Former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton is somewhat of a legend in law enforcement in the west. Wherever he has taken his philosophy and policing style, they have invariably resulted in a reduction of crime. His “broken windows theory” of basically paying significant attention to the little things or ‘small crimes’ as one way of preventing and indeed solving serious crimes, has proven highly successful.
So successful have been Mr Bratton’s methods, that in 2011 former British prime minister David Cameron offered the now 70-year-old the position of Metropolitan Police Commissioner but this was blocked because Mr Bratton is not a British citizen. Though he never took up that post he nevertheless served as an advisor to the British government on matters related to crime and national security.
Americans like labels and are quite adept at giving names to strategies already in existence elsewhere and that often predate the names they ascribe to them. Though Mr Bratton’s philosophy might have been one deliberately defined and articulated, the idea of paying attention to minor infractions as a possible route to solving major crimes has been practised in the Barbados jurisdiction, even if not designated the ‘broken windows theory”. It is a matter of public record that in the 1990s police officers checking routinely on bicyclists using the road without all the legally required accoutrements, solved a most heinous homicide. But to Mr Bratton’s credit, he saw the ‘broken windows theory’ not as something to be dusted off and used occasionally, but as something that should be a way of life for those involved in the fight against criminality. The point to be made is that it worked and it worked spectacularly.
But the lesson to be learnt from this strategy is not only about the fight against crime. The lesson to be learnt relates to general behavioural connectivity. We often ignore or dismiss the ‘small things’ without realizing their relationship to the ‘bigger things’ that can impact our lives negatively and in some cases fatally.
Thus, when the heavy rains come and flood waters remove homes from their perches, or sweep through living rooms and bedrooms, and occasionally take human life, we forget the blocked drains and cluttered gullies filled with the plastic cups, Styrofoam containers, refrigerators and stoves that we casually and callously disposed of in a manner that was destined to return to haunt us. If we deal with the simple things like proper waste disposal today, it might save us the unwanted inconvenience, expense and harm tomorrow.
We have been given the privilege of a free primary and secondary education but often our children abuse that privilege by truancy, indifference, violent behaviour and criminality. Then years later as adults, those erstwhile children blame the ‘system’ for their lack of employment opportunities and upward mobility. They suggest that they have become involved in anti-social behaviour because they have their families to feed. They blame their possible incarceration or destitution on the Government, the Church, the white man, the Indian man, the next-door neighbour. No blame is ever placed on their refusal to accept the privilege and opportunity provided by the offer of a free academic or technical education.
We acknowledge the problem of non-communicable diseases and the link between this problem and our diet and our often sedentary lifestyle. In this technological age, we are bombarded daily with this information at every turn. Yet we do not act, but simply react after the major killers that are obesity and diabetes are on our doorsteps. The little inexpensive things like less sugar intake, less alcohol, no smoking, more exercise are ignored and we become burdens on family and state because we failed to pay attention to the ‘small things’.
And this is repeated in many aspects of our daily interactions. We ignore and have no time to pay attention to those small telltale signs that our children might be using illegal substances, might be victims of sexual molestation, bullying. Then, one day some of them stop being the victims and become the perpetrators.
Mr Bratton often spoke about zero tolerance to criminality and it permeated throughout the agencies under his control that were charged with making the society safe. Unfortunately, in Barbados, many of our problems have to do with inconsistency and mere lip service emanating from those at the frontline of protecting civil society.
Therefore, we have a situation where the Royal Barbados Police Force might work assiduously to put a dangerous felon behind bars and a judiciary that takes the option of putting the same individual back on the streets, often multiple times, even though bail is discretionary and optional. And if we check the history of these criminal elements, we are more than likely to find that they were getting the proverbial ‘pat on the back’ when they were doing the little things, committing the ‘small crimes’. Are we therefore now surprise that in today’s Barbados most of these evil elements in our society believe they can get away with murder?