Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Balancing Safety and Civil Rights

During our present period of heightened public sensitivity around violent crime there are urgent calls for  action. People want to see the Bermuda Police Service making tangible progress in this area and they want to see the perpetrators of such crime brought to justice. One tool adopted by the BPS in arresting criminal behavour is the stop and search policy. Use of this policy, though, has raised important human rights questions the merit examination. Tonight’s forum on this issue organized by the newly formed Centre for Justice will no doubt prove instructive.

Under current laws the police have the authority to stop and search persons as part of a preemptive crime reduction initiative. So far this year about 15,000 stop and searches have been carried out and, according to the BPS, they are focused on “prolific priority offenders.”  With reported crime showing declines over last year this no doubt reinforces the view that stop and searches are both a credible and effective part of reducing crime.

An opposing view urges caution and restraint. Amid claims that persons with no criminal record are routinely stop and searched, there are concerns that one’s human rights, particularly regarding the presumption of innocence, have been comprised under this power. Lawyers and other human rights advocates arguing this see it as part of the slippery slope of the erosion of civil liberties.  

From the public perspective there is likely to be greater emphasis given to public safety over public freedom given that criminal behaviour has permeated our community in ways never before witnessed. Moreover, residents, generally, want to see the police more assertive and more in control in contrast to what for many seemed like police passivity amidst growing lawlessness. 

To be fair, those advocating caution equally want to see a community free of crime and where pervasive public safety is a fact of life and not merely an aspiration. Their concern is that in our quest to significantly reduce crime, in “policing the crisis”, we do not sacrifice the liberties so many fought for for so long. 

Specifically, there is concern that any member of the public can be stopped while travelling on our roads and be subjected to search of their vehicle and person. There is concern that this has a level of arbitrariness to it that impinges on the larger principle of freedom. Further, the argument is made that if we allow our freedoms to be carved back because of this issue a precedent will have been set for dealing with other issues.

Crime, particularly violent crime, is a fact of modern Bermuda that requires a strong and effective response. The BPS has a number of tools at their disposal to tackle their responsibilities in dealing with this issue, with stop and search powers one such tool. What we are prepared or, indeed required to give up in terms of freedoms to grant the authorities the power to act should be a matter of public debate.

The Centre for Justice needs to be commended for taking the initiative and bringing forward and juxtaposing  views on this important national problem. I have no doubt the panelists will inform, enlighten and help us to see a clearer way forward.

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