Tackling crime, from the bottom up
by Nicholas Cheng
CP patrols usually start in the middle of the night. Volunteers meet up at a designated time at the police station and then move out to their assigned areas.
On a quiet Tuesday night under the orange street lights of Taman Puchong Utama, a group of bespectacled, infirm men dressed in yellow vests get ready to start their walk in a commercial zone.
They are a home-grown group from the Community Policing (CP) initiative led by former cop turned activist Kuan Chee Heng. Every week the team of volunteers leave behind their day jobs and play crime fighter for a night. The group of 20 are so out of place here, they draw stares from restaurant patrons as they walk down the streets. In their hands, they carry torchlights and cart bags filled with biscuits and water bottles.
It is highly unlikely the team would ever stumble on an actual crime taking place – the most they have ever witnessed and nabbed on their own are foreigners putting up loan shark posters on light poles.
But this simple patrol is doing wonders for the community in Puchong.
Communication is key. Kuan uses a cellular walkie talkie to keep in touch with CPs all over the country. He also runs a 24-hour private emergency response service.
“There is less now. It’s really the simple broken window concept. When you get people to care about protecting their community then the community will become safer and better. It becomes everyone’s interest to take care of each other,” explained Kuan.
Kuan’s version of CP is one of the success stories of the Reducing Crime National Key Result Area (NKRA), having expanded out of Puchong to all states in Peninsular Malaysia with a total of 10,000 members. Residents who participate in the patrols become subconsciously linked to the community and those who see them out and about feel safer or are curious to join.
CPs create their own programmes to get the community involved in crime prevention work be it nightly patrols, training with police, starting WhatsApp groups with local cops or something as simple as setting up Facebook pages to keep neighbours in the know.
But for all the strides that CP has made in improving community involvement in crime fighting, there is still a much bigger, heavier silent majority in each community that Kuan said would “rather fold their arms”.
Before another night of patrolling, volunteers receive briefing from PDRM and Kuan on dos and don’ts while making their rounds.
“That is the challenge now. Everything is already there for us to start with the police but you still get these people who will say they are busy, or not time, or that it is not their job – but then they complain about this and that happening in their housing area. If you just complain and don’t do anything, how do you expect things to change?” he questioned.
This has been a problem law enforcement and criminologists have been trying to solve from the get go with the NKRA.
Statistically, the crime rate has fallen nearly 40% since 2011 but the national Perception of Crime Indicator (PCI) continues to chart high levels of fear among Malaysians, reported criminologist Prof. Dr. P. Sundramoorthy.
Four key elements bring about a society’s feeling of lack of safety; amplifiers like sensational media coverage and viral posts on crime that go unverified, broken window signals like poorly lit streets, loan shark posters, abandoned housing projects and no road fencing, individual perception of safety and the public’s satisfaction with the police’s job performance.
A business owner demonstrates how robbers broke into his restaurant, carting away gas cylinders. More than just patrolling the streets, CPs are there to connect with the local community.
“If you look at these factors, most of them are things beyond the police control”.
Like any police overseas, the men in blue here generally serve in a reactive capacity and respond to crime as and when it happens. Even then, their role is limited due to sheer numbers, said Dr. P. Sundramoorthy. In Malaysia, one policeman has to care for at least 1,500 citizens – nearly 6 times the international average ratio.
“The proactive side has to come from the public but they are not doing that. We still have this attitude, the police is supposed to be doing crime prevention. We have not reached that level of maturity where public is actively a part of nation building,” he said.
According to former-undersecretary for Reducing Crime NKRA, Dr. Waitchalla Suppiah, that level of maturity was stonewalling most of the progress advocates are trying to make in crime prevention methods.
For instance, the NKRA mooted establishing halfway houses in several housing areas as a means to rehabilitate ex-convicts and assimilate them back into society to prevent them from falling back to their old ways. That proposal received less than stellar receptions from resident associations that seem unwilling to participate in the project.
Dr. Waitchalla Suppiah was the former Undersecretary of the National Key Result Area (NKRA) Reducing Crime initiative under the 11th Malaysia Plan. She is currently serving as the policy division secretary at the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.
Getting the public to see the mutual benefit in working with law enforcement and rehabilitated criminals continues to be the greatest stumbling block for the 11th Malaysia Plan, which aims to reduce crime perception by 60% by 2020 and 5% in crime statistics annually.
“Meeting them (the people) is not easy. The complaint is we are not doing enough; the police is not doing enough. But security is everyone’s responsibility! If everyone did their role, we’d go a long way,” she said.
The rising use of social media has only compounded the problem of tackling the perception of rising crime rates.
“In the past, news was only reported once. But now, something that happened many years ago is being reposted as news, as if it just happened yesterday. There is a way around this. Before you share something, check with the nearest police station if the news is true. Just give the police a ring and they will help you.” Dr.Waitchalla continued to explain.
The deadlock for the NKRA was this sense that the Government “should be doing everything” said Waitchalla, but down on the ground level – it is a slippery slope that Kuan and his CP team are trying to avoid getting into.
“If we start arguing like that then we will lose the conversation. We all have an equal part to play in the safety of our community” enthused Kuan, as he called for a status update on his walkie-talkie from CP units in Penang, Kedah, Kelantan and even Johor Bahru.
For the ragtag team of would-be crime fighters, the important thing is the ball is already rolling and change will come with time, and most importantly, participation. No community can function as an island and people are starting to realise the merit of working together. Sometimes it is as simple as showing up.