Dear Editor,

The recent vandalizing of a public telephone at Rove has stirred some interesting debate and condemnation has come from Telekom and several contributors to the Letters to the Editor page of the Solomon Times Online. Interestingly, though, most condemnation has come from Solomon Islanders presently overseas who, presumably, judge that such incidences of vandalism occurring in their homeland are being viewed negatively overseas. In contrast there has been little, if any, criticism at home. Why is this? Is it because vandalism has become all too common and complacency has set-in? Perhaps, it is because as previously mentioned in an Editorial in the Solomon Star on 11 March 2008, "Hardly anyone cares how Honiara looks these days." An exception was made, however, to the good work then being undertaken by the Honiara Beautification Committee and the Project Clean China Town Committee, involving members of the police force.

The same Solomon Star article went on to describe Honiara being one of the dirtiest national capitals in the region. It claimed uncollected rubbish was spilling over onto the footpaths in front of shops and blamed shop owners for not paying their rubbish collection fees, and lack of enforcement by the Honiara City Council.

In an environment where such conditions prevail and when a whole host of other socio-economic factors, such as over-urbanization, unemployment, disadvantaged youth, inadequate housing , limitations on public spending and on job creation, as well as limited initiatives to bring about revitalization , are common place it is perhaps not surprising that incidence of urban vandalism are becoming more prevalent. One could also add the high level of alcohol and substance abuse as being major contributors to incidents of willful damage and vandalism of public facilities and equipment.

In an interesting paper entitled, "Involving young people in development" by Pamela Thomas of the Development Studies Network, Australian National University, dated October 2001, she warned that "Rapid social change, urbanization and a breakdown of the extended family system of rights and obligations have led to confusion among young people about their role. Few governments provide adequate opportunities for them to participate in the economy or in the social development of their countries. Dissatisfaction and marginalization have led to their living on the streets, becoming involved in crime." While I am not laying the blame on the youth in Honiara for the spate of vandalism, I have warned before of the urgent need to create opportunities for them and to invest in their future.

As a young policeman I was taught that taking care of the contraventions of the law, the petty crimes, would ensure there were no major crimes. Such a theory is embodied these days in the "Fixing Broken Windows" concept. The title comes from a book written by George L. Kelling and Catharine Coles, a criminology and urban sociology book published in 1996, about crime and strategies to contain or eliminate it from urban neighbourhoods.

The book quotes - "Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a footpath. Some rubbish accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of rubbish outside shops there or breaking into cars." Is this sounding all too familiar?

What then can be done to help prevent vandalism? One answer is to fix the problems when they are small. Clean-up the footpaths, collect and remove the rubbish and restore "civic pride." In Honiara however, as I have explained, the likely causes are far more complex and will take longer to address than applying simple short term measures.

Community orientated policing can certainly play a part but will not be successful without full community participation and support. This implies a change in public attitudes which, itself, is dependent on a raft of governmental and local government policy actions to alleviate the prevailing socio-economic factors having a major impact on the suspected negativity in the community.

A media campaign to focus on public awareness about the extent and effects of vandalism might be useful, as well as having a secondary goal to educate the community on crime prevention strategies. Such a campaign might galvanize the people to increase resilience as well as becoming more civic minded.

As the Solomon Islands Penal Code is currently under review it might also be timely to review the penalty provisions relating to criminal damage and to strengthen them if warranted. Tougher penalties for acts of vandalism might deter others from doing the same.

There are obviously no easy solutions to tackling Honiara's spate of vandalism but perhaps some of the issues I have mentioned could spark enough public reaction to begin a fight back. I hope so.

Yours sincerely,

Frank Short