Jamaica has long headed up lists for murders per capita, and for that rightfully has a fearsome reputation for its violent crime. Few things scare people more than the risk of being killed by someone else. So, in trying to settle on what the quality of life is now in Jamaica cannot go far without addressing the perception of crime and criminality on the island.
In trying to get a better personal understanding of what is happening to Jamaica, and how that has changed, I’ve been stuck on the matter of crime for a long time. Why?
During the first 6 years of my life in Jamaica, I never saw a violent crime committed. Back then, I lived in East Kingston, close to the Tower Street prison and Bellevue Hospital: the scariest things I encountered were mental patients doing what seemed like unfathomable things for human beings. I have a vague recollection of people being taken to jail. When my parents moved back to Jamaica in the mid-1980s, they chose to live in Mandeville mainly because they were offered a new house on a good-sized lot at the end of a cup-de-sac of new houses. It was a good investment for their savings from selling their home in rural England (they’d moved to Somerset after they took early retirement). It offered calm and a good opportunity to indulge in ‘urban’ gardening. Mandeville had never had a reputation for crime and I imagine my parents felt safe. In any event, they never suffered any of the attacks on ‘returning residents’ about which one reads. They were highly visible in that capacity and they spent a lot of time out of their home, driving to Kingston on Montego Bay often, in part visit relatives in the capital and to the airports in both cities. I never heard them talk about attempted burglaries or attacks on their home or person. The worst crime I heard my father mention was someone taking some of his bananas or plantains that were growing near a wall to the front of the property. The rear of the property was onto an open lot, which still remains that way. Since the mid-1980s, the small community has been built out, and houses bought mainly by returning residents. Some have reported burglaries or attempts and I often heard the sound of car alarms, but never heard of any cars being stolen. My parents were never held up on any road. They were never the victims of any scam attempts. My father walked to the gym, across the golf course, almost daily. He was never assaulted. Were they just lucky?
Since coming back to Jamaica, I’ve had to consume the almost daily tide of reports of violent crime, and murders and maimings are things that the Jamaican media like to report. That tendency, set alongside the flow of statistics that puts annual murders in the 1300-1500 range, or in the 3.5-4 murders a day range, inevitably makes me feel that Jamaica is really a ‘ killing field’. Touch wood, neither I nor any of my family living here have been victims of violent crimes. We know some people who’ve been murdered or attacked, however. Part of that fortunate situation is a result of where we live. Although, I grew up in what is now the rundown heart of Kingston, whenever I looked a map of murders, the clustering was clearly away from what we may describe as ‘uptown’ areas, or away from ‘country’ areas where some of my family live. Again, the nearest I have come to seeing ‘crime’ and its ‘victims’ has been in crashes on the roads–where we are also on a tear, with some 300+ deaths a year, call that 1 a day.
But, with the advent of the Internet, social media, and now messaging platforms (like WhatsApp) where news can be shared, true or false, current or stale, verified and unverified, I now see a constant stream of crime ‘reports’. Where I now live is not known as a hotbed of crime, but I cannot ignore the several reports of hold-ups, car thefts, or assaults that have occurred in the area. The reports have some common features, eg household workers being targets on paydays on their way home. Some of the reports of theft strike me as reflecting a lack of awareness that motive without opportunities usually means no crime, so when I read of valuables left in cars parked on the road (less common in Jamaica than in many other places), where these are out of sight for considerable time, I wonder about ‘street smarts’.
That said, should one not be able to just leave one’s belongings and have them remain untouched?
The real and perceived risk of crimes has led to action to get technology into the fray, so CCTV has been installed in several homes and on certain routes into/out of the community. Some of these have helped identify criminals and their attempts at crime. One piece of the puzzle that is troubling though, is reports to the police often end with little or no results. Naturally, given the generally higher socio-economic profile of the area, and its being adjacent to some ‘gully’ communities, some people feel that the community is an easy target. I’m still unsure, however, how crime has changed in reality versus more information flowing about crimes being committed.
From decades living in London, where it was common to be out late at night, either driving or using public transport, I built a certain awareness about surroundings and some precautions that, at the least, would give a hint of trouble nearby. Again, however, in all my years in England, the nearest I came to seeing a violent crime was some occasional road rage or a few domestic disputes that flowed outdoors, including one (in the late-1960s) with a Jamaican tenant of ours who decided to attack my mother with a knife, and ended with her being taken away in cuffs and straitjacket in a ‘Black Maria’. However, I recall being afraid when the infamous ‘Shepherd’s Bush murders’ occured in 1966, and 3 policemen were shot dead.
Aftermath of murder of policemen, near Wormwood Scrubs, west London
Although the shootings occurred a few miles from my home, as an 11-year-old what mattered was that it took place close to familiar territory: Wormwood Scrubs was an open public field where many local footballers played every week; it was also adjacent to the hospital where my mother had started to work when she went to England. It was in my ‘manor’, as the saying goes in England. This kind of brutal crime and involving the slaying of police officers (normally unarmed) was unheard of. The name of the killer, Harry Roberts, quickly became the words used to scare or threaten people.
But, living in London for most of my life, walking home alone, from the time I arrived in England through to when I left in my mid-30s was commonplace, or with a few friends at any time, but as I grew up late at night, on dark streets, through ‘dodgy’ areas, on country lanes, or being stuck in my car in a snow storm or broken down, didn’t result in my becoming a gruesome statistics. I lived most of my life in London in what were called ‘rough’ areas, the most notorious of which was 5 minutes from Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, scene of race riots in the mid-1980s.
As happens, days after the rioting, I was back to walking in the park adjacent to ‘The Farm’ and, not surprisingly, never felt that the riot symbolized more than a serious spat between the police and residents there. I didn’t feel like Tottenham had become any kind of ‘war’ zone or that rioting would break out on the High Street.
That kind of sentiment moves with me still in Jamaica. On any given day, when I move about, I do not feel that I am in a country that is plagued with violent crime. I’m not indifferent to the data, but I’m still convinced that much of the worst crime is confined, not widespread. Is that comforting? Of course!
I sometimes read stories and have even had conversations with people who say ‘You can’t walk the streets’ in Jamaica. Yet, I see people on the streets every day, morning, noon, and night, as they say. I see women walking alone. I see children walking alone. I see people going about their business. What I don’t see are people too afraid to go out. My wife is part of a running group that is based around the Barbican area, and they have been assaulted at various times in the past year; they still run, with more precautions. I’ve not heard of more assaults, but I’m sure the mindset has changed. I see our Minister of Health and Wellness out running, usually with a partner (not sure if it’s just a running buddy or security detail), but not with any other ‘outriders’. I sometimes meet people walking early in the mornings, either as I head to my walk or during it; many are older people, walking the streets, some with a stick many with nothing in their hands. How vulnerable are they and how vulnerable do they feel? I read messages about ‘hold-ups’ in supermarket car parks nearby and I pass by the supermarkets and ponder whether what happened was random or targeted and what either may mean.
The spread of ‘state of emergency’ checkpoints across various parishes suggest a problem that is spreading and needs extraordinary measures. I’m a skeptic about the merits of this, not least because it seems to easy to bypass checkpoints, but I can understand that these may give assurances to many that ‘something’ is being done. The ‘ zones of special operations’, likewise. Relatives who live within them have had their lives disrupted. From what I’ve heard, it’s not clear that any of this has changed the mindset of the more-worrying criminals, eg scammers, whom some relatives report they can sometimes hear in adjacent properties, ‘going about their business’. I’ve heard of concerns that come from the loose application of zoning regulations, whereby commercial activities (eg trucking) have spread to residential areas, and with that the risks of commercial rivalries spilling over into neighbourhoods.
How much ‘petty’ crime was there and how much is there now? I’m often grateful when someone says “Mind your wallet (phone)” which I may have tucked into my back pocket, as many men do. That’s vigilance but also a consideration that we are each other’s keeper. When I go to buy gasoline, I’m always leery of people in the courtyard, and what they may be doing; but, that’s something I’ve always done, anywhere. Was I more at risk in Connecticut over the weekend, when I needed to travel around? I rarely carry cash–and that’s testimony to a positive change for me that I can live cashlessly. When I go to an ATM I take lots of simple precautions about my physical space, but am I aware enough of the lurking cybercrime risks that are also rising?
My wife always drives with her windows up and AC on; I prefer windows cracked and no AC. But, as I approach a stop light, I tend to wind up the window a little more, and I always scan who is approaching my car. Normal procedures, for me. If I approach one of our notorious ‘wiper boys’, I’m always on the lookout for what eye contact tells me, and I am always firm and clear that I do not want my windows wiped. When the exchange changes, eg, when one wiper wanted to cuss me about my ‘social standing’ I guess he wasn’t ready for the flow of (anglicized) Patois that came from me, and my passenger gasped as I shredded his assumptions and I told him to “Gweh, wid yu dutty self! Yu nuh kno mi mudda!” When he persisted and touched my car, he also wasn’t ready for me to open the door (risky, but calculated), and I asked if why he wanted to risk losing his hands. I wouldn’t recommend my approach, and I have seen the persistent annoyance others drivers get. When taxis are in my vicinity, I adopt another kind of caution, knowing that they are often emboldened by their passengers and any interaction with a driver can easily turn into an interaction with a mob. But, do not cut me up on the road, because where I learned to drive, that’s a no-no, and I will deal with you! We’re often hot-bloodied people, but deference is often not far away.
When, rarely, I encounter the police, I am also warier than usual. Why? Most of my encounters, here and abroad, have taught me that many street policemen are just a breath away from inappropriate acts, often bolstered by an inadequate understanding of the laws they are supposed to uphold, and replace understanding with bluster and bullying. They, often, do not react well to having their ‘authority’ questioned, especially when it would take little to prove they are in the wrong. But, it forces most of us to either know enough about the law, or care enough to want to ‘just have a peaceful life’. I’ve never had a policeman gesture to me that a bribe may be in order, but I have a friend who swears he’s never met a policeman who would refuse a bribe–I need to go on a road trip with this friend, sometime.
All of that to say, what? On any given day, the biggest problem people encounter (based on traffic over messaging platforms) is with their neighbours and the lack of consideration around their shared space. Occasionally, crimes occur; so far, none fatal, but some brutal. I’ve heard of no home invasions–something I recall being more prevalent in the past, hence the booming business of grilling houses. If one reads reports of crime carefully, many of them do not involve total strangers (and I recall conversations with some people in Montego Bay about how ‘dem know one anadda’, when it came to many reports of gun violence.
Better to be safe than sorry seems to be the common watchword. As noted above, it’s hard to know how much more avoidance and precautionary people now practice: no late night events; don’t go to unknown neighbourhoods; always let people know where you are going and try to update status, frequently (much easier with cellphones, than in the past). More people live in ‘secure’ housing (grills are a knee-jerk addition to a property), and private security is much more the norm than a decade ago. I only know two people who are licensed firearms holders, and only one of those has told me of discharging his weapon, interestingly to deal with a neighbour’s dog that attacked him. One is a businessman, whom I saw wore his as an ankle holster, and his businesses are in busy commercial settings and he often travels late at night.
A Jamaican friend, who lives in the USA, visited last week on a business trip; she’s here often. We went out for dinner in New Kingston. We also ate out another evening. My wife talked about how nice it was to be able to dine outdoors and in a (seemingly) safe environment. Whatever is going on in Jamaica, having such a perception is not trivial. If you watch enough TV dramas, you’ll know how vulnerable you may be in a parking garage; Jamaica has few of those, but instead has open parking. That makes for better safety? We see and hear about attacks in elevators and in dark stair wells in neighbouring countries; most of our establishments only have a single story. Are kidnappings on the rise, and if so, who is at risk? It seemed to be a common crime in Trinidad some years ago, but has it become so here? How many people get attacked on buses or in taxis?
It’s not a clear picture, but amidst the fuzziness, how do we all feel? Is every loud explosion during the night gunfire, or is it something less threatening? Is everyone who comes knocking a potential thief, or is it someone just doing a job, maybe someone ‘trapped’ by our loose approach to the need for convincing IDs? Can we walk to our gates unconcerned when someone honks their horn, or do we need to install a camera to give us a better protective cushion? Do we sleep with doors and windows unlocked at night? How do we feel when we come home and find that we hadn’t locked the grills?
I’m interested in what seems to be a changing official narrative that while murders remain stubbornly high, other major crimes have been trending downwards. Is that clutching at straws or getting people to see brutal killings as being outliers in terms of significant trends?