By Mike Campbell

The crime situation in Belize has escalated to the point where it has become the major topic in many conversations and personal safety has become a prime concern for many. Crime prevention, detection and successful prosecution require close cooperation between welltrained police officers and the community they serve. The community must trust the police to be honest and fair and the police must trust the community to be supportive and helpful. The cooperation between police and the community and the level of training of the police officers are the two most important factors in the effective policing of the community.

Throughout the Nation there is a distinct disconnect between the community and the police. This is true in spite of the obvious fact that the police are paid by the taxes of the community to provide protection and order necessary in a Civil Society. Police activities, or lack of, often form the butt of jokes by children and teens who let their disrespect be known at an early age. Indeed respect must be earned and it is difficult for a parent to instill respect for the law when it is sometimes difficult to respect those who are paid to enforce it. This is truly a serious problem and is no longer a laughing matter.

To move forward we must admit the obvious fact that the Belize Police Force in its present form is not capable of dealing with the rampant violent crime that is shaking the very foundations of our Nation. Conviction rates are abysmal and escapes from custody are common. The community has lost faith in the police to protect them from the worst elements of our society as they are paid to do. Crime is a community problem and can only be dealt with by the community. The root of this problem lies within the very preconceptions that have formed police policy and organization for all these years. We have never grown from a colonial police force to a community- based police force. The Belize Police Force is an extension of the colonial system where the Governor retained all power and communities were not allowed to police themselves furthering their dependence on the colonial government and making them much easier to control. Our very small population was also a major factor.

This structure and long established policies in the police force are primarily responsible for the disconnect between the police and those they are paid to serve and protect. Without effective cooperation between community and police crime control will never be possible. The long established policy of rotating officers around the country has been our downfall. The preconception was that officers would become corrupted if allowed to stay in one place for too long. Of course this assumes that both the officers and the community they serve are basically dishonest. That should never be a problem with a well-trained officer.

Our police are never from the community they are assigned to and are usually forced to live in substandard conditions. Having no real ties to the community they are regarded as outsiders and do not receive the full cooperation of the community they serve. Knowing they will be transferred in a few years there is no motivation to help the community and further they have no apparent responsibility for their actions to the community, only to the chain of command. The result is that the community does not trust the police and the police do not show respect for the community. They are trained to resist attempts at friendship with residents as it makes them supposedly more susceptible to corruption. The result is an unmotivated improperly trained police force that receives little support from the public in general. This antagonistic relationship between police and community is exploited by the criminal element.

The police must be part of the community as well as answerable to the community they serve in order to be effective. Police from top to bottom should be hired and fired by the particular community they serve based on their performance. We should have complete say as to who is policing our community and if they do not perform they must be replaced. Becoming a police officer is a commitment to the community. A police officer should love his community and regard the job as a permanent position. Ideally they will share the love of community that we all have and be motivated to do the best job. We have no opportunity to vet our police and know little about who is policing us. Officers who get in trouble in one way or the other are simply shuffled around to various unsuspecting communities often with tragic results. Whose fault is that?

If the police were answerable directly to the people of the communities they serve we would all be able to work together and bring our crime epidemic under control. The infection has spread from Belize City to infect all the towns. Our elected community leaders do not have the power to demand performance from our police even though it is our money that pays them. This is an unacceptable situation. The trips from Belmopan by various senior police, meetings with the various business groups and marches against crime are ineffective in an ever-widening spiral of violence. Starch, polish and posturing will not win the war. We need well-trained, well paid, law enforcement professionals working directly with the community.

I notice one of the San Pedro neighborhood watches has hired armed guards and they are proving effective. If we cannot control our own police in the future all the neighborhood watches will employ armed guards for their neighborhoods. The next step will be untrained militias and private police forces. It is much better that we take control of our police and take back our towns and country from the criminal elements who are attacking our society with impunity.

Any thought that we are not capable of or responsible enough to handle our own police without help from Belmopan is ridiculous. Belmopan cannot control crime within the police force, much less our crime epidemic. The buck in the towns should stop at the Chief Police Officer and the Mayor and all police officers should be hired by the community they serve. If the Chief cannot perform or control his officers we must replace him and anyone else that is not giving 100% in our fight against crime. Under this system of community policing, police brutality would be rare and crooked cops would be dealt with quickly. We should not be taking direction from Belmopan as to how to proceed in our individual communities. There are many differences in our individual communities that necessitate different approaches to achieve effective law enforcement.

Our leaders have proven unable to meet the crisis and we the people of Belize must step up to the plate and take responsibility for our own security. It is time we fought back. I am confident we can do a much better job of managing our security than those currently charged with that task. As it is criminals laugh at the police and the courts and whose fault is that? Without dramatic changes we will not move forward.

The Independent