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Blimp madness in the sky

Newsday Editorial

One non-psychological definition of madness is "to persist in the same course of action while expecting a different outcome." This seems applicable to the Government’s rental of a second blimp to fight crime. When the first blimp was purchased at a cost of $26 million, plus another $14 million for on-board equipment, this newspaper expressed concern about how this would help reduce crimes such as murders and kidnappings. We also noted that the so-called "Skytowers" had been unveiled with similar hyperbole, only to become quickly non-functional because of technical problems. "Presumably, the blimp, which is a far more complicated piece of equipment, has better technical expertise to maintain it," we wrote.

But we presumed wrong. At Wednesday's press conference to announce the US$100,000-a-month rental of the Skyship 600, Brigadier Peter Joseph, the director of the Special Anti-Crime Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (SAUTT) listed a host of problems that had plagued the first blimp. Mr Joseph blamed this on the team hired to run it, and said that the new 20-member team which came with Blimp#2 will be taking over operations for Blimp#1. But various business organisations, as well as ordinary citizens, have already expressed scepticism that the second blimp will help reduce crime. And such a reaction is entirely understandable, since murders, kidnappings and robberies have only increased since Blimp#1 was purchased in July.

Mr Joseph offered the argument that first-world nations have used blimps to fight crime during large events, and that Blimp#2 had been brought in specifically to fight crime during the Carnival season. We, however, do not see how a blimp will help catch pickpockets, muggers, rapists, and murderers — especially at night-time or in the middle of a feting crowd. Besides, the last two Carnivals have been relatively crime-free, and that was solely because of heightened police presence and vigilance. Yet it seems that the authorities have not learned the simple lesson of this experience — that the key to containing crime lies in ensuring that the fundamentals of police work are carried out efficiently. Government spokespersons have previously hinted that the security forces are following a zero tolerance policy of the kind that supposedly reduced crime in New York in the 1990s under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. However, other American cities in the same period had large drops in crime rates without using zero tolerance policies. And, even in New York, it is not clear that this policy was the real reason crime dropped, since other policing measures were also introduced.

These included a reform of the management of the police force, which included the promotion of younger and more ambitious managers and the delegation of more authority to precinct commanders. There was also more monitoring and reviews of police performance at the district level through regular meetings. Gun-oriented policing and enhanced drug enforcement initiatives became priorities. The number of police officers was also significantly increased. In our view, these are the kind of fundamental changes needed if the authorities really want to rein in crime. But it appears that this blimp rental has more to do with politics than with crime-fighting, in that the Manning administration seems to believe that showy and expensive measures will send the message that the Government is indeed serious about reducing crime. But if this is the PNM's political calculation, the exasperated reaction of the citizenry to this latest initiative implies a fundamental miscalculation. And, if the next three months don't see a fall in crime, the Government's stocks will fall even more.

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