The base of our social ills

In days of yore, when persons were looking for solutions to the challenges that confronted this nation, Barbadians engaged in debates about how our society could be rebalanced. As usual, there was plenty of talk but few workable suggestions. And those ideas that were usable did not accord with the views of those who could implement them, so the status quo remained untroubled.

The most troubling subject these days is crime. That discussion has proven to be on lips for more than the usual nine days, probably because it seems so near to all of us. If it has not yet touched a family member, a friend or a colleague, incidents take place in districts that are not too far removed from us.

In this era of social media, every graphic scene is presented to our cellular phones, often when the blood is still hot and may not even have coagulated. In this delivery system, it matters not where the scene is or who the victims are. We all have a near front row seat to these crimes.

Two teenagers were killed by stabbing in Britain over the last weekend. These killings brought to ten the number of young people who died as a result of the use of knives for the year. This prompted the British Prime Minister to call a summit with Government ministers, police and community leaders. According to her, they needed to find out what more could be done as a society as a whole to tackle this problem. She added, “We will only defeat the scourge of violence if we understand and address the complex root causes.”

The leader of the opposition Labour Party called it a national crisis that had to be tackled immediately. He was not alone in connecting the increase in violent crime to Government austerity measures. Funding for police services has been reduced and there are 21 000 fewer officers in the country now than was the case in 2010.

Probably as critical as reduced policing was the closure of 760 youth centres. These centres obviously played an important role in directing young energies into positive activities. The Prime Minister obviously denied that there was a direct correlation between reduced police numbers and increased crime. The head of the Metropolitan Police Service did not share her view.

Why is this information important to us? The population of England in 2018 was estimated to be 55.8 million people. The population of the United Kingdom was estimated at over 67 million. In a population this size, ten deaths by knife for the year is considered a national emergency that has swung all the relevant authorities into remedial action. Barbados has a total population of 375 000 people and has recorded 14 murders so far in 2019, and it is not a national emergency.

What could inform the difference in attitude between Britain and Barbados towards the criminal deaths of citizens? The answer to this question may be quite profound and could reveal the dark underbelly of our society.

The British people would best understand what informs and influences the behaviour of their young people. My observations from this distance could only be generic and may well miss the point completely. However, while I would not dismiss the correlation between reduced police numbers and increased crime there, I do agree with some commentators that the problem could be more complex.

Without laying off officers here, the reduced numbers in the ranks of the Royal Barbados Police Force has the same effect as the British layoffs. Fewer officers, however arrived at, reduces the ability of the Force to adequately cover all the areas of concern. To correct that problem, managers have to stretch their dedicated officers beyond the normal call of duty to provide that cover. While this is a common feature of local policing, it is unsustainable.

If a return to pre 2010 numbers of officers would solve the British problem, they have an easier solution than we do. The local Force needs to have all of its ranks filled, but that alone will not prevent the quality of crime we see here now.

Crime in Barbados is more deep seated than not having patrolling officers. There are some fault lines which underlie our society that must be corrected if we are to curb our crime. Unfortunately, this discussion is not sexy and no one is in a hurry to have it.

There is a widely held view that our education system is the breeding ground for the criminal element that now torments our streets. We have copied, implemented and sustained a failed system which reinforces our class divide and creates a permanent underclass by labelling the entire population of some schools as failures and treating them that way. At the age of eleven, we take away their drive for success and give them no chance to excel in mainstream society.

I am told that if you enter the bathrooms and some classrooms at these holding institutions, one would find colourful depictions of gang names and negative expressions about school. When our statistics show that nearly all of our violent criminals are coming from certain schools, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that our school system is producing our crime. These persons who are set up to fail from age eleven will not be deterred by more police officers on the beat.

What is being done to these children is wholly unfair and unfortunate. In spite of their stigma, many of the people who attend these schools achieve above what is expected of them and become solid citizens who make significant contributions to Barbados. Clearly, if they were not hamstrung, there would be a positive domino effect, benefiting them and the country.

We have been bombarded for years now with information about the negatives of corporal punishment. I know of no one who likes lashes, but the arguments against this form of discipline can sometimes be sublime. I saw a social media post where someone drew an analogy between corporal punishment and being beaten with a piece of 2x4 wood.

Every teacher to whom I have spoken since last week’s ministerial pronouncements, and the one want-to-be teacher who engaged me for a long time on the subject, have expressed uncertainty on the way forward for them in the classroom. The common position is to “stay away from the people children”. One colourful explanation was, “The people tek money from international organisations to mash up we system by introducing their policies here. We don’t have their standards or their culture”.

The Minister has promised to reform the education system. One would have to be a hypocrite not to acknowledge that our system is in need of reform. The question to be asked is will the system be genuinely reformed or will we have cosmetic tinkering that changes nothing?

Barbados Advocate

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