THE media love a crime story and in the last few weeks they have had the double murder in Strovolos that played out like a mystery yarn, and the shoot-out in Ypsonas, in which two policemen were injured, one critically. Newspapers, websites, television stations and social media produced countless reports about police investigations, not all accurate, while the politicians also entered the fray with the familiar warnings about the alleged surge in crime and expressions of grave concern about the direction our society had taken.
Perhaps this is inevitable in a small country in which violent crime is not very common. Whenever such a case takes place, there is invariably an over-the-top reaction that creates the impression Cyprus is a crime-plagued country at the mercy of criminals whom the police are either too incompetent or too cowardly to take on. This is not an accurate reflection of Cyprus which remains a pretty safe place. There is far more risk of being run over by a reckless driver than being murdered by a member of the criminal underworld. There have been other gangland hits over the years with crime groups battling for supremacy, but the ordinary public is not at risk from these gang wars, at least for now.
Much of the public are reminded of the activities of crime gangs which of course exist, like everywhere else in the world, only when there is a shoot-out like last weekend’s or the gangland murders in an Ayia Napa restaurant in 2016. These receive such extensive media coverage that the impression created is that there is a huge problem, a view reinforced by the alarmist comments of politicians that either want to have a dig at the government or gain some television time.
As usual, there is no sense of perspective. For instance, some politicians claimed that the shooting of policemen on duty was a worrying development and an indication that crime was on an upsurge when criminals were prepared to shoot at officers. A former officer, Andreas Symeou, who had also served as chairman of the Police Association, was quite blasé about the shootout. “It was bound to eventually happen in Cyprus,” he told a radio show earlier this week. “Police officers are shot at in other European countries too. In Italy, far more frequently, maybe even daily between gangs.”
Organised crime is not on the scale experienced in most European countries and it is not out of control, but there are weaknesses in the way police have tried to tackle it. For instance, the only time it seems to become an issue for the authorities is when there is an outbreak of violence, the media criticise the police and the politicians resort to platitudes such as “there will be zero tolerance” and announce clampdowns on the underworld. These spasmodic reactions suggest that very little of practical value is actually being done and there is no real plan. Ridiculously someone claimed there were not enough bullet-proof vests for officers, as if this was why the war on crime was unsuccessful (this was not even accurate as the force had some 600 vests).
There are other reasons for this. Inadequate training is probably the most important. The police command does not seem to have the training for planning big operations against organised crime while procedures for officers to follow when dealing with potentially dangerous situations do not exist. The two officers might not have known they would be shot at when they went to check on the hire car in Ypsonas, but if there were procedures in place, they would have asked for back-up and worn bullet-proof vests, just in case. Safeguards would make officers feel safer and better able to deal with unpredictable situations.
Other weaknesses more difficult to tackle are related to the smallness of Cyprus. If a criminal threatens to cause harm to a police officer’s family of a policeman, the officer knows that it will not take the criminal long to find out where their family lives. This may sound trite, but it is not. It may be one of the reasons – corruption is another – that crime bosses are alerted ahead of time about police operations, a complaint made by the police command.
Police Chief Zacharias Chrysostomou complained last week that the force was understaffed and overstretched. There were 478 vacant posts in the force, which had to tackle new types of crime such as cybercrime, terrorist threats and asymmetric threats as well undertake non-police duties. But even if all the vacant posts were filled, without the proper training, the weeding out of corrupt officers and an operational strategy little will be achieved in the fight against organised crime. The police need to tackle it now before it does indeed get too powerful.