carried out among the population of convicted gun violence offenders in St Kitts-Nevis jails. The following statements are based on Dr Karimu’s research.
A qualitative study was conducted by (Bennett and Fraser, 2000) on gun violence among African American males, using the social disorder theory. These social scientists argued that the effectiveness of families in raising children is directly related to the effectiveness of neighborhoods in supporting families. Neighborhoods provide settings that help promote critical developmental processes, which in turn shape a child’s sense of well-being and self-efficacy.
Social developmental processes that occur through involvement with parents, teachers, and peers are contextually dependent. That is, they are based on webs of strong and weak social ties that provide role models and rewards for pro-social behavior (Fraser, 1996). Bennett and Fraser, noted that these processes are disrupted when fear of victimization, anger, and pessimism break down social cohesion.
From this perspective, the nature of the social environment — particularly the neighborhood — affects family functioning. Moreover, it helps to explain collective destructive acts that occur in riots, gang confrontations, and other seemingly spontaneous violent events.
Therefore, it is important to note that gun violence and violent crime are neither equally likely to occur in all societies nor randomly spread through a given country. As argued by the social disorganization theorists, violence is a pattern within cities.
Persistently high levels of neighborhood violence and crime rates are due in part to the cultural transmission of deviant/ violent values (Vito, Maahs & Homes, 2007). Once crime becomes entrenched in a location, violence becomes a natural part of the cognitive landscape. Gun violence and other types of violent behaviors become a way of life and a means to solve personal and life problems.
This is exemplified by the study of Hochstetler and Copes (2008), which concludes that exposure to violence and other criminal activities in one’s neighborhood at a young age, fosters an environment that will lead individuals to rationalize their participation in criminal behavior even when confronted with other viable alternatives.
Similarly, Breetzke (2010) and Fox, Lane, and Akers (2010) have also conducted studies to test and confirm the usefulness of social disorganization theory as an explanation of criminal behavior.
This explains why St Kitts and Nevis and the rest of the Caribbean are experiencing these challenges. The fundamentals of ensuring that the community invests in the children have been negated. The result is children finding alternatives to their perception of economics, as many are unemployed and face daily challenges of hunger and poverty. A quick fix without the right tools leads to more devastation.
The Federation once had viable alternatives to the gang situation. From 35 murders in 2011 to 21 murders in 2014. Juvenile crime was reduced to almost zero. There were programs in the primary and secondary schools to help curb gang recruitment. The programs reached all the way down to the kindergarteners. This implementation was a suggestion from a gang member who wanted to save the children from recruitment.
Talking about saving the children, saving the economy, and preserving life in the Caribbean, comes at a cost to local governments. They can continue paying for unqualified consultants to come and spout theories, or they can go back to the basics and return the programs of MAGIC and TAPS to the schools. They can also return to the courses of annual customer service refresher courses for all police employees (civilians included).
Our police forces are the ambassadors of the government and the local communities. An officer’s demeanor when dealing with the public must constantly be kept in check. There is also a need for the government to establish and monitor the philosophy of the police force as it relates to community policing. The police must be perceived to be approachable.
Crime is everyone’s business and the police needs community participation to solve crimes. Social media programs can help repair the bridge between community and police.
The years 2012 to 2014 saw a decline in major crime in St Kitts and Nevis. Crime in the schools also was at an all-time low. The St Kitts government supported programs like the Law Enforcement Explorers Program (LEEP), where at-risk children from the Basseterre and West Basseterre areas would meet at the police training schools every other weekend to learn leadership development in law enforcement. They were given alternatives to drugs, gangs, guns, and violence.
This was designed to reach the young men who lived in gang infested neighborhoods. It was working. The instructor was a police-trained PEP worker. The commissioner of police attended every meeting. It worked; so did MAGIC and TAPS. The question then would be one that simply asks, has crime in that Federation increased since 2014? The results were published last week by their police and, from a 29% decrease in crime, they rose to 56% increase in crime. What went wrong? Were the factors put in place to reach and divert the juveniles replaced or removed?
Finally, Dr Karimu has strongly expressed that no single theory can adequately explain criminal behavior because of the diverse nature of the etiology of criminal behavior. Dr Karimu also suggested that to be effective in crime fighting we should ask three questions:
1. Do the same neighborhood characteristics that are associated with elevated levels of crime also explain the relationship between gun violence and the urban neighborhoods?
2. Does social disorganization explain the relationship between the condition of a neighborhood and crimes involving gun violence?
3. What is the life experience of the convicted gun violence offenders of Her Majesty’s Prison and how is it related to gun violence?
As we ponder these questions, may the leadership of the Caribbean look, listen, and learn as they prepare to face the challenges ahead. The crime in their regions has the potential to increase, especially as the new US immigration policies go into effect.
About the authors:
Dr Olusola O. Karimu, a US-trained criminal justice professional and international police consultant, teaches at a university in Nigeria and can be reached on Twitter at @olusok
Dr Celvin G Walwyn, a career US law enforcement official, served as a Texas police chief and Caribbean commissioner of police, now an international police consultant, also serves as an adjunct professor at a major Texas university. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at @drwalwyn on Twitter.