Facing the reality and perception of crime
According to acting Police Commissioner Tyrone Griffith, Barbados, from a statistical standpoint, has a lower level of crime today than a decade ago. The most obvious inference that can be drawn from the top cop’s statement, is that Barbados today is a much safer society than ten years ago.
To quote Mr Griffith, as he spoke during a panel discussion at last week’s Caribbean Tourism Organization’s State of the Industry Conference: “We are actually better off statistically today than ten years ago.”
He went on: “In fact, for the last 15 years, crime in Barbados was always annually in excess of 8,000 crimes. For the last two years, crime has been less than 8,000 and this year, it’s also on track to be less than well.”
While the top cop may be correct in his assessment of the situation based on police crime figures, the really pertinent question is if the average Barbadian believes that the country is safer. Truth be told, the picture Mr Griffith presented does not square with the perception of most Barbadians based on our reading of prevailing public opinion.
When the average Barbadian thinks of crime, he or she feels that the problem has actually become worse –– many would say out of hand –– and that the island is not as safe as ten years ago. No doubt, the major factor contributing to the formation of this common perception, has been an upsurge in gun-related crime during the past few years.
This level and kind of gun violence are entirely new to the Barbadian experience and are linked to apparently easier access by the criminal element to illegal weapons reportedly being smuggled into the island. A number of brazen killings, involving the use of guns, have shocked the nation, to the point that many Barbadians openly admit to being scared to venture out, especially at night for the purpose of recreation, to avoid becoming a victim of crime.
The police chief, therefore, has a hard time convincing the population that crime is indeed lower or that Barbados is safer. Perception, based on personal feelings rather than hard facts, becomes the reality for the average person. It is the lens through which they see the issue.
Actually, the findings of a study by the Pew Research Centre in the United States support the point that public perception generally is at odds with the reality of crime which presents a believability issue for police and other law enforcement authorities.
The study pointed to a fundamental shift of public attitudes over the past two decades where Americans, because of a perception that crime was increasing when it was actually in decline, had become more supportive of gun ownership rights than gun control which previously had strong support.
“Over the past 25 years or so, there has been a divergence between American perceptions about crime and actual crime rates. And those who worried about crime had favoured stricter gun control; now, they tend to desire keeping the laws as they are or loosening gun control. In short, we are at a moment when most Americans believe crime rates are rising and when most believe gun ownership –– not gun control –– makes people safer,” a synopsis of the report said.
“Perception and reality,” said American actor Tom Cruise, “are two different things,” Perception, however, wields greater influence on human behaviour than statistical data. This is the dilemma which confronts the leadership of the Royal Barbados Police Force in seeking to convince Barbadians that overall crime is actually down.
Interestingly, the findings of an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) study, published by this newspaper yesterday, appear to challenge the basis of the top cop’s assessment. The 117-page report, entitled Crime and Violence in Barbados, noted actual research into crime and violence on the island remained glaringly limited and that the absence of credible crime data was affecting the quality of overall decision-making.
“Policy decisions relating to crime reduction necessitate a continuous supply of empirical work that will give decision makers the evidence needed to make rational choices regarding possible strategies,” the detailed report said.
Until Barbadians see hard evidence of police success in removing most illegal weapons off the streets, stopping the influx into the island, and making sure the perpetrators are behind bars, Barbadians will continue to be apprehensive because the crime statistics will not square with their perception of the problem.
Changing this perception will not be an easy task.