The pro-society, big data policing plan

Above: The low-flying airship used by SAUTT was part of a surveillance effort that was eventually scrapped. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1126 for January 04, 2018

After another year in which crime has demonstrably been neither challenged nor even tested by those with the authority and responsibility for doing so, perhaps it’s time to stop hoping for an anti-crime plan.

Those strategies have long been deprecated in the public mind as well as in political marketability from the glory days of the Anaconda initiative like a blimp decisively deflated and banished from the skies.

It’s also time to abandon the illusion that Trinidad and Tobago is a wonderful society with a few aberrant criminals racking up remarkable murder tallies.

There are at least two societies active in T&T, one committed to all the lovely sentiments that church-going, law abiding citizens are supposed to abide by and another that LOLs at that type of thinking before stuffing a pistol into their cargo pants and going off to demand what they want.

Much of this country, one suspects, lives in the vast gray area between these two extremes, some tacitly supporting criminal activity in the hundreds of small ways that enable it to be so successful, most of the rest turning from the evidence of criminal activity while hoping not to be hit by a stray bullet.

These are not weak or foolish individuals living in strange lands, these are citizens of Trinidad and Tobago responding rationally to circumstances which demand a revised response in the interests of survival and the simple demands of everyday life.

T&T is not so much at war with crime as it is being taken advantage of by criminals, bullies with automatic weapons and sniper rifles.

If T&T is weak in its response to crime, it’s because the platitudes of law enforcement have been inexplicably unsupported by sustainable action.

There must be a programme to market the advantages of civil society in neighbourhoods identified as being at risk.

Official responses to hotspot areas have tended to be concessionary, and dangerous accommodations with criminals and opportunists blurring accountability to a startling extreme.

The late Hal Greaves brought a different level of engagement into those spaces, bringing reasoning to street corners and trusting in the value of the civil society he represented.

For reasons that remain unclear, there has never been a formal or sustained embrace of that similar thinking, which would have offered a clearly stated and sustainable alternative to so-called “thug life” and the societal structure that sustains it.

In conjunction with that effort at salesmanship must come more effective policing and for decades this country has been hobbled by chronic disinterest in collecting and analysing data.

The closest we’ve ever come to a coordinated effort at using information as a tool against crime was the Special Anti-Crime Unit (SAUTT), a poorly constituted but well-intentioned effort at creating an effective response to surging criminal activity.

I was led through a special tour of SAUTT in October 2006 and what I saw there was the beginnings of a methodical, fact-based effort at mapping criminal activity and designing effective responses to it.

SAUTT did not survive the change in government of 2010 and to date, there has been no equivalent effort at gathering actionable information on crime.

This is less a policing problem than it is a national problem.

In September 2017, Sean O’Brien, Director of Statistics (Ag) at the Central Statistical Office (CSO), in responding to what he described as “misinterpretations” of labour statistics, acknowledged that: “In Trinidad and Tobago the NSS (National Statistical System) is not functioning well, given that many ministries are struggling to prepare the source data at the requisite level of quality.”

The planned migration of the CSO to the National Statistical Institute with an accompanying improvement in its powers to collect national data has not been announced and is long overdue.

The inability of the Ministry of National Security to guide any significant effort at crime management and the apparent haplessness of its action arms to effect any deterrent on illegal activity can all be traced back to the shambles that is T&T’s data collection and analysis regimes.

In 2018, it is unconscionable that information gathered in the field by police officers and station reports remain trapped in log books which defy ready access and data circulation.

Data collection and analysis have been front-burner agenda items for years now in other countries. Artificial intelligence is used to scan masses of surveillance footage in real-time to identify patterns that call for human attention.

The same big data analysis that offers up links to product you’ve just searched for is being retooled to not just see links in activities that signal possible crime, it’s also being used to predict where crimes are likely to occur.

We’re not at pre-crime predictions yet, but the century is young, though the T&T distance from modern policing is intimidating.

Why are officers drawing bad sketches of accident scenes when there is Google Maps?

Why does it take days for information collected at one station to reach an investigator at another station?

Why, in the face of an otherwise modern and technology-mad nation are police officers being hobbled by systems that are a quarter of a century out-of-date?

An aggressive, results-focused Police Commissioner might want to acknowledge that he needs an administrative and analytical layer to provide actionable intelligence to his soldiers in the field that simply doesn’t exist in the hierarchy of the police service today.

While technology does have a presence in departments like the fraud squad, it seems largely absent in the mainstream of the response cycle of day to day policing.

The Police Service won’t get the results that citizens expect until it meets today’s crime with the capabilities of modern technology.