Everyday, we have to live with the realities of life. That’s not meant to be profound in its pithiness. It’s meant to set a context for what we try to do to change realities.
Jamaica has moved to a place that many economists, in particular, or the population, in general, though was just a little beyond it: the basic economic policy framework for the country is sound. The latest IMF review mission left last week, having indicated that Jamaica met the latest set of quarterly targets for June. Sure, we have to live with what economists call a large debt overhang–our debt/GDP ratio is still well over 100%, but it’s much lower than a few years ago, and set to fall. I’m not going to explore the details of public finances, now, though I have concerns–expressed here, recently–that the current budget balance is too tight, and this seems to be due to mainly to buoyant corporate income tax. Whether that is a problem in the near- or medium-term depends on what else may adjust. The rate of growth as measured by official statistics is still low (now forecast to be 1.6% this fiscal year, slightly down from an earlier forecast closer to 2.5%). Inflation is low. Employment is rising; unemployment is falling, though we should still be concerned that youth unemployment sits around 30%.
With that new-found economic ‘stability’, people can now focus on other things that have held back progress in this country. One of these–crime–is at least partly related to that high level of youth unemployment. The World Bank estimated several years ago that crime was costing Jamaica about 5% of GDP each year; that loss is enough to help absorb a large portion of the unemployed, especially those young would-be workers, many of whom are finding crime paying better than other options. For me, jobs is a key part of helping to solve the crime problem. Another part is specific action against crime and criminals.
The government has recently declared its latest moves against crime, in the form of zones of special operations (ZOSOs). People’s civil rights have been partly curtailed, in this process, but my impression is that people will accept this if it appears to bring a significant decline in crime. Personally, I don’t think it will, not least because it’s a cart that was put before a horse, in terms of trying to restructure important parts of how the country operates. One of these is the intrinsic distrust that many have for the police.
It begs much to believe the people will be happy to see a dysfunction and allegedly corrupt force given more powers. It begs much to see an organization that displays incompetence in many basic operations being expected to hold the line again a wave of marauding criminals. I have no personal beef against the police: my concern is a simple matter of creedibility and confidence. I would have been reluctant to say the preceding had it not been for the fact that several civil society group, INDECOM, and senior members of the current government Cabinet have essentially said the same: the Gleaner reported in mid-August that ‘Dr Horace Chang, said the Government cannot accept the report at this time. Dr Chang stated that it is not a good report and does not reflect well on the police force’. That report preceded a meeting between the Minister of National Security and the JCF on the same review. Following that meeting, the JCF’s Commissioner changed his tune about the Tivoli Enquiry Report and its recommendations, now accepting it. That about-face tells a sorry story of an organizaion that is not really sure of the route it’s travelling and has issues of integrity of action that are disturbingly obvious.
Finally, whatever slack one was prepared to give a force that is under the cosh in carrying out its task, quickly disappeared in my eyes, after the debacle of the errors in crime statistics that came with the declaration of the first ZOSO. Some will say that the corrected number for murders (7) and shootings, though considerably lower than those given initially to the public (54 murders), are still too high; ie, in a country as small as Jamaica, we need to see even one murder as disturbingly high. I could agree with that. But, my issue is about credibility and integrity, and if you can misstate a ‘fact’, based on information you collect by a factor of eight, then I am beyond frightened. Why? Because all of the anecdotes about fabrication of evidence and other acts of malpractice by policemen gets set in a new context of their producing ‘evidence’ to suit their end. That is not a good platform on which to build what is needed to move Jamaica further ahead as a society.
The need for heightened trust in the police was made well in 2015 by the current commissioner of INDECOM. The following quote (my stresses), points to the basic problems identified in the 2008 Strategic Review of the JCF, which had not been addressed before ZOSOs came into place:
‘They found that one of the dominant cultures in the JCF was one of corruption. They found that the squad culture reigned in the JCF, where some members would always respond to the needs of someone they were trained with even if it meant violating ethical or legal boundaries. They found uniformly that Jamaicans, no matter their background, wanted a more trusting relationship with their police force. They wanted to be treated with respect for human rights and to see corruption eradicated. They were calling for a change in the culture.
The Strategic Review said that in a democracy, a police service is best able to carry out its functions when the members enjoy the respect and confidence of the population. The Strategic Review opined that the JCF lost much support because of the actions of some of its members. They pointed to certain endemic corrupt acts and practices. This is a sad tale of endemic practices but we have to repeat them so that we can correct them. What they found was endemic corruption, contract killings, engaging with gangs, planting evidence, trafficking in weapons and extortion. They said that these practices will take many years to be eradicated.’
Few societies make much progress with trust in public institutions is low. Because the government has not sought to fix that key element, then its chances of benefiting from the current economic dividend is lower.
Some have called for the total disbanding of the JCF. Such a radical act is not unprecedented, and the most famous recent similar act was taken by the Republic of Georgia in 2005, when they fired all 30,000 traffic police officers and started with a round of fresh recruits.
One cannot predict whether such a radical act is what Jamaica needs. But, one can predict that little will change by leaving things as they are.