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It’s hard to know what people really feel about many topics because we have no true way of gauging all the opinions at any time. We tend to get outcries from people, both close to, and far from, issues and incidents. We get opinions thrust at us by ‘opinion shapers’–media, politicians, pressure groups, interested parties, etc. We can take from all of that what we wish. 

Right now, we are going through a lot of introspection over the high rate of violent crimes in Jamaica. Many people have no interest in solving or reducing those crimes themselves, by direct action: that’s dangerous and not sure to have success in individual or collective cases. They take that position in part from the fact that society has created bodies to deal with law and order, and they should do that task. Many people will try to do their part by being law-abiding citizens, but that does not mean that they will try to uphold the law if they see it being broken, or suspect that to be the case. Let’s agree that is a reasonable reaction if one is concerned with self-preservation. I’m not going to impose some moral duty on anyone without having a good idea how their life is shaped, with its responsibilities and past, current and future problems.

But, having left the task to the powers of law and order, people reasonably get disappointed, even angry, when it appears that these bodies are not making crime go away, and, even worse, crime seems to be increasing and getting far too close. So, some people start to clamour for change.  

That change demanded can be in several forms, but I think is distilled into (a) change of bodies (living or organizations), and (b) change of actions. So, people will seek personnel changes at the head of organizations, and maybe lower down if they feel that such wholesale change is needed. That’s what the Republic of Georgia did a few years ago by sacking its whole police force (known to be corrupt) and starting over. Or, people will seek or get different organizations, such as different forms of legal processes to speed up the the wheels of justice, eg with say ‘gun courts’. We may also get more radical changes, such as the creation of some mixed police-military force to deal with what seems like more than a simple crime problem and has implications of national security. We may also get different actions. For instance, forms of policing may change; it could become more ‘collaborative’ or ‘community based’ (they tend to be mutual), or it could be more ‘abrasive’ (in the belief that force meeting force will yield tangible results). Proponents of each will tend to be poles apart in thinking which will work better. But, that’s for the people to resolve, if given a chance. 

Anyway, people will ‘see’ that ‘something’ has been done. Then, we get to see what, if anything, changes.

So, in Jamaica, we are going through these processes. Some of the change seems voluntary or spontaneous. 

The Commissioner of Police just announced his resignation, after just over two years in the post. I would say he had some successes but visibly several failures, if one judges the rate of murders as a key statistic. The JCF spun the line that crime was declining and only murder was rising. They seemed to miss the point that telling people they were more likely to be killed wasn’t comforting. Dr. Williams seemed to want to root out corruption, in his words, and judging by the reports one still sees, he had some success, but it’s a work-in-progress. We read too many ‘crooked cop’ stories.

An interim Commissioner has been appointed, from within the ranks, and she was highly considered when the post last came vacant. Like the outgoing Commisoner, she has high academic qualifications in law enforcement. However, we can say safely that such qualifications are no guarantee of success in dealing with crime in Jamaica. But, let Ms. Novelette Grant have a chance to impress. 

So far, no one has publicly called for other changes in the police force, and that’s not a surprise. I think the JCF needs a root and branch approach to its culture and practices, which we have seen in recent times, but know from a long way back are outdated, inefficient, insensitive, self-protective, dangerous to the process of justice, and encouraging of wrong doing rather than the opposite. I have said repeatedly that until the JCF can show itself capable of fulfilling its tasks in a coherent and consistent manner for a period of time, the last thing to do is give it more powers. As with a child, show us that you can manage those little walking steps well first, then we will think about letting you run around. Now, I imagine the JCF feels under siege, but it’s a situation much of its own making.

Some are clamouring for a change of style that shows ‘no holds barred’ in dealing with crime and criminals. (I am in danger of doing what I see being done, which is to talk in platitudes or cliches, but I will try to be specific.) One suggestion from a politician, yesterday, was to dispense with INDECOM (the body that oversees and investigates conduct of the security forces), label killers as ‘terrorists’ and ‘shoot’. Not surprisingly, that suggestion set off a few reactions, including from me. What’s unknown is how many feel the same way.
Now, from what I have seen over the past, this politician has a tendency to provoke, so one needs to be careful about being drawn in too much by the words, but to have some notion of what thinking may be going on behind them, because he’s also a mathematician. In my mind, that means that he is not a fool but capable of intricate calculations about possible and probable outcomes (including reactions), including to what he says and does. So, to paraphrase him, it’s important to not get ‘played’ or caught in a ‘joke’. However, think hard about this line of argument:

But let’s try to wrestle with the superficial statements and whether they really see a place for due process as we now know it. 

My main reservation about these ideas is that many killers have shown clearly by how, where and when they’ve acted that the prospect of being killed seems to hold little or no fear. But, let me deal with crime from another perspective. 

I asked a few weeks ago whether Jamaica was at civil war. Wesbsters defines it as ‘a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country‘. (We may argue about what ‘war’ means, but it’s armed conflict between groups.) You can see from the context that I did not pose the question assuming that ‘civil war’ was striking us nationwide. It was notable that West Kingston was once again at the centre of police-citizen disorder. The events in Tivoli in 2010 had all the hallmarks of a civil war episode, in my mind, with the security forces of the State pitted against a community, and armed resistance taking place. Now, I did not hear of any political cause that was being put forward, but I’m not sure that would negate the idea that civil war existed. 

Anyway, my point is that if we are in a state of civil war, in some or several areas, against common or disparate groups, then that changes the nature of the attempt to keep law and order, and brings it clearly into the realm of national security. In other words, the sometimes uncertain role of the army in dealing with what appears to be crime can and must change. 

I’m not well enough versed in constitutional and legal matters to know what that may imply, but I am willing to listen to those who are. 

The police tell us repeatedly about how many murders are the outcome of gang disputes. We can ask what the gangs are doing and who they are doing it for. If part of their existence is to make inaccessible parts of the country–which seemed to be the case in Tivoli in the past and in recent months, and seemed so in parts of St. James, recently, we have to ask ourselves whether we are dealing with simple criminal activity or something quite different

The terrorist/shoot suggestion is problematic on many levels, not least whether we want to give such power to the police force that has shown itself to be less-than-capable in just carrying out its simple policing duties. 

It also leaves open how we treat killing that somehow does not fit this ‘terrorist’ labelling. I wont go into the various forms of manslaughter or murder, but just worry that very diffent forms of violent crimes like domestic abuse and gang-related killings would seem to defy a one-size-fits-all solution. Unless, one says if you kill you will be killed. Jamaica has a religious basis for taking that view and I will watch the discussions to see what if any justification comes forth.

I do not see Jamaica’s crime problem (and it’s not just murder that we need to deal with) as amenable to any quick solution (short of eradicating large swathes of the population–AND I AM NOT ADVOCATING THAT!) The social basis for the existence of much criminal activity was built over decades and supported by people in power and made legitimate by a principle of tolerance so that much wrong doing was normalized. Committing crimes is part of our culture; it has its tentacles in almost every aspect of our lives. We would be dishonest to deny it, though it is not a comfortable admission. You cannot flip a switch and just turn off those processes. 

I also do not see a lasting solution to crime in Jamaica (in its many and disturbing forms) that can come from the organizations set up to uphold law and order ‘dong something’ without the full engagement on a sustained basis of the majority of citizens. 

I would be very worried if the ‘terrorist/shoot’ idea got much support, but I would not be surprised to see that happen. It has appeal in terms of its seeming to correct a wrong. But, it holds so many dangers for all of us.