Previously published in the Irish Independent.
It’s very easy to understand the recent calls for hate crime legislation that came from many decent people, rightly outraged at the racist attack on a Chinese woman near Dublin’s Royal Canal.
But would it have helped her if such a law was already on the statute book?
Would those who attacked her have paused because they would have feared crossing some legal rubicon?
It’s all well and good having laws in statute books, but what anyone under physical criminal attack needs is help, primarily from either police capable of delivering a speedy and robust defence, or the attackers fearing that continuing the attack will reduce their chance of escape.
What comes after, how society deals with the crime through its judicial system, is a different matter.
But for now, we need to focus on rapid response to the crime-in-progress, and it’s simply not logical to expect the Garda to be everywhere.
Even if we doubled the number of Guards it would have only a limited impact and almost less in public perception than the cost of doing it.
But I can’t help thinking technology and some imagination might give a better return.
Perhaps highly visible Garda drones should be commonplace, hovering over high-risk areas and connected to a command centre that can automatically feed images into facial recognition software. They can be used to rush quickly to reported incidents, and whilst they can’t physically intervene they can assist in the apprehension of criminal suspects by ground units.
Indeed, a group of criminals engaged in, say, a mugging, have an incentive to desist and flee because the drone can only track a few of them at a time.
Would putting more Garda on motorbikes (guided by Drone Central) allow for a more rapid deployment?
Should those convicted be required to register their mobile phones with the Garda, and carrying an unregistered device be made a criminal offence for convicted criminals? A sort of digital ASBO?
I can’t claim to have any expertise in law enforcement of course, and there will almost certainly be problems with the above suggestions, but surely some experimentation might help.
The NYPD cracking down on illegal street windscreen cleaners resulted in loads of warrant jumpers being accidentally located. Many old-guard cops in New York City sneered when the ComStat crime tracking system was first mooted, but it became an important aid in identifying crime patterns and allowing for the better targeting of resources. It played a significant role in the reduction of crime in New York in the 1990s.
One interesting point would be that such use of technology would possibly lead to an increase in reported crime, as citizens who currently may not bother to report crime because they have no faith in it being investigated might then do so. Imagine an app where one could report “low level” crime like graffiti or vandalism or flytipping, knowing that every report adds to a better picture of where crime is or more importantly might occur, and allow for better deployment of resources.
The suggested use of much greater surveillance, through recognition software, data collection and eyes-in-the-sky certainly warrants a debate about what sort of society do we want?
Do we want to live in a country like that?
What if the choice is between the nominal freedom of less surveillance, where some gang of gurriers can kick your teeth in with both your and their privacy being respected, or a Garda drone either frightening them into stopping or guiding Gardai to your location?
What would you prefer? It probably depends on whether your mouth is filled with the slight metallic taste of your own blood.
To paraphrase one of fiction’s most hardline lawmen, who do you want to see arriving when you’re being mugged? A policeman or your attacker’s human rights advocate?
Of course we must have human rights.
We have to be very careful about not accidentally stumbling into a police state.
I’m also very much a sceptic about throwing anyone in prison and throwing away the key.
It’s incredibly expensive and for the most part it doesn’t work.
Nor am I certain what the alternative is.
But I do know one thing for certain.
My personal safety, my liberty and right to walk this country without fear of assault is at least as equal as the rights of the people who might assault me, and if the defence of those rights involves living in a society with a greater level of public surveillance, I can live with that.
I get that putting young people into a brutal prison system is almost guaranteed to make them criminals.
We should not see prison as primarily some sort of old testament form of revenge. We should also recognise that the likes of Norway has had great success in reducing juvenile crime by taking a more liberal and enlightened approach to incarceration.
I’m willing to look at all that and yes, if necessary, fund it with my taxes.
But what I’m not willing to tolerate is that I have to sacrifice my physical safety to reach that point.
Yes, prison should be about rehabilitation, but primarily it should be about keeping violent people physically away from the rest of us, and yes, that should be its primary function.
As part of that debate, there’s much talk in recent times about the phrase Defund the Police.
As slogans go, it’s hard to imagine one which is so damaging to the cause it purports to advance. In fairness, for many of its advocates, Defund the Police isn’t about abandoning our law enforcement-free streets to thugs, but proactively spending on things that might prevent crime in the first place.
It’s a perfectly noble aim.
I just prefer the slogan in its original form: Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.