Nipping crime wave in the bud | Daily News

Nipping crime wave in the bud

Killings in broad daylight by motorcycle gunmen shocked the public.
Killings in broad daylight by motorcycle gunmen shocked the public.

Crimes affect all of society negatively, and create a sense of fear, helplessness and insecurity among the people. Their numbers and patterns tell a lot about the country we live in. While, there will never be a society that is free from crime, it is important to make continuous efforts to bring down their rates.

Amidst a crippling economic crisis, worsened by a scarcity of foreign exchange, last year was in fact hard for most of the Sri Lankans. On top of that, there were concerns of a crime wave, as front pages of newspapers and news bulletins of electronic media were full of stories of mysterious and horrific crimes, the latest major incident being the (suspected) murder of wealthy businessman Dinesh Schaffter.

Sri Jayewardenepura University Criminology and Criminal Justice Professor
Neranji Wijewardana

Not less than 11 bodies washed up on the shoreline last year, including the beaches in Colombo, and more cold-blooded killings were reported in broad daylight, especially in the Western Province, raising many eyebrows.

Terrifying acts of motorcycle gunmen shooting down people on roads or roadside shops in crowded cities, as caught on CCTV footage, were not uncommon on television news. There was an instance where shots were even fired at a defendant inside the Mount Lavinia Magistrate's Court Complex, while a drug-related case was taken up for trial, speaking volumes of the audacity of the present-day organised crime groups. These crime scenes, at times as unbelievable as in a crime movie, were too disturbing for the citizenry, the majority of whom are law-abiding and peace-loving.

The Police attributed a considerable number of shootings to infighting of underworld gangs, and according to their reports, most targets were linked to criminal activity, including drug peddling.

Going by the Police records of grave crimes, a homicide had been committed in every 15 and half hours in Sri Lanka last year, and the number of homicides had gone up from 464 in 2020 to 521 in 2021 and 516 in the first eleven months of 2022. (The Police have not yet finalized the data for December last year.) Noteworthy, the Police records show that types of property crime had been on the rise last year compared to the year before that.

The growth of grave crimes depicts the country in a bad light, and it can prove costly to the current efforts to attract more tourists and Foreign Direct Investments. Therefore, prevention of crimes should be a priority in the year 2023, for the country to move forward.

Exploring statistics

A haul of stolen cash and jewellery recovered by the Police from the suspects.

Several bodies washed ashore in Colombo and surrounding areas last year.

Over 3,700 cases of rape of women were reported in the last two years.

Vehicle thefts have increased.

The Police-recorded crime data indicated that there had been 7,882 incidents of burglary and property theft and 2,741 incidents of robbery (kollakem) in 2022 (up to November 30), whereas their numbers stood at 6,840 and 2,276 respectively in the whole year of 2021. In other words, burglaries and property thefts had increased by more than 1,000 and robberies had increased by more than 500 last year compared to those of 2021.

The statistics show that the percentage of solving property crimes is below the mark, with more than half of the total cases of burglary and property theft and 40 percent of the total cases of robberies remain unsolved last year. This set back could be observed in 2021 as well.

The Police reports indicated that there had been 1,585 incidents of causing grave injuries and 334 abductions in the last two years. Commendably, the Police had been able to solve 93.6 percent of cases of causing grave injuries and 88 percent of cases of abduction in those two years.

The rape cases do not show an increase according to the Police books, but their total numbers remain as high as 1,792 in 2022 (up to November 30) and 1,970 in 2021, an enough reason for worry. Also, the real number of rape cases could be higher than what was reported to the Police. In the meantime, the Police had dealt with 159 complaints of cruel treatment against children in the last two years.

In addition, the Police had acted on 86 cases related to possessing and printing counterfeit currency notes in the last two years, achieving 100 percent progress in solving them.

Big picture

On the other hand, crimes do not occur in a vacuum, and are typically the consequence of broader social issues such as poverty, inequality, unemployment, neglect, alcohol and drug abuse, etc. In other words, the society shapes the circumstances in which criminal activity occurs. Understanding and addressing the root causes why people break the law and behave violently are necessary to adequately prevent them and also to tackle them successfully.

While most of the crimes committed as a result of the economic stress experienced by the individuals last year could be seen as unorganised or opportunistic crimes, a more serious and complicated network of organised crime groups could also be seen active last year, covertly receiving the patronage of ill-motivated politicians and businessmen.

Organised crimes are generally defined as transnational, national, or local groupings of highly centralized enterprises run by criminals to engage in illegal activities, most commonly for profit. These activities may include trafficking in people, drugs, illicit goods and weapons, armed robbery, counterfeiting and money laundering. The rise of organised crimes points to an erosion of the rule of law in the country and poses a threat to public safety.

Underlying causes

Prof. Neranji Wijewardana of the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department of the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty of Sri Jayewardenepura University, underlined that the authorities probing into crimes need the space to function independently if the rule of law to be properly maintained.

Speaking to the Daily News, she pointed out that the people tend not to support the law when they become disappointed with its implementing mechanism, and the organised gangs are quick to exploit such situations to their advantage.

“Since the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in 2019, a state of instability developed in the country. It worsened with the natural disasters that followed, especially the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of these and the many white collar crimes committed over the past decades, the country backslid in socio-economic and cultural aspects,” she remarked.

“This is what the social scientists term as an anomic society”, she explained. (Anomie is a condition of instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals.) “It results in a state of normlessness. The social scientists have established that such situations aggravate crimes,” she added.

“The incitement for crime is more when the economy of the country is weak and in crisis. Due to COVID-19, many daily wage earners lost their income. The unemployment and youth unrest have also grown lately. People have become stressed as they find it hard to keep the home fires burning. People often tend to lose their patience and self-control as they are struggling with a lot of problems,” she said, analysing the current Sri Lankan context.

In addition to the opportunistic crimes committed as a result of the economic stress, she observed that, the competition among organised crime rings, involving in drug peddling and weapons trade, which have become billion-dollar businesses operating illegally, has also led to cold-blooded killings.

Law enforcement

Examining the various reasons behind the unrestrained activity of criminal groups, she commented; “The implementation of law against high-profile criminals has been slow, and the criminal groups have turned that weakness to their advantage. There are various tiers among organised crime gangs and when one individual, even in a lower tier, gets into trouble, the entire mob acts fast, as otherwise all of them get exposed.

“The media too have been sensationalising the crime stories, creating an impression that anybody can get away with even after killing somebody in broad daylight. The criminals’ fear for the law has disappeared.

“At the same time, the criminals nowadays increasingly exploit the cyber space to commit various crimes. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the people’s online presence increased and people started using the Internet more and more through mobile phones and other devices. Many unsuspecting individuals have recently fallen prey to online scammers, and sometimes those incidents have not even been reported.

“Moreover, we sometimes see that the investigative bodies spend more time investigating minor offences, while more serious crimes, which need to be acted upon urgently, remain unsolved. For example, the interest shown to find the culprit who stole a coconut may not be seen when investigating into some large-scale crimes or frauds”.

The relevant authorities have a responsibility to make sure that a trend of horrific crimes, as seen in the last year, does not cast a dark shadow on 2023 as well. Protecting people from murder, robbery, theft, rape and child abuse, and of course from dangerous drugs is tantamount to protecting their human rights.

Sound policies and a well-thought-out strategy, which concentrate on closing the existing gaps, should be in place to create a safer environment for the people to live in. Above all, the law enforcement authorities need to be able to work independently and efficiently, without having to bow down to the political pressure.

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