Busting the ‘crime-wave’ myth | Sunday Observer

Busting the ‘crime-wave’ myth

In spite of a spate of brutal murders reported recently, criminologists and researchers say claims of a ‘crime-wave’ sweeping the nation are not grounded in data and statistics and warn that excessive and out-of-context media focus could be contributing to public hysteria, but acknowledge that criminal activity has become more brutal and gruesome in recent times

On July 9, when within just a matter of 24 hours six brutal murders were reported, media headlines buzzed about a ‘crime wave’ sweeping the country. Among the most recent killings this week that shocked the nation were two brazen shootings which ended the lives of three, including that of a Colombo Municipal Councillor, the gruesome stabbing of a popular singer in the country and the murder of a Policeman by a Buddhist monk.

As news alerts flowed in reporting gruesome murder after murder, it appeared that violence and brutality was sweeping across the nation, with law enforcement seemingly powerless to put an end to the killings. Blame fell squarely on the Police Department that had failed to check a surge in grave crime.

Taking a step back from the hysteria about a ‘crime wave’ that was pounced on by opposition parliamentarians and their friendly media outfits, the Sunday Observer scrutinized official data regarding the incidence of grave crimes including murder, to determine if there was indeed a trend emerging that pointed to a sharp increase in crime and lawlessness.

Police statistics in this regard paint a different picture. (See graphic)

Armed with figures the Police have sought to refute these allegations claiming that crimes are on a downward spiral while the rate of crime resolving has seen a rise in the recent past. But experts emphasize the need for a national policy on crime prevention, with greater focus on crime prevention.

According to the Minister of Law and Order, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, crimes have seen a decline in the last three years. “Between 2014 and 2018 the rate of homicides have dropped by 18 per cent” Minister Madduma Bandara pointed out, adding that the resolving rate has increased from 83 per cent in 2014 to 90 per cent by 2018. Police statistics also claim a reduction of robberies by 21 per cent since 2014 while 40 leading suspects of gang violence have been arrested in the last six months alone.

Nevertheless, recent and very public crimes have left the people alarmed. Deputy Minister of Law and Order, Nalin Bandara reassures that the public need not worry regarding their safety. According to the Deputy Minister admittedly gang rivalry related crime has increased with it playing out in the open giving a perception of increase in crime. Commenting on the claims of a crime wave, Police Spokesman SP Ruwan Gunasekara puts it down to false propaganda led by personal agendas. “It is a disservice to the Police” he says.

Yet another reason according to experts is the widespread coverage of crime by the local press which paints the picture of a crime-ridden nation. But, as one researcher pointed out, the allegations of a ‘crime wave’ were not backed by facts or figures, which cast doubts upon such sweeping claims. Criminologist and Senior Lecturer at the Jayewardenapura University, Udaya Kumara Amarasinghe tends to agree.

Shock waves

“The media often reports widely on crimes that elicit emotions and creates shock waves among the public” he says, adding that therefore, most often it is the crimes that are most brutal that get widespread coverage making people think there is an increase in crime. According to him while the statistics paint a contrary picture about the increase in crime, what has happened if at all, is the brutality of these crimes has increased over time.

As a society exposed to widespread violence in the past three decades this should not come as a surprise says Galkande Dhammananda thera of the Walpola Rahula Institute. “The things we see, we hear, form our mindset” he points out. Quoting the Buddha, Dhammananda thera says a war only leaves a society riddled with hate which can be prone to violence. “This can be why crimes are still commonly prevalent in society today”.

Criminologist and Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of Kelaniya Dr. Anusha Edirisinghe points to the constant competition in society, especially, in the education system, which may have led to a breakdown of moral code and values, which may have contributed to criminality.

The Government insists however, that it is intensifying its efforts to curb crimes in the country. While Ministerial level discussions are being held on combating crime, Minister Madduma Bandara says, the Police and the STF were conducting comprehensive programs for the purpose.

As a result, SP Gunasekara says, IGP Pujith Jayasundara conducts weekly progress review meeting with all senior officers involved in crime investigations. “The IGP has also ordered for continuous narcotics raids” he said.

However, according to experts, combating crime is far more complex and should go beyond reactive policing. Others have pointed out that while the main focus of the Police appears to be on organized crimes, prevention of non gang related crimes are proving to be more problematic and are not being addressed.

While admitting that reactive policing and crime control is needed to curb crimes in the short term, Amarasinghe says, in the long term Sri Lanka needs a National Policy for Crime Prevention. “It is not even being discussed at the moment” he laments, adding that newer crime prevention concepts, such as, crime prevention through environmental design, urban planning and town planning should also be looked at.

According to the Jayewardenepura University Senior Lecturer, prevention should also be a focus of law enforcement. “Killings by underworld gangs are often highlighted but in reality these are few and far between”. Comparatively, he says, the majority of the murders today occur due to reasons such as land disputes, familial disputes and illicit relationships, as well as drugs and alcohol. “To resolve these issues we need community based partnership programs”.

He says, programs should also be conducted to identify members of the public who are at risk of facing violence. “Society cannot expect the Police alone to combat crime,” he says, adding that community partnerships are a must. While the Community Policing Division of the Police have been attempting to introduce similar programs their effectiveness on crime prevention is yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, Dr Anusha Edirisinghe says, the lack of an analysis of crime trends today has prevented experts from understanding the depth of the issue in society. “For example, the connection between crime and politics must be explored” she points out.

According to academics in the field, the complex web of crimes means there are a number of indirect issues causing obstacles to crime prevention.

For example, they point out, while cyberspace use leading to extra marital affairs often creates family disputes and eventually, end in a murder, not teaching people the correct way to use the facility can become an obstacle to prevent similar incidents in the future showing the complexity of crime prevention.

Unable to fathom how to change a society already prone to criminality Dhammananda thera says, the only solution he sees is through inculcating change in the younger generation.

“My advice is to invest in the children, to create more wholesome individuals” he says, warning that it is the only way to ensure the healing of society in the near future.