Jamaica’s crime monster looks like it’s grown much stronger and we’re all suffering because of it

I’d be lying if I said that reports of high crime levels and rates in Jamaica do not worry me. I’ve long held the view that years of permissiveness could only have one result, in higher crime, and it becoming harder to deal with. It’s hard to see murders getting down to much lower sane levels in the next 10 years, let alone, 5 or even 2 (taking the due date in 2021 of the next general election as a possible trigger date).

Three years ago I wrote about the lamentable state of local policing, despite a number of PR efforts (and I include in that measures like the ‘state of emergency’ (SOE) and ‘zones of special operations’ (ZOSO), that fundamental lack is still present. Now, I accept that a major problem for the police force is simply it is understaffed. Why do I regard SOEs and ZOSOs as PR exercises? I cannot find any logical reason to expect such measures to work if they are applied partially. It’s just simple common sense that extraordinary measures like these will tend to fail simply because they put a premium on moving misbehaviour to places where the measures don’t exist. When these measures were not in place, policing already took on a ‘whack a mole’ character with criminals looking to avoid it by literally ducking the heavy surveillance. While I wished crime would decline, I could find no comfort in the measures taken. Little by little, the areas covered have been extended, but they also now face what is also inevitable with many ‘extraordinary’ measures–fatigue. Underlying behaviour has not changed so the causes of crime have not been addressed, therefore, crime must continue to grow. It’s like weeds in a garden that are not dug out at their roots but only deheaded–they come back and often overtake the area because the plants desired cannot fight them off and those who are weeding run out of energy. So, I’m not surprised to see statistics showing that crime reduction in SOE and ZOSO areas has almost halted or even reversed (see October Jamaica Observer report Crime figures continue to climb despite SOEs). Not only has underlying social behaviour not changed, but proximate triggers such as gang feuds remain unaddressed; these have dynamics of their own.

The change in social behaviour is going to be a hard task made much harder by an economy that still appears to be limping along, which means that many can remain tempted to try to get faster and bigger gains by ‘floating their own boats’ or ‘stealing the boats’ of others that are meant to rise with a rising tide, to use the common metaphor. The absence of fast growth was always a likely massive hurdle to any crime plan, not least because higher growth numbers signal much more hope for the average person so help with temptations to not be patient. Again, with a water metaphor, who wants to wallow in a stagnant pool, when they see possible nicer times in water that runs freely? So, one of the byproducts of crime plus lower growth is the continued high demand to flee the country by migrating. But, let me move away from the macro-economic-social and look at some of the micro elements. The one that is really shocking is the state of policing.

In keeping with a country that has an appalling record of low labour productivity, the police force is a demonstrable example of how we have not understood how to do more with less. If anything saps the average person’s willingness to help others is seeing an unwillingness to help oneself. That is one of the major failings of our national police force.

Accepting the limitations of understaffing, what could be done? One of the best ways to deal with inadequate human capital (too few workers) is to supplement it with other capital resources. In this case, capital means things like vehicles and technology. But, for these additional resources to make any notable difference they must be applied sensibly and extensively. That’s where our police force seems woefully stuck. Since coming back to Jamaica in 2013, I have read and listened to reports about some of this extra ‘capital’ coming to the aid of the police, in the form of technology like electronic log books, body cameras, dashboard cameras, CCTV, but also in the form of new and better vehicles for our situation. Six years on, I’m still to see such things taken on board to any extent; we’re still in the ‘promise land’: just yesterday we got another one about the use of ‘tech to fight crime‘. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!

Jamaica is known to have an enormous ‘trust deficit’, and in the area of crime fighting this has become very low. Not only are people afraid that they may be victims of violent crime in their homes (you should feel safe in your ‘castle’ and be able to protect your loved ones), but that fear seems to be spreading to other (literally) walks of life, if anecdotally reported street crimes (muggings, assaults etc) are to be believed. Suspicion now spreads far and wide. Just a few moments ago, my neighbourhood ‘crime alert’ chat group was reporting concerns about possible scammers posing at workers for the National Water Commission coming to ‘check leaks’: it seems that no IDs were offered and the general reaction has been to not let anyone in. But, if these are criminals, they may already have gained much information from the failed encounters in terms of identifying residents and perhaps assessing their weaknesses. When does legitimate concern turn to paranoia?

People are taking measures to give themselves a few more layers of protection in prevention, such as alarms supplemented by CCTV and dashboard cameras in cars. All of which makes sense in country where more reports are circulating (some false) of kidnappings, or car seizures, or robberies on the road or supermarkets. We read some reports of licensed firearms holders fighting back and it’s not inconceivable that many more people are thinking of owning firearms (legally or illegally–not absurd in a country that cannot stem the flow of guns). Such incidents have dramatic impact on daily lives and what levels of precautions now seem standard.

That brings me to the other major concerns about personal safety. It seems that unruly behaviour on the roads (at least in the Corporate Area) has now crested an all-time high. Admittedly, we now have more ways to see and hear about this, but the examples are also egregious. While the police cannot be everywhere, the permissiveness that had taken hold is now reaping its massive harvest. One hopes that the examples set of taxi or minibus drivers being arrested and vehicles seized leads to more of that sector taking public safety into their concerns. But, truth be told, we are still are far way off from changing the risk:reward of not abiding by the laws. See this footage of my driver from the airport on Sunday afternoon, where a motorist clearly assessed the chance of running the red light and decided to do so. I state it this way to distinguish from cases where the light changes and it’s a sudden decision to stop or continue. Here we see a ‘calculated risk’ being taken. This time, no collision. But, next time?

Many have said that none of this will change or being properly addressed until when politicians find themselves victims. That’s not as cynical as some may think: we have a political class that tends to cocoon itself from the effects of crime, let alone many of life’s harsher daily realities, whether it be dealing with appalling public transport (when last did you see more than a chintzy photo-op of politicians riding any form of public transport?), or erratic or unavailable water and electricity or phone or internet services. We also know there’s a big elephant or two in the room as far as crime is concerned.

The pincer of weaker-than-expected economic progress and widening violent crime must have a big cost on Jamaica. In only a few of its member countries has the IMF felt the need to draw attention to crime as a constraint to economic progress, not least because it often isn’t of the order seen in Jamaica except in war zones.

So, Jamaicans ought to focus more on the fact this was done extensively in the 2018 staff report for the Article 4 Consultation (the annual or bi-annual ‘economic health check’ each member gets–see Figure 3 extracts above) that despite the country having been hailed as a kind of ‘poster child’ for economic policy success, it’s at near pariah status because of crime.

If Jamaicans want to lament the absence of ‘quality’ jobs they need only ask themselves what kind of investor would want to plant fresh or more capital into a country with our levels of violent crime. Because of such concerns, it’s still notable that relatively large investments continue to flow into the island, albeit in a narrow range of areas (eg hotels and property), but ones that are notable for building in higher levels of security.

While some politicians have acknowledged the direct costs of crime and crime fighting, it’s hard to assess its true economic cost in terms of actual dollars that could go to other important social development activities such as education and health.

Politicians can argue the toss over whether data series show poverty to be increasing or decreasing. The truth is that a country with our levels of violent crime that is not abating is a poorer place than it would be otherwise.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

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