Crime in Jamaica and proper public concerns

I am genuinely confused by what I see some people arguing about crime in Jamaica. Some say Jamaicans don’t care about the ~1500 murders a year and the rate of say ~50 murders/100,000. So, I ask what should people worry about? For decades, Jamaicans have had the country’s high crime explained to them. That explanation has come from several studies and is repeated often by the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF). It’s that gang violence accounts for MOST of the homicides and is the main engine of the homicide rate. That JCF narrative has been supported by several academic studies into crime origins and victims.The most recent (2016) authoritative study was for the IDB Caribbean Office by Prof. Anthony Harriot …. So, my question is simple. Who are Jamaicans supposed to be showing sympathy or empathy to, with regard to the murder rampage? Are Jamaicans supposed to be concerned about internecine rivalries that see many criminals killing each other?

People who suggest the average Jamaican is indifferent to the murder rate are implicitly asking why Jamaicans aren’t pouring out their hearts in grief that some 2/3 of the victims are stated to be ‘gang-related’ or that some 50 percent of homicides are linked to lotto scamming. Is our sense so warped that we believe that’s where public sentiment should go?

What I often see reported are outpourings of sympathy for seemingly innocent victims (such as 2 children caught in cross-fire this week or for Roger Chang, who appears to have been ambushed and killed during a day outing). That seems a completely appropriate reaction. I see reports of sympathy for killed gang members expressed by many in their communities, for whom they would have been friends and family. This is also appropriate in any community, and there should be no supposition that all are criminals or closely-associated with criminals. But would it be reasonable to see otherwise?

I also read of reprisals for such gang-related killings, ie the vicious internecine violence continues to feed on itself.

What is the average Jamaican supposed to be doing to stop so-called ‘violence producers’ doing that amongst themselves?

What I have seen is that many people fear such violence spilling over into their usually peaceful and relatively low crime communities, but we have no clear signs of that yet. We see anecdotal reports of street crime and maybe some car thefts and hijackings and maybe some attempted or successful break-ins. But, unless I am badly mistaken, we are not seeing cases of random or even targeted homicides of people who are not known to be criminals in many areas. (Some cases throw up surprising links to criminality for people who were assumed to be acting in squeaky clean manner, admittedly.)

To protect against that possibility, however, more people are taking precautions, if they can, by using private security firms, living in protected (mainly gated) communities, and using various degrees of neighbourhood vigilance, that includes increasingly things like ‘alert’ groups on WhatsApp, neighbourhood watch schemes, and more recently technology like alarms and CCTV. People have long used dogs and some keep themselves armed at home or business. These are all quite sensible reactions to the possible risks, and show a level of serious concern that is hard to fault. But, like insurance policies that never get claims set against them, people will do this as long as it makes sense. Now, we also know that for some who live in areas with known gang violence it’s much harder to escape it literally being on the doorstep.

That behaviour is also absolutely consistent with what we know about the geography of crime (especially murders). The high national aggregate is heavily influenced by the ‘top heavy’ rates and levels in western Jamaica. The data by parish for 2017 are a bit dated, but the overall picture has remained the same. We see that western parishes (St. James and Hanover, centred around Montego Bay), Kingston (proper), and Clarendon (centred on May Pen) have insanely high rates and we know the levels are also high. We also know that the ‘wild’ west is the home of lotto scamming. We know that drugs and arms trafficking drive a lot of the gang activities.

While I would never argue that the rest of Jamaica is a sea of tranquility, I find it near ridiculous to think that the national level of concern would be high when it’s clear to everyone where the principal crime problems are, if we are to focus on murders. While views are mixed, recent measures (see below) have been broadly welcomed by those in the most-affected areas, ie people in St. James and Hanover are breathing sighs of relief. That is not to decry that people in upper St. Andrew may shrug shoulders (though I know that’s not the case). It’s why people in parts of Clarendon and St. Catherine wondered why they were not getting the ‘better’ treatment of being designated worthy of ‘enhanced security measures’.

I’ve written before how a key part of Jamaica’s economy has tried to limit the impact of this geographical problem on its survival–ie how tourism has become an ‘enclave’ activity. If you drive around Jamaica it’s easy to see how people’s concerns have been demonstrated: get away from the killers and keep them far away. People who are really concerned about the high rates of murder have done several things:

  • They’ve left Jamaica (even abandoned properties)
  • They’ve moved away from high crime areas (look at migration and housing development patterns in the Kingston corporate area)
  • They reluctantly stay near high crime rate areas (but are often seen as taking unacceptable risks).
  • They warn others about the crime problems
  • They employ security services
  • They arm themselves or find close protection (eg dogs)
  • They circulate less in areas when and where they think crime may be high
  • They locate their activities in ‘safer’ areas, which is why certain international organizations developed around New Kingston not downtown, and why many many or investments stayed away from the ‘high risk’ areas. (They also kept close to the source of their revenues, eg ‘uptown’ Kingston). It’s no surprise to see what areas are flourishing as go-to evening spots.
  • Other actions have been taken but these seem quite significant to me. What has also happened, and it sadly reinforces the problems, is that large entities which could demonstrate that remaining engaged in high crime areas have had a hard time getting others to give their actions traction. So, the waterfront development of downtown Kingston was long an island of economic hope, in a sense, and the installation of the Stock Exchange, HQs of some major banks and corporations, etc was not enough to push back crime in the downtown and east and west Kingston areas that were notorious hotbeds. Nor was the fact that several major government agencies were also in and around downtown (Finance, Labour and Social Services at Heroes Circle; Registrar General located in the heart of downtown). While these entities brought people and activity to that downtown area, most people did not want to stay there besides for work. Their fears were often vindicated by a constant flurry of what seemed like gang-related crime (eg as reported in Coronation Market, as evidenced by extortion practices in downtown, as evidenced by frequent confrontations between criminals and the JCF).
  • We have seen the states of emergency (#SOEs) and zones of special operations  (#ZOSOs) introduced and these have attempted to corral criminals and we saw some early abatement in murders in those areas. But, in recent months we have seen an upsurge in murders within some such areas and it’s apparent that the abatement is not sustainable. This is no real surprise as the areas are porous and it’s impossible to be in all places all the time dealing with many and splintered gangs. It’s also the case that criminals have staying power and have been patient to wait out the corralling and get back to ‘business as usual’.

    So, violence producers now know that they can continue their activities in such areas, largely unabated.

    If the origins of most murders in Jamaica are not as described then we need to be re-educated. (We know that many killings also come out of domestic disputes, which could be addressed by better anger management/conflict resolution but would take time. But, again, the general population cannot do much to address what sparks such disputes into homicides.)

    We also know that many Jamaicans were not opposed to extra-judicial killings, which though morally frowned upon seemed to keep ‘violence producers’ in check. Despite the legitimate concerns of human rights groups like Amnesty International and others, it would be to deny the truth that many Jamaicans saw these as ‘solving the problem’ the judicial system and ordinary policy simply cannot. I do not know anyone who feels that justice is seen to be done when lawyers do a great job and murder cases are dismissed on technicalities. We also know that the low level of crime solving in terms of arrests and cases successfully taken to trial helps make criminals feel safer–good risk:rewards in play. We also know that those who may wish to come forward with evidence to help cases be successful often have to deal with the ‘informer should die’ mentality of many communities–not just Jamaica. Being a ‘grass’ never has been seen as a positive in many places and that seemingly misplaced Ho our code prevails in many walks of life and socioeconomic groups. So, please don’t come claiming that this is what ‘poor people’ or the ‘ignorant’ do. Conspiracies of silence run all through society.

    Jamaicans as citizens can only do so much to thwart gangs; it’s unreasonable to expect them to succeed, though. That task must fall to the State (unless citizens decide that they will become vigilantes). So, I ask again, what is this sensitivity towards murder levels and rates that ordinary people are expected to show?

    Finally, I find some of the attempts at comparing Jamaica’s situation to other countries verging on the ludicrous. As I wrote a few days ago, most people don’t go around with a sense of schadenfreude or its reverse comparing murder totals and rates; they live their realities. Or, they make location and activity choices to avoid what appear to be huge problems.

    If you live in a place that has registered no murders for years, then one murder sends your concerns sky high: it’s an incalculable change in your personal sense of safety (see case of Iceland). Someone tried to claim he could walk safely in London but couldn’t do the same in Jamaica, because of the low rate of murders/100,000 people in the former versus the latter. The fact that my pensioner (potential target) father, a known returnee (potential target) lived in the same town since the late-1980s till 2018, and walked daily across the lightly-trafficked golf course (potential), on a regular schedule (potential target) without ever once being attacked ought to have shown that assertion to verge on the bogus. The fact that the U.K. has a rate of knife crimes as high as 40 instances a day (~300 a week) did not register as making fear of assault and maiming a real, everyday, every moment concern. Knife crimes in the U.K are about 170/100,000, much like the highest homicide rates in some of Jamaica’s parishes, which means that if we drilled down, we’d find much higher rates in what are the U.K. hotspots for violent crimes. What explains the killing of a nurse in the U.K. week as being different from the killing of a doctor in Jamaica last year? It’s certainly not the aggregate figures. Why are British police investigating a potential four-person murder-suicide over the weekend during coronavirus lockdown?

    In general, the type of violent crimes seen in Britain are not what most of Jamaica faces, even though we see more evidence of street crimes, in Jamaica, they tend to be robberies of establishments (shops, banks), than random (or targeted assaults). The fact that crime in the U.K. tends to have a high random element (even though we also know that a lot of gang-related crime goes on, but that also affects the general population, not be confined to the internecine problem of Jamaica) did not register. Those who pay attention know, for instance, that ‘celebrities’ are targetted in Britain. When was the last time celebrities in Jamaica were the targets of many or any crimes. I read today another story of a footballer (Ashley Cole) having his home invaded and attacked in his ‘sleepy’ suburban location. Did our commentator miss the gang attack on Mesut Osil and Saed Kolasicac, another Arsenal teammate last year, which was internationally publicized?

    If you think British people are sanguine about the very personal nature of a random knife attack then I really have to wonder. That’s how safe it is to walk around in England!

    If we are to make comparisons, we need to see our crime in its clearly-established regional context (highest rate of violent crime, and known linkages for gangs with drugs and guns in the mix).

    If this discussion is to be meaningful, then at least have arguments that make sense in terms of what people can reasonably be expected to do, not some pious-sounding lament about people being unconcerned about things that people would normally not have concerns.